Friday, 17 March 2017

HDB artists: Authorisation does not kill creativity; The carpenter of Marsiling brings Christmas cheer with snow and decorations

One resident who sought official approval for his displays even got support from the town council
By Ng Jun Sen, The Straits Times, 16 Mar 2017

The authorities must be informed if artists want to build public displays responsibly, said Woodlands resident Tan Koon Tat.

The 56-year-old carpenter has been constructing festive displays at the carpark near Block 179, Woodlands Street 13, for the past decade, even making artificial snow last Christmas.

All these were done with the blessing of the Marsiling-Yew Tee Town Council, said Mr Tan.

In Mandarin, he told The Straits Times that he knows the authorities have to account to residents if it goes awry.

Said Mr Tan: "They are in charge of the space, and they have to take responsibility if something bad happens. These rules are meant to protect the residents and we must respect that."

It is also not true that support from officials mean the work is any less genuine, he said.

The town council does not dictate how he conducts his public decorations as long as they fit certain safety and hygiene requirements and do not inconvenience others.

"The town council even volunteered to provide electrical points to power some of my displays, such as the snow machine, which I rejected because I don't think the public should pay for my decorations," said Mr Tan.

While the tableaus may be subjective and might inevitably offend others, Mr Tan said he tries to mitigate this by talking to various neighbours and sharing his plans with them. If there are any concerns, he would alter them.

Every year, he designs and builds displays to celebrate five occasions - National Day, Deepavali, Hari Raya, Christmas and Chinese New Year.

This is so that it is inclusive of all races and religions, he said.

When it comes to the clean-up, he knows he cannot shirk responsibility because of the assurances he has given to the town council, as it should rightly be.

Said Mr Tan: "How do you think the authorities would react if the artist left a mess? Or if the decorations were done improperly and cannot be removed easily?

"These are all things that he or she should expect and the best way to avoid these issues is to inform the town council first."

MyTurf is a fortnightly series that aims to tell the untold stories of our neighbourhoods. In this fifth instalment, The Straits Times catches up with three decorators of public corridors or void decks, and takes a look at the tensions between them and the authorities. While approval is needed for public displays, some decorators prefer to skip that step

Finding common ground over public decorations
By Ng Jun Sen, The Straits Times, 16 Mar 2017

Among retiree Mark Tham's arsenal of "art" tools, there are two unusual items: fire-retardant paint and a fire extinguisher.

This is because his canvas is the public corridor outside his HDB flat at Block 28D, Dover Crescent.

For the past six years, Mr Tham, 69, has been giving the common space facelifts with elaborate festival displays without asking the authorities for permission.

Instead of a grey wall, residents are greeted by a sea of colour when they step out of the lift on the 19th floor during Chinese New Year and Christmas.

Despite not seeking prior approval for the works, Mr Tham said he has never encountered problems with the authorities.

The special paint and the firefighting equipment help prevent the removal of his public displays by the town council, he believes.

Mr Tham, a former director in a food and beverage company, said: "Everyone has the best intentions when making art, but perhaps artists sometimes (don't realise) that their work might create real hazards for other people."

The issue of unsanctioned public displays was sparked by Lasalle student Priyageetha Dia's now-famous golden staircase, which was not authorised by the town council.

The 25-year-old had plastered a flight of a Jalan Rajah HDB staircase with gold foil as part of her final-year project. She voluntarily removed it on Sunday, leaving only a small gold foil on the bottom step as a memento.

While the staircase grabbed much public attention in the past week, decorators of public spaces have long thrived - some with the explicit permission, and even support, of the authorities and some who fly under the radar.

The HDB, for instance, has a Friendly Faces, Lively Places Fund that provides up to $5,000 for those who want to do public art installations.

But there are some who prefer not to go through the authorities.

Besides Mr Tham, another aspiring artist is retired contractor Or Beng Kooi, 76. Three years ago, he began constructing a pagoda-like tower of items - dolls, toys, figurines and sculptures - at the void deck of his home at Block 108, Yishun Ring Road. Mr Or said his work would likely not have existed if he had gone to the authorities first. "Even if I wanted to build another display, I don't think they will approve it now. The need to seek permission stifles well-meaning creativity," he said.

But Woodlands resident Tan Koon Tat disagrees. The 56-year-old carpenter, who creates ambitious displays at the carpark near his home, says the authorities have to account to residents if things go awry.

That was how MP Louis Ng explained Nee Soon Town Council's removal of Mr Or's display earlier this month. While some described it as an installation worthy of the Singapore Biennale, a major art exhibition organised by the Singapore Art Museum, it had to go due to fire safety concerns, he said.

