No. 2: “The Keong Saik Dream Tree” (2019)

The Keong Saik Dream Tree is the second installation of Project: 100 Dream Trees, located in Singapore, along Keong Saik Rd.

Project: 100 Dream Trees No. 2: “The Keong Saik Dream Tree” (2019)
Acrylic and tiles on wall, 2.3 x 2.3m


Find it here: 1 Keong Saik Rd, Singapore 089109 (at the back of the building):

Welcome to Keong Saik Road!

This area of Singapore’s Chinatown used to be a prominent red-light district in the 1960’s, where on both sides of the street, the three-storey shophouses housed numerous brothels. Along with other streets in the area, Keong Saik Road was also one of the “turfs” operated by the Sio Loh Kuan secret society. Since the 1990’s, many boutique hotels started operating here, and today this street is home to coffee shops, art galleries, restaurants and bars, and other spaces for commercial use.

One of these commercial spaces belongs to one of the first co-working centers in Singapore – The Working Capitol – whose building at 1 Keong Saik Rd is now home to this Dream Tree.

How This Dream Tree Came About

At the end of 2018, I received an email newsletter from The Working Capitol announcing they had a new space that was temporarily available for events, exhibitions and such. At the time I already had the idea to install 100 Dream Trees around the world, but I was doubting my ability to pull off such a feat. I also felt like I wasn’t doing enough as an artist, and considering perhaps organizing an art event or group exhibition or something (and also doubting if I could pull it off). 

Anyway, I pushed aside those fears for a moment, quickly wrote and sent an email before I chickened out, and soon enough arranged an appointment with someone named Raun to visit the space.

The space was in a building The Working Capitol had recently acquired, and it was a few more months until renovations began. Raun asked me what I had in mind, and not wanting to sound unprepared (even though I was), I shared the only thing I had a solid idea for – a Dream Tree mural.

And Raun said, “We do actually have walls that we would like artists to paint on.”

(My wall just before I started painting:)


He also claimed they had no budget for murals, and at the beginning of “Project: 100 Dream Trees” I didn’t really know how to negotiate some terms in my favor.

But I also knew that if I didn’t take this opportunity, the chances were quite high that self-doubt would overpower me from going out there to find another wall, so essentially it was NOW or delay-a-few-more-months-and-maybe-nothing-ever-happens.

It just so happened the deadline for submissions for an Arts Fund grant by the National Arts Council was just a couple of weeks away. So while I still had some courage, I filled in an application, drafted a proposal for the mural, and sent it in. And to my surprise, two months later I received notice that my project was approved! (Which also meant that I couldn’t back out now otherwise my reputation is at stake).

Thus in late January 2019, Raun and his colleague Saranta sent in an appeal to the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Singapore to get approval for installing a public mural on their building wall. It took another two months of Raun constantly emailing them and talking to them on the phone, answering their questions about the artwork, and I was starting to think that maybe I won’t be able to paint this mural after all because I had to leave for Europe soon (mid-April), to attend artist residencies.

And then, just two weeks before my departure flight to Europe, the approval came through, and the next step was to install the mural, no more chances of backing out haha.

Paint-Your-Dream Workshops

So I had to quickly figure out how I was going to get people to paint their dreams as a part of the mural. Initially I had thought of running paid workshops in The Working Capitol, but there wasn’t much time to market the event, invite people from the area, and getting them to pay would be an additional obstacle, so I wondered if perhaps I’ll just paint the mural and leave out the community segment.

I soon received another email newsletter from The Working Capitol, announcing their fourth anniversary celebration event to be held on 29 Mar 2019, and I immediately emailed Raun, and proposed setting up a station for people to paint their dreams on tiles, and later I’ll install them as part of the mural. Soon enough I found myself at their center, setting up tables and chairs on the balcony for people to paint their dreams.

Before setup:

After setup:

My previous workshop experiences are usually more organized where people come, sit and go through the same program together for 1.5-3 hours. This was the first time I had run a free-and-easy session where people arrived, sat, painted, and left at different times.

I soon realized I had to find an as direct way as possible to get to the Paint-Your-Dream part of the workshop, because when I invited people to paint their dreams, I had a whole range of responses. Most people were stumped by that, wondering if they even had dreams. Some said they wanted more money, to travel the world, to find love… which were quite generic responses that didn’t quite flesh out what they truly dream of.

After a few rounds of talking to people to help them connect deeper to their dreams, the question started to form itself:

“If time, money and energy didn’t matter, what’s that one thing that you absolutely must do, such that when you reach the end of your life, you can say that it was well-lived?”

Soon enough 37 adult professionals had painted their dreams on white tiles.

Some participants were workplace colleagues, who hadn’t even known about each other’s dreams before today:

It was an eye-opening night for me in many ways, and I had a lot of fun talking to people about their dreams, sharing a bit of my story, and encouraging people to express themselves creatively without fear of making a bad painting.

It was also a very enjoyable time because of my assistant for the evening – Ranajay, also known as “boyfriend”:

After the weekend, I returned on Monday and varnished all 37 painted dreams, so they would be ready for the wall in a few days:

Installing the Painted Dreams

A week after the workshop (5 April 2019,) and after I had already worked 3-4 days on the Dream Tree mural, and it was time to install the tiles on the wall.

And of course, my favorite assistant showed up to help me with the process:

Photo credits: Sakif Chowdhury

(A new friend, Sakif, also stopped by to get some photos and video footage of me at work for a podcast interview I did with him and his friend Stephen, so these two photos are thanks to him!)

Photo credits: Sakif Chowdhury

One of the issues with this wall was that there was a huge concrete patch (now partly covered by those tiles under the shophouses on the left). Previously there were some large potted plants in front of this wall, and it was only after they were removed that I saw the concrete patch.

