It was 13 December 2018, an early celebration for Christmas. Lee Huiwen and her husband, Kenneth Lau, were singing Christmas carols before their pottery workshop, hoping to spread some festive cheer to some 40 injured migrant workers who were far away from home. Most of them had come from Bangladesh and India to work in Singapore’s construction sector.
Upon realising that the language barrier was affecting their audience’s level of enthusiasm, Kenneth decided to ask these migrant brothers – as they are affectionately known as – to sing something in return.
His idea worked. They turned to each other for a quick discussion. Suddenly, someone started singing a Bengali song. The rest clapped and sang along heartily, many obviously familiar with the lyrics. Before long, everyone in the room was singing at the top of their voices, with some breaking out in dance.
Since then, every session organised by Huiwen and Kenneth ends off with a music segment.
Leveraging the Arts
Huiwen and Kenneth are the duo behind Studio Asobi, a home-grown pottery studio. Since October 2018, the couple has been conducting monthly two-hour ceramic workshops for injured migrant workers on a pro-bono basis. These workshops are held in partnership with HealthServe, a major non-governmental organisation that helps foreign workers in Singapore.
HealthServe offers subsidised treatment to migrant workers at its medical and dental clinics in Geylang, Mandai and Jurong. It also provides social assistance to those in distress. For example, those who are severely injured at work could find themselves in a long wait for their compensation to be settled. When this happens, the affected workers often feel anxious, frustrated or even depressed. This is where Studio Asobi comes in.
Through the use of arts which is therapeutic in nature, migrant workers in Studio Asobi’s workshops are able to find an outlet to express themselves. The workshops are typically held on the last Thursday of the month at HealthServe’s office in Little India. In some workshops, participants learn how to make functional wares, such as a cup or a bowl. In other sessions, they are encouraged to reflect and create based on a theme, such as a piece inspired by something they miss from their hometown.
While participants were previously predominantly South Asian, Huiwen and Kenneth are now seeing greater diversity, with Chinese migrant workers also attending recent workshops. Most of these workers come to know of Studio Asobi’s workshops either through HealthServe or word of mouth from their friends.
The Workshop Process
Kenneth shares, “We always knew we wanted to integrate giving into our work as a studio, and we are glad to have found a cause that we can support by using our pottery teaching skills.
“Through our workshops, we have made friends with many migrant brothers, a group that many Singaporeans don’t interact frequently with.”
Before each session, Studio Asobi prepares the clay required. Thereafter, they help to glaze and fire the creations in a kiln, so that their workshop participants can keep them as mementos. It is a time-consuming and labour-intensive process, but the couple finds fulfilment in what they do.
“We see their faces visibly changing with smiles after the session. Beyond learning pottery, the workshops help them feel welcomed here. It is a place where they can find a listening ear,” Huiwen says. She is heartened that some of them make the effort to take a long trip from Tuas or Punggol every month to attend the workshops.
She adds, “Like many others, they have left their homes seeking for a better life here in Singapore. Yet, often times they face discrimination and are at risk of being exploited. Each month, we leave the workshops inspired by their stories as they display so much strength and tenacity in adversity.
“We cannot solve their complicated problems, but it is our hope that learning pottery injects some fun and positivity to their days. And for the more interested participants, perhaps it may even lead to ideas for new business opportunities when they return home!”
More Volunteers Needed
Huiwen and Kenneth currently lead this workshop initiative with support from volunteers and staff from HealthServe. They hope to grow the volunteer pool, so that more workshops can be conducted across more locations. Contact Studio Asobi to find out how you can contribute.
Photos courtesy of Healthserve and Studio Asobi