Kampong spirit and kaypoh intentions: 10 years of letting strangers into our homes
OH! Open House has spent a decade doing art tours inside Singapore homes. Which neighbourhood has been the most welcoming? And why did a property agent show up?
Back in 2009, artist-curator Alan Oei had a crazy idea: What if you could convince a bunch of people to open up their homes for random strangers to come on in and see some art?
As it turns out, it isn't such a crazy idea after all.
A decade later and the art walkabout OH! Open House has become a fixture on the arts calendar, bringing 20,000 people into 61 homes in various neighbourhoods in Singapore – from Marine Parade and Tiong Bahru to Potong Pasir and Joo Chiat.
These days, the tour format has also become so popular that it’s not surprising for any festival or big event to employ a similar format.
“We had a simple agenda of taking art out of the gallery and putting it into everyday spaces where it will have a different kind of life,” said the OH! co-founder.
FROM A FACTORY TO SHOPHOUSES
Oei had already experimented with showing art in unusual spaces with Blackout, an exhibition that was held in a factory in Tai Seng. But coaxing people to open their homes was another matter altogether.
For the first OH! edition, held at the shophouses along Niven Road, homeowners needed quite a lot of convincing. “We went knocking on neighbours’ doors and while the foreigners were open to doing it, the Singaporeans were very antsy,” he said.
And even those who attended that first event were sceptical about the project. “I remember people saying... 'Now you’ve shown us rich people can own art',” quipped Oei, who is currently also the outgoing artistic director of The Substation.
To prove naysayers wrong, Oei and his collaborators next set their sights on the HDB flats of Marine Parade two years later, where things slowly picked up.
“I remember the queues were ridiculous and that gave us the confidence that we’ve hit something we can go forward with.”
THE PEOPLE IN YOUR NEIGHBOURHOOD
And it wasn’t just about showing art anymore – the neighbourhoods they chose became just as significant.
In 2012, OH! went to Tiong Bahru at the peak of its gentrification conversation while the following year, it went on a detour to Marina Bay just after the global financial crisis.
When they decided on Potong Pasir in 2016, it was just transitioning from being an opposition ward. Last year, they decided Emerald Hill was the perfect place for a tour to kickstart discussions about the Singapore Bicentennial.
Beyond the themes and issues, however, it is simply a way of rediscovering Singapore’s neighbourhoods.
“We have this assumption that Singapore is boring and it’s all the same but each [neighbourhood] has its own stories and the people are different,” said OH! assistant director Lim Su Pei.
“In Potong Pasir, you felt the kampong spirit, the people were friendly and some would even invite us to regular gatherings or have karaoke in the void decks; while the Holland Village people were very private.”
OH! community manager Aletheia Tan recalled being invited into countless tea sessions while preparing for the Emerald Hill edition, while Joo Chiat proved to be the most surprising neighbourhood she’s worked at, with affluent residents living side by side with migrant workers.
“There were so many types of communities – the migrant workers in particular were so sweet and welcoming and they’d help me out when they saw me working late at night,” she said.
'ART' GETS THE DOOR SLAMMED IN YOUR FACE
Despite the success of the tours, what hasn’t changed is the fact that it’s still pretty hard convincing homeowners to get on board.
“The moment they hear ‘art’, they slam the door on you,” quipped Lim, who said it’s not unsual to go door-to-door, walking up and down entire blocks, only to get rejected by everyone. “Out of, say, 600 households, you’ll get maybe one [to agree].”
But at the end of the day, getting that one person is worth it. “These days, everyone’s staying behind their closed doors, watching Netflix, especially in HDB flats. But there are still people who are house- and neighbourhood-proud who are willing to share their stories,” said Lim.
While preparing for Potong Pasir, Tan recalled how one participating artist, Hafiz Osman, distributed flyers telling people he wanted to paint their walls for free.
“And a lot of them were super suspicious of him! But the ones who said yes were those who hadn’t upgraded their homes for 30 years, and he had an amazing opportunity to talk to these people and see their homes that hadn’t changed much in 30 years,” she said.
THE OCCASIONAL PROPERTY AGENT
And what of OH! guests – do they really go to these tours to look at art? Or are they simply kaypoh about other people’s houses?
“I think it’s both,” said Oei. “By and large, majority go for the art and also learn about the stories in the neighbourhoods – there’s a hunger among Singaporeans to connect to these stories.”
That said, there are some attendees who really just want to see the houses. “During the Emerald Hill walk, there will be people who’ll come to us specifically asking which tour goes to the houses,” said Lim.
“And for Potong Pasir, there was actually a property agent who came because she was more interested in the houses – she wanted to go into bedrooms and wanted to open cabinets. Our guide really gave it to her!” she shared, but added that the majority of visitors are usually very polite.
“They self-police and sort of have like a ‘class monitor’ who’ll say you’re not supposed to do this or that.”
And given the foot traffic and logistical nightmare of people moving around a home, it’s perhaps a surprise that only one mishap has taken place. Way back during the Marine Parade edition, a guest broke a vase.
“But it was meant to be. The vase was from the homeowner’s ex-boyfriend,” quipped Lim.
After arguably popularising this kind of tour format, OH! is slowly changing its strategy – last year’s Emerald Hill edition was the last “neighbourhood” tour.
Beginning next year, OH! tours won’t be revolving around places but starting a new trilogy of tours that looks at the themes of “wood, earth and water”. For 2020, said Oei, it will be “wood” and audiences can go explore a timber factory and there are plans to work with carpenters and furniture makers.
Meanwhile, this year’s OH! events have become more intimate. For a new ongoing series called Singapore Calendar, a select group of participants gets to interact and follow an artist as he or she creates a work, which culminates in a final exhibition.
This month, there’s also an event called Passport, where artists actually collaborate closely with a homeowner to create something for audiences to see. And it’s not just in one neighbourhood – these pop-up experiences are spread around places such as Telok Blangah, Marsiling and Tanjong Pagar.
Said Oei: “Our Singaporean houseowners are much more adventurous than we give them credit for. They might be performing, leading tours or taking questions – we wanted them to be involved in a much bigger way.”
For more details about OH! Open House and its events, visit https://ohopenhouse.org/