While most of us gallivant through the busiest streets of Orchard Road to shop and dine, a troop of straw hat clad individuals set out on their day-to-day bustle armed with water hoses and potted plants. Quite an unlikely profile of a regular Orchard goer, eh? Urban farmers Allan Lim and Bjorn Low might disagree, though. The respective owners of Comcrop and Edible Garden City run rooftop farms on the peaks of *Scape and Wheelock Place.
“They all tell the Singapore story. That’s what’s great about documentaries – they tell real stories, of real people and places,” remarks Lisa Teh, co-director of Growing Roots. This documentary is part of the five-episode series, Singapore Stories, airing on Discovery Channel this July and August in celebration of the nation’s 50th birthday. From migratory birds and one of Singapore’s oldest housing estates to card flourishing and the city’s first-ever marine park, the programme also features four other narratives of an emerging Singapore.
Popspoken caught up with Yong Shu Ling and Lisa Teh, directors of Growing Roots, as they dished on their latest venture. The young, industrious duo are also under Discovery Channel’s on-going First Time Filmmakers initiative. Inspired by Shu Ling’s experience at Chicago’s first urban rooftop farm, Growing Roots explores the trials and tribulations of urban farming in Singapore. Here’s their (SL: Shu Ling, L: Lisa) take on the unique and yet challenging experiences with documentary filmmaking.
On the vision behind ‘Growing Roots’:
SL: Singapore and Chicago have many similarities. Both are dense concrete jungles with beautiful skyscrapers, a diverse population, and a fast pace of life. Growing up in Singapore, the only place I’d seen vegetables come from are the shelves of supermarkets, so when I saw that a city like Chicago was trying to turn every unused rooftop into a green food production space, and witnessed first-hand how it’s possible to grow food in city environments, I wondered whether Singapore had such things too.
L: When Shu Ling told me about her first visit to ComCrop, Singapore’s first rooftop urban farm, and how she enjoyed eating their freshly harvested greens, I couldn’t believe my ears. In our decade-long friendship, I’d never seen Shu Ling eat anything remotely green on her plate. I just had to check this place out for myself! On my first visit, I took a bite of their eggplant, and the rest is history!
On how ‘Growing Roots’ relates to the Singapore audience:
Both: People in Singapore love food. It’s been even said that eating is a national pastime! We’ve been fortunate to have relatively easy access to food – just turn any corner and you’ll find a supermarket where fresh fruits and vegetables are available in abundance. Unfortunately, what many don’t know is that over 90% of our food supply is imported, and a significant amount of it goes to waste daily. Food is too critical a resource to take for granted.
We hope that through watching Growing Roots, the Singapore audience will develop a greater consciousness about where our food comes from, and just how much effort goes into growing it. We also hope everyone will play a part in reducing food waste as well.
On documentary filmmaking:
SL: When working on this documentary for television, we had to take into the account not only the short window of 4 months that we had to film, but also the demographics of the Discovery Channel audience, and the programme structure of having 2 commercial breaks in between. We also knew that the film would play to audiences who are sitting in the comforts of their homes, with many other things competing for their attention. These were factors we had to consider when making decisions about what content to include, and how to craft a story that is both informative and engaging enough to keep audiences from switching the channel.
On how ‘Growing Roots’ affected them:
Both: We must confess that neither of us liked eating our vegetables prior to working on this film! Lisa used to think that salads were “Sad-Lads”, and Shuling was a master of picking peas off her plate.
When our farmer first offered us some arugula harvested fresh from his farm, we were hesitant to try it at first. Afraid that we were going to offend him, we nibbled at the corner of a leaf, and to our surprise, it wasn’t sour or bitter like what we’d been used to growing up. The freshness made such a difference.
Over the course of making the film, we became more and more open to trying new vegetables, and have since started including more greens in our diets. We’ve even grown our own microgreens at home, and harvested them to make a delicious salad!
On filmmaking being a viable career in Singapore:
L: I feel fortunate that my parents are always supportive of what I do. The truth is, I’m still trying to find that balance between practicality and passion. You don’t have to decide right away, but I always believe in being open and trying everything at least once. Don’t be afraid to leave your comfort zone.
SL: I still get asked by my parents “when are you getting a real job?” If you truly love making films, don’t be afraid to buckle down and do everything it takes to make it happen. My advice is, take some time to think about what you truly want to do with your life, and work your tail off to become one of the best in your chosen niche, so you become top-of-mind when people are looking for someone to work with. Life is too short to spend doing something you’re not passionate about.
On how they define the “Singapore story”:
SL: The Singapore story to me is one of resilience. We’ve overcome many obstacles along the way over the last 50 years. As you’ll see demonstrated by our farmers in Growing Roots, they didn’t let our sunny island’s challenges of having limited land and harsh weather stop them from growing food. In fact, they’ve utilised their own skills to innovate and develop ways to grow successfully indoors, on rooftops, and even along narrow corridors!
L: I don’t think the Singapore story needs to be one thing or another. Singapore has so much to offer. Looking at the 5 films made as part of Discovery Channel’s Singapore Stories series, they are all so different, but they all tell the Singapore story.
Growing Roots premieres on 30 July, 9pm on Discovery Channel (StarHub Ch422 and Singtel Ch202). Catch the encore episodes of Singapore Stories from 17-21 August, 6pm daily.