“Oh yes, and the prints you see here are for sale,” Sim Chi Yin said, almost as an afterthought to the speech she had just made, launching her book The Long Road Home, “and the proceeds will benefit Transient Workers Count Too, Home and Migrant Voices in equal thirds.” She was referring to the framed prints displayed at the School of Photography, an exhibition coinciding with the book launch.
Those prints were a selection from the photographs in her book. They were eight years in the collecting and a labour of love. Comprising over 70 images with short associated stories, they provide glimpses of migrant domestic workers’ lives in Singapore and Indonesia (before and after their working stints).
Wanting to humanise people we often take for granted, Chi Yin recalled being moved by a question she often heard: “If things are so bad in Singapore, why do they keep coming?”
Intent on gaining more insight, she made several trips to Indonesia, using up her annual leave, to see for herself the women who would be planning to leave for Singapore, their families and social environment. Poverty is a big part of the explanation, she learned – which would not have been any surprise – but there were some who were fleeing abusive relationships, or even just bored with village life.
Even so, the pain of separation was something that every worker had to go through, and that’s provided they had a reasonable employer. A prematurely-ended contract was even worse.
Chi Yin first took notice of the situation of domestic workers when she was with the New Paper in 2003, covering some of their stories. Some of the earliest pictures in the book date from then. The period 2006 – 2009 was when she made her several trips to Indonesia, even though she was based in Beijing. Many of the women and families featured in the book were from those trips. Each little story is unique, a vignette capturing something about the women’s feelings as they prepared to leave home for work, telling us about how their own children reacted to the prospect, and what husbands thought of the matter.
She also visited training centres in Jakarta where the women are “prepared” for working abroad, her photographs distilling the stern austerity they had to submit to.
And then there are stories of the workers while they are in Singapore, how they learned new languages, and how they adjusted to a new life.
Finally, Chi Yin follows a few of the workers when they returned home. Once again, they have to make adjustments, not least that of reconnecting with their own children they had not seen for years and who may not even recognise their mothers.
It was very generous of Chi Yin to benefit TWC2 with the sale of the exhibition prints. At TWC2, money is always tight, needs always immeasurably large. Her kind gesture is deeply appreciated.