So where is the line drawn?

Mr Tham said he puts in great effort to plan, prepare and execute his festive displays without inconveniencing or endangering others.

Beyond fire safety considerations, he also makes sure others are not obstructed by the installation.

The installation occupies a sizeable plot at the lift lobby, measuring around 5m by 0.5m. But its placement at the far wall does not block any human passage.

Cultural sensitivities are observed too, said Mr Tham. When the Year of the Pig swings around in 2019, he will not feature any porcine characters, to avoid offending his Muslim neighbours. "It's about being considerate to the other residents who use the space," he said.

Instead of complaints, he gets praises from his MPs when they conduct house visits or from grassroots leaders at the Telok Blangah Dover Crescent Residents' Committee.

"I know it is in a public space and there are rules, but no one has ever threatened to remove the display. In fact, I feel very encouraged by all the (accolades) it gets," said Mr Tham, who is already planning the next tableau for Christmas.

Mr Or, meanwhile, has diverted his attention to growing plants near the seniors corner.

He said: "I built (the old display) for the elderly folk here, not to cause problems for people. It is a great pity that it had to go. But our society is like that, there are rules to follow."


* 2018 *  Woodlands resident does it again with latest festive project - a Christmas log cabin with 'snow-capped' roof
By Vanessa Liu, The Straits Times, 20 Dec 2018

Tucked away in the corner of a Woodlands neighbourhood, a familiar Christmas scene stands in stark contrast to the Housing Board blocks around it: a log cabin seemingly blanketed in snow.

The 4.5m-tall structure in front of Block 178 Woodlands Street 13 is the latest creation of Mr Tan Koon Tat, a long-time resident who has been putting up festive decorations in the neighbourhood for over 10 years, including for Deepavali, Hari Raya Aidilfitri and Chinese New Year.

The 58-year-old carpenter by trade, aided by two of his workers, built the log cabin using materials sourced from lumber yards.

"In order to finish the set-up before Christmas, we continued working even when it was raining. If it hadn't been raining so much, the work might have been completed sooner," Mr Tan said in Mandarin.

The "snow-capped" cabin, with a chimney, is the centrepiece of the set-up complete with a giant sleigh, several candy canes and lighted Christmas trees. Mr Tan said two more reindeer and a Santarina figure would be added just before Christmas.

Mr Tan, who used fibre fillings - the material used in the cushioning for sofas - to create the illusion of snow, said he drew inspiration from his family for the project.

"Around the end of November I told my son that I was going to do a Christmas theme and I asked him for a picture. Two days later he sent a picture of a log cabin to me. He asked me, 'why don't you build this?' I said, 'OK, I'll ask the RC (Residents' Committee)'."

Mr Tan's quest to spruce up his neighbourhood started more than a decade ago, when he first put up lights and streamers along the common corridor to usher in the Chinese New Year. Over time, the decorations became more elaborate.

"I would ask if the residents liked it, and if they could accept the various decorations that I had put up. Slowly, I began to understand what was acceptable to them and I added more things every year. Sometimes when I'm working on the structures, residents would walk past and suggest new things to be added. I try my best to comply."

Some residents recall fondly his efforts in previous years.

"Last year, he had personally bought a snow machine to give us the feeling of having snow. All my seven kids loved it," said Mr Michael See, 42, who lives nearby in a block in Marsiling Road and took his family to see the decorations in 2017 after reading about them in the newspapers.

"Adults were enjoying the snow machine too," Mr See's wife Karen, 42, said with a laugh. The See family has come by to view Mr Tan's latest masterpiece.

Ms Tan Wen Xi, another resident who lives nearby, said: "This can only be found in our Woodlands neighbourhood. It's so rare. Don't you think it's rare? We don't even have to go to Orchard Road to see the Christmas decorations. We have them here."

Mr Tan said people stopped by while he was working on the structure, and some praised him or thanked him for his work.

When asked if he was tired of doing this year after year, he replied: "You'll be tired for sure. But when you see so many others enjoying the decorations, you don't feel that tired anymore."

He added that the people were his biggest motivation.

He declined to reveal the cost of putting up the log cabin.

"I don't really want to bring money into this. This was built to bring joy to everyone. You can't put a price tag on that," said Mr Tan with a smile.

Earlier this month, Mr Philip Sobrielo Gene, 38, put up a mannequin on the ledge outside his mother's second-storey HDB flat in Clementi as part of Christmas decorations and was told by Jurong-Clementi Town Council to remove them due to safety concerns. He was later given permission to keep the decorations until the end of the year.

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