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The Future of Our Pasts Festival: Taking A Trip Down Memory Lane

What's in a country, that with any other memories, would smell as sweet?

Being Singapore's bicentennial year, it might seem that everyone everywhere is talking about local heritage, history, culture. What's so important, you might ask? History is boring, you might think. Well, the Future of Our Pasts Festival (TFOOPFest) seeks to correct that stereotype: it aims to make history more accessible and relatable to all, and encourages audiences to connect with the past through lesser-known narratives and various art mediums.

From 16 February - 17 March, head on down to check out the 11 different projects by young local artists and advocates, and find your future in the narratives of our past. We spoke to some of the project creators on their thoughts about history, Singapore, and what led them to create their finished projects, and here is what they have to say!

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3. Empathise and understand Singapore’s industrial history with Factory (Super)Women

Photo: The Future of Our Pasts Festival

Factory (Super)Women, a documentary portraying the narratives of local factory women, was inspired by project creator Wei Han’s family history – his grandmother and mother both worked in factories – and seeks to record their oral history. The sincerity of the creative team in providing these women a platform to reminisce their times in the factory is clearly shown through the choice of music and the heart-warming yet moving stop-motion scenes interspersed with interviews of the women. While Factory (Super)Women’s run is over, we hope that the responses from Wei Han and his team will provide more insight, and perhaps inspire you to search for your own personal stories!

1. Why did you choose the narratives of factory women as the focus of your project?
The start of our project was actually quite serendipitous. My mother, who had worked in factories previously, was telling me about her experiences in the factory. At the same time, Xin Run, the co-leader of this project, was volunteering at a community garden in Jurong and Mdm Kamisah (who we feature in the documentary) shared about her experiences in the factory! When we talked about this that night, we realised that so many women in Singapore during that historical moment participated in the industrial workforce. Yet, they’re largely left out of the state historical narrative, and so we thought it would be important, both to us personally, to the women particularly and to the nation more generally to engage with and remember these women’s experiences.

2. Many Singaporeans are familiar with Samsui women, but not female factory workers. Why do you think this is so?
I think the Samsui women has been chosen, intentionally or unintentionally, by the state to be valourised because they are largely a “Chinese” group, and it is easy to craft a narrative of Chinese women building Singapore, a Chinese-majority country. Female factory workers are far more diverse in that women of all races (and some from different nationalities) participated in this labour.
I also think there is a certain patriarchal, male-centric perspective because many still see these female factory workers as “factory girls”. The term has been widely researched/discussed academically and is used in the factory primarily by male supervisors to demean and devalue the women and to assert power over them. Because these biases still exist (for example, the Merdeka Generation video on factory women is entitled “A Merdeka Story: The Factory Girl”), people do not see these women as active agents with their own desires, intents and goals.

On a final note, through my research, I also think that it could be because a deeper study into female factory workers will reveal the limitations in the state narrative that we have created about our economic history. While we valourise our rapid industrialisation, a closer study into female factory labour reveals the exploitation, unsafe practices and health consequences that have impacted the women. While we laud our ability to transform and adapt by switching to a Knowledge-Based-Economy, hearing from the women reveals stories of those who are left behind.

3. On that note, given that The Future of Our Pasts aims to showcase lesser-known narratives about our local history – what are your thoughts on the view that some stories are more important or valuable than others?
My heart genuinely breaks at this question, because I feel that this idea that some stories are more important than others is really disempowering and is very sad. I’ll include an academic, ”thinking” answer and an emotional, “feeling” one.
I think a valuation or prioritisation of “stories” always inherently links back to people’s agendas and societal constructs. Some stories and individuals are valourised because they inherently fit into the constructed narratives (i.e. it suits some individual/institution’s agendas to valourise this story). It could also be because it conforms to what is understood as “cool” or ”popular”. The last point holds quite true: if the artist/storyteller is already famous/popular, the stories that they tell might inherently be deemed as more important.

On a personal note, I feel that I have learnt in the course of my research the importance of “seeing” someone, of acknowledging them and of appreciating them. I feel that my project hopes to do just that – to empower people of my generation to be more open and willing to bear witness to the hard work, challenges, sacrifices and successes of those around us, including those of an older generation.

4. How do you think your project is relatable to audiences, especially the younger generation, who may not be familiar with Singapore’s industrial history?

As much as this project is about the factory women, it is on some level a personal historical journey for me in understanding my mother’s and my grandmother’s (who also worked in a factory) experiences. In our exhibition, we tried to channel this idea by creating spaces and prompting visitors to reflect on how their parents’ experiences before they become the parents that have shaped who they are today. In thinking about that, it is possible in many ways, to resonate with these women’s experiences. In my research, I learnt that none of these women entered the workforce because they wanted to “help build Singapore” or to boost Singapore’s GDP. They did it to empower themselves and to provide for their families. And these inherently human motivations will resonate with audiences no matter how young or old!

5. As the project creator, what is one last thing you’d like your audience to know, or take away?

I hope we can, through this project, better acknowledge/appreciate those around us. To look at these women and see them, not for their labour output or for how their children are today, but to see them for everything that they are – their struggles, their challenges but also their immense fortitude and spirit.

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