COVID Companions is a series of creative pieces featuring snippets of life during COVID-19, with a special focus on the other individuals or creatures who are keeping us company during quarantine, lockdown, ‘circuit breaker’, or whatever your equivalent might be.
Although all my photography jobs and projects vanished at the onset of COVID-19, I am arguably one of the few who enjoyed the abundance of time offered by the circuit breaker. No more ferrying children to and from classes. No more waiting in between their classes. For the first time in my life as a parent, I am the master of my own time.
To most people, being cooped up at home with young kids can be torture. Lucky for me, my kids are at an age when they can entertain themselves. Just like their father.
This seems like the perfect opportunity to visit Buddhist-themed Haw Par Villa, a place in Singapore which I have always loved. It showcases some Chinese folklore, historical events, as well as the famed eighteen stories of hell. Many Singaporeans would have childhood memories of the theme park. Some may be sweet, but some may be nightmarish after a child witnesses what punishment awaits the deceased who has committed sins in the past lifetime. For example, a deceitful person having his tongue ripped out. Aside from the colourful handcrafted models, figurines and statues there, the stories and history they depict are just as captivating: Journey to the West, Opium War hero Lin Zexu, and struggles between the “haves” and “have nots”. Many of their expressions and poses are life-like and dramatic.
I often wondered:
“What if the characters appear in more than one story?”
“What if in real life, they are different from the roles they play in the Haw Par Villa story?”
The idea for my project took root from a video I watched online, which showed the Chinese city Wuhan in total lockdown with streets deserted. What used to be thoroughfares were like ghost towns. That saddened me. At that time, I didn’t expect Singapore, or the rest of the world, to suffer from a similar fate. Nonetheless, a seed was planted.
On April 7, our government announced a lockdown. The Wuhan scenario started a replay here, in tiny Singapore. I imagined the already backwater theme park being emptied out and left with just ghosts manning the gates of hell. Almost every Singaporean is somehow acquainted or has a soft spot for Haw Par Villa. Hence, I wanted to bring those fond memories back on behalf of Singaporeans. I want to remind everyone that the spirits of Haw Par Villa are still “alive” and “fighting”, like everyone else who may be struggling.
All along, my photography work entails telling visual stories of others, through my work in photojournalism, weddings and family portraiture. I never had the chance to create stories out of nothing. And here I am, imagining a Chinese official to be corrupted and bribe-taking; a sea warrior whose love is unrequited; or a pair of seemingly close mermaids plotting to murder the other. Many images are incidentally a projection of my fears, sense of uncertainty, and also optimism in the face of this unprecedented challenge.
With this project, I suddenly emerged as this excited kid in a Lego store, pouring out all the bricks and testing out all the combinations.
This series of images were made with items found at or within 50 metres from my home. Some items would be familiar to Singaporeans, and I chose them in order to build an immediate rapport with my audience. Many of these images are quirky, ironic, and a few are downright sinister. My modest hope is to evoke a chuckle in my fellow countrymen; to offer a common thread to bind them so that they know “we are really in this together”.
Unlike digital photography, analogue collages involve cutting out the pictures and glueing them to other parts of a bigger picture. For many days, I scour my flat for any usable items that can be included in their stories, since most shops are closed and we are not supposed to venture outside unnecessarily. Food items, kitchen appliances, stationery become the main props. Often, I enlisted the help of my children or wife in executing certain shots.
“Light a mosquito coil for me and hold it there.”
“Have you finished making the ondeh-ondeh? Can you spare me a couple of minutes for my photos?”
“Alright, you go there, while I look over here…for snails.”
Just like that, a day passes with a click of the shutter.
These Haw Par Villa characters have kept me sane and creative during the circuit breaker. While it is apt to describe them as my COVID companions, it would not be half as fun without the additional help and companionship of my family members.
Khing Chong is a photographer who makes precious memories for families. He is way too old for running after kids, but the child-like spirit in him always persuades kids to run after him instead. Blessed or cursed with a quirky sense of humour not understood by most of his family members, he now makes mostly digital collages to share a story or a laugh. His collages can be found at @khingscollage , while family memories are made at www.thefamilyman.sg.