What it feels like to be in No Man’s Land

Ushered into a shophouse, then told to take off your shoes.

You climb the polished wooden stairs. At the top, there’s a narrow white table. On it, a typewritten note on brown paper with further instructions.

You’re in John’s house. He’s an oncologist and accustomed to seeing death. His grandfather owned shophouses in Joo Chiat. He didn’t stay in Joo Chiat for long because it wasn’t good for the kids. He keeps his art in this shophouse now. The lights are dim and it’s quiet, except for the shuffling of feet, from us voyeurs.

A small typewritten card on the floor asks, “who are you”. Another says, “what are you doing here”. There are many other notes telling a story—some barely readable in the semi-darkness. One mentions sailing to Singapore and making this island home.

The lights are switched off, room by room. You go down the stairs, unsure of what to do. No one says anything as you continue along Joo Chiat to an alley.

You board a truck. It’s pitch black and you hear the traffic, but also, the sound of the sea and waves crashing. You arrive at the next destination.

An experience like this is atypical of Open House (OH!) but a little more challenging ethically and physically, than their usual artsy walkabouts. You’re not told what to do where you’re headed. The only instructions were to turn off your phone and wear the mask in the house. For an hour and 45 minutes in this journey, nothing is right or wrong.

Artistic Director Alan Oei says,

Joo Chiat is a relic of old Singapore. It resists the block by block urban plan because it’s organic and historied. Diverse groups of people have had the time and space to plant their roots here. We wanted to explore all of those stories again, but put you, the guest at the centre of it. There’s little safe space, so it’s more intense, even ethically challenging.

This is No Man’s Land, and it’s an intensely immersive experience that deconstructs everything you thought you know about Joo Chiat; before half of it became Tanjong Katong; when the sea was somewhere around the place we know today as Branksome Road.

Through narratives based on true accounts told by four people of Joo Chiat, we’re thrown into the underbelly of the district, questioning the side-effects of progress and creeping xenophobia. The derelict apartment that we wound up at was eleborately set up to evoke “the lost sea”. Each room was minimalist and thoughtfully put together – two old photos of John as a child tell us enough about his struggle, the dimmed red light, a thin mattress in a metal cage, plastic bags stuffed between the mesh.

It’s true that we lose a bit of heritage every time an old shophouse is torn down. But we need to make room for more people don’t we, because already, there are too many migrants. We deal with it by passing comments and complaining about work and society, as our bank accounts keep growing. The migrants can’t say anything thought, they don’t have a say.

No Man’s Land thus displaces you by taking you into another world, a unique one that transcends time, culture and distance. You’re asked difficult questions and pressured to answer. You wonder what’s fact and what’s fiction. You’re too close for comfort. You’re disoriented, even after the journey is over, because it ends so abruptly. It leaves you questioning your values and opinions because you’ll find that you’re at the centre of it all.

All of this works, because you’re in No Man’s Land—not yours. It’s probably what it feels like when you’re displaced and entirely on your own.

No Man’s Land

Duration: 1h 45mins (latecomers won’t be able to join)
Age limit: 18 years and above
Tickets can be purchased at $55 from nomansland.sg

Photo credit: Open House

Believes in doppelgängers, a parallel universe and is a sucker for superhero flicks. Idealistic yet cynical all at the same time, catch her at @mirancbc.

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