Fire In The Belly For Migrant Issues: Singaporean Photographer Sim Chi Yin

This article originally appeared on Vulcan Post

Early in her career, Sim Chi Yin earned the nickname of “chilli padi”.

Then a journalist with the Singapore Press Holdings, Chi Yin wrote raw and hard-hitting reports on the hardships of migrant workers, both in Singapore and abroad. From the poor living conditions in an illegal Tuas dormitory to Singapore’s detention of a Rwandan refugee and her asthmatic child, she broke pressing stories that may have otherwise went unreported.

Rooted in all this work was a fierce passion to uphold the dignity of migrant workers. In 2005, an illegal migrant worker from Myanmar was found dead in a Sengkang car park, his body believed to have been dumped after he fell from the building he had been painting. In an open letter to the mother of a man she had never met, Chi Yin wrote:

“I can’t help thinking about your son — the boy you struggled to raise, only to lose him in a strange land… Perhaps you’ve heard about the skyscrapers, green esplanades and legendary efficiency of Singapore. Then it will shock you that this First World nation still has traces of Third World practices.”

In an introductory note to the letter, then Executive Editor at The New Paper Ken Jalleh Jr. described her as “a spunky chilli padi of a reporter” reacting with “youthful outrage” at social injustice.

Today, Chi Yin continues to be outraged at the injustices migrants face, but tells these stories from a different vantage point — as a freelance documentary photographer based in Beijing, China. Since 2011, her documentation of migrant lives has made it to big publications, such as The New York Times and National Geographic, and more recently, to the big screen. Dying To Breathe, her short documentary film about a Chinese miner dying of an occupational lung disease, premiered at last month’s Singapore International Film Festival.

Sim Chi Yin infield-picture by Tan Siok Siok - with miner He Quangui and his wife Mi Shixiu-dec2013
Chi Yin (far right) with the subjects of Dying To Breathe, former gold miner He Quangui and his wife, Mi Shixiu. (Image Credit: Tan Siok Siok, 2013)

The festival screening was also when I first met Chi Yin, and admittedly, I was a little starstruck. Chi Yin is the first Asian to be accepted into the prestigious VII photo agency, one of 30 emerging talents the British Journal of Photography said the world should look out for, and a prolific visual storyteller I had learnt about in communications school.

Since our first meeting, we kept in touch over Skype and email, going back and forth over her numerous personal projects, most of them self-funded, and all carried out with a staunch determination to stand up for the underdog.

“Labour and migration are very major themes of our times. A lot of us are migrant workers, and there are a lot of different types of migrant workers,” she tells me in one of our conversations. “ It just happens that the lowest in the food chain are these people who I feel don’t have a voice. So I try to take photographs and tell their stories somehow.“

The Backstory

Like many self-taught shutterbugs, Chi Yin started out with street photography. In her teens, she experimented with her mother’s Canon DSLR, heading down to Little India on Sundays to take snaps of “street life, back alleys and the interaction between movement and light”. Upon completing junior college, she honed her skills as a photo desk intern with The Straits Times, under the mentorship of veteran photojournalist George Gascon, who would slip her books by photography legends like Henri Cartier-Bresson.

After that stint, Chi Yin pursued degrees in history and international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science — but this was not a break from photography. She spent her spare time on unconventional personal projects, photographing African communities that had recently settled in London and Roma gypsies in a Romanian ghetto. A photo series she did in Siberia was a finalist for the Ian Parry Award, a photojournalism competition run by The Sunday Times in London (some of these photographs are discussed here).

When she returned to Singapore in 2001, she worked as a social, community and housing reporter for The Straits Times for two years, before joining The New Paper to report on labour issues. Her passion for migrant stories carried through, not just in her reporting, but also in her many personal projects, such as Day Off (2003).

Sim Chi Yin Day Off learn
A teacher from the Sekolah Indonesia Singapura in Siglap conducting English lessons on a Sunday morning. The embassy wanted to offer more training for Indonesian domestic workers, who were the most lowly-paid among maids here. Their inability to speak good English was often cited as a reason their starting salary remained at around S$230 a month, at the time the photo was taken. (Image Credit: Sim Chi Yin, 2003)

While reporting on the struggles of migrant workers, Chi Yin observed that her stories were poorly received amid the prevalence of misconceptions and stereotypes among Singaporeans. For instance, she noticed many maid employers refusing to give their helpers a weekly day off on the assumption that the women would “just go and get pregnant”.

To address this problem, Chi Yin worked with five other female photographers, in collaboration with the migrant rights group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), to illustrate that many domestic helpers spend their days off just like any Singaporean would.

Sim Chi Yin Day Off dance2
The hair salon at the Laksetha Skills Centre doubled as a practice room for dance, as Sri Lankan Mutunayakapedige Sriyani Kusum, 25, showed off her latest choreography to a dance instructor. Sriyani, who had been working in Singapore for three years at the time the photo was taken, had been dancing for about a year. (Image Credit: Sim Chi Yin, 2003)

“We showed them doing a range of things. They go to mosques, hang out with friends, take classes in English, computer skills, sewing [and] massage,” she explains. “And yes, some of them go out with their boyfriends, but they are full human beings like us, so that’s only natural.”