Somehow, it’s almost serendipitous that I got people to paint their dreams on tiles, because now I could use some of those tiles to conceal the concrete patch.

It took us almost three hours, to get install all the tiles. There was even one with a moon and one with a sun, so now they could take the respective places of the moon and the sun I had intended to paint.

Then it was just one more day of painting, and The Keong Saik Dream Tree was complete:

The Keong Saik Dream Tree: A Closer Look

As mentioned earlier, this street used to be a prominent red-light district in the 1960’s, and was also one of the “turfs” operated by a secret society. Since 1989, this area has been protected as part of the Bukit Patoh Conservation Area by the Urban Redevelopment Authority, to preserve the architecture of the buildings here.

Local Landmarks

As Singapore is a multicultural and multi-religious society, it’s not surprising to see different religious places of worship coexisting within walking distance of each other, and Keong Saik Road is no exception.

As you make your way to Keong Saik Road from the Chinatown MRT station (Singapore’s metro system), you’ll see a small Hindu temple on the right that marks the start of the street. This is the Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple:

Photo credits: Gods Own Web

And just 200 meters down Keong Saik Road on the same side of the street, nestled between shophouses and quite inconspicuous if you’re not looking out for it, is a small Chinese temple called Cundhi Gong Temple:

Photo credit: Alice Chan for the Straits Times

And about halfway on your way to Cundhi Gong Temple, you will definitely notice an anvil-shaped building at the corner where Teck Lim Road meets Keong Saik Road. This is the Tong Ah Building, constructed before the Second World War and the Japanese Occupation in Singapore. The ground floor used to be the famous Tong Ah Eating House, which moved just a stone’s throw away in 2013, and is still along Keong Saik Rd.

Photo credit: Choo Yut Shing

These three landmarks I’ve painted together in The Keong Saik Dream Tree:

I’ve also included feasting penguins to represent the Tong Ah Eating House, and a couple of tourists. In 2017, Keong Saik Road was listed as one of the top ten destinations in Asia by the Lonely Planet Magazine.

Besides these three buildings, the most obvious architecture along Keong Saik Road are the shophouses that flank both sides of the street. These used to house families during the 1950s – 1980s, and some of them were also brothels:

Photo credits: Joyce Fang for the Straits Times

The shophouses that used to be brothels had light boxes above their front doors, with red letters printed on them that indicated the address. Some of these light boxes are still around today:

Photo credit: Tripzilla.com

Here you can see I’ve painted a row of three-storey shophouses. And right there at the main entrance of the Tree, are two light boxes and the lights on either side of the doorway, inspired from the photo above:

Aspects of Life

Today, Keong Saik Road is predominantly an area for commercial and leisure purposes, but there are still families who live in the area.

Here I’ve included a platform for sleeping penguins, and a larger platform to represent The Working Capitol:

There are also bars and restaurants along this street, some with live music events from time to time. A family of penguins watches TV together, to represent the residents who used to live on this street, and those who live in the area today. And of course, romance blossoms everywhere.

(The tile under the romance penguins was painted by my assistant / boyfriend. It shows a whale and a penguin swimming in the sea together.)

A Series of First Steps

And just like that, I completed the second Dream Tree mural, the beginnings of a project that just four months earlier (end Dec 2018), I wasn’t even sure was going to happen.

This mural is not only a tribute to the historical district of Keong Saik Road in Singapore, but also a celebration of our dreams and aspirations.

On a personal level, there’s one really eye-opening lesson I’ve learnt from the process of making The Keong Saik Dream Tree a reality: Our dreams can’t happen until we take a first step in that general direction.

As creative persons, we tend to be full of ideas, some easier to manifest than others, and somehow the ones that are more difficult to put into action tend to be the ones that we care more about. “Project: 100 Dream Trees” is that for me, and will most probably be among my most challenging of projects to manifest over the next few years. 

This is especially more so because I’m not naturally a proactive, initiator type of person; in fact, it’s my inclination to wait for someone else to take charge, to wait for the right opportunity, to wait for the clarity and certainty before I make that leap. But I’ve started to see from this experience that most of the time the way forward isn’t always clear, and rather than waiting for the “right” thing to do or the “right” time, sometimes taking ANY action in the direction we want to go is the only way we can go forward.

If I hadn’t responded to The Working Capitol’s email newsletter about their temporarily available space, I wouldn’t have set up a meeting with Raun. And if I hadn’t shown up (despite having no proper idea for the space), I wouldn’t have told him about my Dream Tree idea. And if I hadn’t told him about my mural, I wouldn’t have been offered a wall. At each of these moments, I didn’t know if any of these steps were the “right” moves to make, but they had somehow led to me applying for the Arts Fund grant, and once I received it the odds of manifesting the Dream Tree idea were much greatly improved.

I’m really appreciative of Raun and Saranta at The Working Capitol, that even though they couldn’t offer me a budget for the mural, they did everything they could to get the official permission from the governing institution, and allowed the Paint-Your-Dream workshop to be part of their anniversary event – aspects of the journey without which “The Keong Saik Dream Tree” couldn’t be the way it is today.

All it takes is that first step for something to happen. Then we take another first step from that place, so that something else happens. Then another first step from there, and another, and another, and before long the mural is finished, and this part of the dream journey is complete.

2 Dream Trees up, 98 more to go!

Work-in-Progress Video:

Check out the time-lapse making of “The Keong Saik Dream Tree” on YouTube here:

 

Special Thanks:

  • The Working Capitol
  • National Arts Council and Arts Fund
  • Ranajay Das <3

2 Comments

  1. Lovely story and a very handsome assistant, I must say. Keep painting!

    1. MaryAnn says:

      Thanks! I hope the very handsome assistant assists me on future murals too 😉

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