By Aaron Tan (19A01B)
Photographs courtesy of the Raffles Photographic Society
It’s a beautiful Saturday morning at the Gardens by the Bay. The sun is shining. A cool breeze rustles through the air, birds chirp, and thirteen kilometres away (or so), buses boarded by Rafflesians, workers, and anticipation are hurrying towards the Supertrees. Homeground 2019: Gardens by the Bay, is underway.
Homeground, a yearly tradition of the Community Advocates’ Doveswarm (an interest group within the CCA that advocates for migrant workers), is an event that helps express appreciation towards the cleaners, the cooks, the gardeners, and all the other non-teaching staff in school who are often overlooked. As Phebe Koh (19S03B), the overall event IC put it, “To me, Homeground is the embodiment of ‘charity starts at home’. When people think of advocacy and volunteering, most hope to make an impact outside [through] external organizations. But sometimes, the smallest thing you do for the people right beside you in your immediate community speaks the loudest.”
“Sometimes, the smallest thing you do for the people right beside you in your immediate community speaks the loudest.” — Phebe Koh (19S03B), overall IC
The previous few iterations of Homeground have typically been held in school. This year, however, Doveswarm has opted for something a bit more adventurous—a trip to the Gardens by the Bay. “This year’s homeground is a step up [from previous years],” Phebe tells me. “[We’ll be] bringing the school term contract workers out of school to visit one of Singapore’s landmarks… and it would be, perhaps little known, the first time for many of them.”
True to their name, the entourage, comprised of Doveswarm members and volunteers from various levels, swarm into the Visitors’ Centre at 9am. The workers are split into groups, each shepherded by two to three volunteers. First up is a visit to the Flower Dome. To spice things up, the groups are given an objective—to take six pictures with six flowers of six different colours.
It isn’t long before I learn that I am to be assigned to Group K, and am promised a scenic morning in the Flower Dome with Auntie Paw and Uncle Tan. A cool blast of air and a dazzling array of colour greet us as we enter. The enthusiasm is palpable. Cameras unveil themselves and selfies are taken as the workers marvel at the sight. “Want to come together?” asks Auntie Paw in English. “Come join, come join!” She beckons, beaming, for all of us in Group K to join her in a group photo.
Each time, no matter which sight she stops before, whether to take a picture against the blossoming orchids, or before the glass that overlooks the cityscape, Auntie (as she soon becomes affectionately known to us) insists on taking a picture with the rest. “In two years,” she tells us in Mandarin as she scrolls through the photographs we have just taken, “I’ll look upon these as beautiful memories.”
Auntie likes beautiful flowers. “These are pretty,” she says as she whips out her phone to snap pictures of the Musella Lasiocarpa. “These are not,” she replies as we ask her about another species nearby. “Fresh flowers are really expensive,” she emphasises as the conversation takes a floral shift. “What about you, Uncle?” asks a group member, directing the question at the relatively-subdued Uncle Tan. He chuckles as he replies, “I don’t know much about them.”
As we talk, Auntie and Uncle open up about their lives to us. Though she walks with a hobble, Auntie is bursting to the seams with energy as she tells us about her son, about her experiences living in Singapore and China, of her times visiting Malaysia and Taiwan. Uncle, on the other hand, is more forthcoming on the topic of music. “I like old music,” he responds in Mandarin, when we ask him about his favourites. “Have you heard of ‘你怎么说’ (ni zen me shuo — ‘how do you say it’)?”
Next up is the Cloud Forest. Workers and students alike gasp in awe at the streaks of sunlight that filter through the mist. (“Like a wedding photo”, someone is overheard saying). The task we are assigned for the Cloud Forest takes the form of a “Word Cloud”— a crossword puzzle that involves careful observation of the surroundings to complete.
The task, despite its good intentions, is soon forgotten as we find ourselves lost in the sights and the conversation. All around the dome, students and workers bustle and mingle and talk of their lives. Group M turns heads as they pump their fists in the air, letting out an exuberant “yeah!” as they snap a photo. Quietly, in a corner, Rebecca (19S03E) chats with Mdm. Tan. “The auntie didn’t want to go because she had actually been up there before, so I just accompanied her while the rest went up!” she told me later. “We talked about the last time she came—which was with her grandson—because her daughter’s family lives in the UK. So when they came back, they all went to the Gardens by the Bay together.”
Meanwhile, the rest take a lift to the seventh floor Cloud Walk, where one can look through the glass upon the sprawling city, or down to the misty bio-paradise below.
The two hours we spend in the domes pass in a flash. All too soon, Homeground 2019 draws to a close. As we gather underneath the Supertrees, Doveswarm members hand the students and workers packs of Old Chang Kee—just the nourishment we need after our two-hour amble (though Auntie Paw, she insists, is not tired at all). As I eat my spring roll (delicious), I think about the memories we had made, the conversations we had had.
Most of all, I felt, Homeground 2019 drew us closer to the non-teaching staff as people. “It’s an all new experience to me,” Li Qinan (20S06P), a fellow member of Group K, shared with me after the event. “I think in school, when we see them, most of us may greet them or take the initiative to thank them, but we won’t really communicate with them or try to get to know them.” To her, talking to the contract workers, hearing their stories, was what made the event meaningful. “Even though I was watching [from] the side, I felt a lot of joy seeing the school term contract workers happy,” Phebe added. “I truly understood at that moment how doing something meaningful is the most rewarding experience you can gain.”
“I saw quite a few faces of uncles and aunties that I often see around in school, and in school they are always wearing their blue uniform, but today they were dressed in their own clothes. I suddenly realized that it is really is easy to forget that they’re also normal people, just like anyone else. The older workers too, they’re like any other elderly [person]. Every worker, they’re someone’s daughter, someone’s parent, someone’s best friend.”
“Every worker, they’re someone’s daughter, someone’s parent, someone’s best friend.” — Phebe
“Homeground did exactly just that. [It allowed] us to feel like a family. Homeground, to me, is the opportunity for us to feel together, to feel like one, and to feel like a family.” — Shao Chi
And indeed, it was a sense of community we found in the Flower Dome in Homeground 2019. Perhaps it is safe to say that our understanding of Raffles grew a little larger that day, that beautiful memories were made under the glass and sunlight, among the mist and flowers, between the smiles and the chatter. “Being in the same school, we should be a family,” Shao Chi (19S06K), also a member of Doveswarm, emphasised to me, “and Homeground did exactly that. [It allowed] us to feel like a family. Homeground, to me, is an opportunity for us to feel together, to feel like one, and to feel like a family.”
“When I got off the bus reaching back to school,” Phebe told me later, “I thanked a school term contract worker for coming to join us today, and she held my arm and thanked me instead, saying she really enjoyed herself today. The fact that we could be part of her smile made me feel that we achieved our aims.”
That we could be part of their smiles. Isn’t that, after all (if even to a small extent), what all charity, what all love, is about?
As I bid farewell to the workers, the volunteers, the members of Doveswarm at the bus bay, as I watch them board and take off, back to school where they will be dismissed, where they will go their separate ways and return to Raffles on Monday with pieces of each other in their memories, in their hearts—the Sun is still shining upon the Gardens by the Bay. The birds are still chirping. As I settle myself and my laptop in a quiet corner to write this article, one of them lands before me, and sings a song.