Hoping to reach out to ordinary Singaporeans, the group exhibited their work at Toa Payoh Bus Interchange and several library branches, but there were few reactions from the public and the press. While no one spoke out against the campaign, it was clear to Chi Yin that Singaporean society did not favour head-on activism.

But Chi Yin continued to collaborate with friends on such efforts. One friend she has worked especially closely with is Chan Tse Chueen, a former sub-editor at The Straits Times, who coordinated the administrative aspects of many of these projects. Corresponding with me over email, Tse Chueen, who now works at the South China Morning Post, recalls that there were numerous challenges in getting sponsors and venue partners, and dealing with the authorities and the media.

“The problems and frustration were part of the process. [But] we had a lot of fun on the projects. I think that’s one aspect of voluntary work that people don’t emphasize enough,” says Tse Chueen. “What are problems but an opportunity to use our creativity and ingenuity to find a new way to do things?”

Turning The Tables

And indeed, creativity would be the basis of their next big exhibition. In 2005, Chi Yin worked with 12 other photographers on a different kind of project — empowering migrant workers with the ability to give us insights into their own daily lives.

Over six months, the team taught 31 migrant workers basic photography, and handed them point-and-shoot cameras and film to take pictures of their everyday surroundings, in a project aptly named InsideOut. The images captured were compelling, revealing candid and tender moments in unexpected situations. These works were also featured at the 2006 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival.

Sim Chi Yin InsideOut01470010
A Thai worker talking to his girlfriend while on a work break at a metal factory in Woodlands Industrial Park. (Image Credit: Kantaphong Wonnawong (Thailand), part of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2006)
Sim Chi Yin InsideOut elisa3_03170037
A worker saying goodbye to her fellow residents at the Madonna Grotto shelter before leaving Singapore. The shelter, run by the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, provided a haven for migrant workers in need. The workers leave when their cases have been resolved. Hence, departures are commonplace and often emotional because of the friendship that has developed among the residents. (Image Credit: Elisa Dirun (Indonesia), part of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2006)

Compared to Day Off, Chi Yin recalls that InsideOut was much better received by Singaporeans. There was also more media attention, as she managed to write a lengthy feature on the exhibition for The Straits Times, illustrated by the workers’ photographs. This stark contrast in reception is something that has stayed with her, a poignant reminder of the country’s uneasiness towards directly lobbying for migrant workers’ rights.

Did Chi Yin ever feel stifled pursuing these projects in such an environment? In some ways, yes, she replies; Singaporeans are conditioned to be safe and are wary of people who are different. But she adds a caveat:

“You don’t really know where the boundaries are, until you actually hit them.”

A leap of faith

As a journalist, Chi Yin was constantly pushing boundaries with a steady stream of stories about the problems migrant workers faced. During her time at The New Paper, she acquired the reputation of a firebrand for arguing with conservative editors under constant pressure from higher-ups not to have her write too aggressively — the details of which she shared in a recent Facebook post.

Feeling burnt out, she decided to engage in an in-depth photography project. From 2004 to 2009, Chi Yin spent her days off, including Chinese New Year and Christmas public holidays, in Central Java, Indonesia, following a few women on their journey to becoming domestic helpers in Singapore. The eye-opening photos she took were compiled into a book, The Long Road Home, which was eventually published by the United Nations International Labour Organisation in 2011, and garnered attention from international news outlets such as CNN.

Midway through working on The Long Road Home, in 2007, Chi Yin was posted to Beijing as The Straits Times’ China correspondent. But working on such projects made her realise that she wanted to return to photography, and to engage in more self-directed projects than to be a reporter.

“I think that the longform, immersive documentary work I did then convinced me that this is what I wanted to spend most of my time doing, not churn more short, forgettable stories on a daily grind,” she recalls.

At the end of 2010, Chi Yin left the cushy, expatriate life of a foreign correspondent for the uncertainties of going freelance. And the projects she has embarked on continue give voice to migrants — among her many award-winning works, she has photographed China’s “rat tribe” of low-wage migrant workers, raised awareness on impoverished migrants dying from lung diseases after working in China’s gold mines, and is now working on an introspective family history project that also echoes of migration, love and loss.

Ten years down the road since being nicknamed “chilli padi” by her former editor, Chi Yin muses that her outrage at social injustice cannot be described as “youthful”.

“I’m not young anymore but I still get outraged. It’s about compassion and humanism and it’s in some of our bellies to do what little we can.”

The fire in her belly for migrant rights continues to burn strong.

Featured Image Credit: Joyce Fang, 2012.


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(UEN 201431998C.)

Vulcan Post aims to be the knowledge hub of Singapore and Malaysia.

© 2021 GRVTY Media Pte. Ltd.
(UEN 201431998C.)