Reconnecting with our seniors with vernacular radios during the COVID-19 pandemic in Singapore

3 Sep 2020
Article by Jo Lim


Practice social distancing, not social isolation.
- John Hopkins Medicine

What did You Say Teahouse / 大声D茶室 / Warung Cakap Apa (Teahouse) is a community arts project created in the initial stage of the COVID-19 lock-down in a bid to connect with seniors living in isolation, and in languages that are familiar to the elderly but are uncommonly heard in the mass media today.

The project is part of an intersectoral community project that creates new artistic content in the vernacular languages (Chinese dialects, Malay and Tamil) for seniors who found themselves physically and emotionally isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the (1) closing of senior activity centres, (2) cessation of social activities and home visits and (3) social distancing measures that actively discourage seniors from venturing out of their home since the virus is known to have more serious impacts on the elderly. Working collaboratively with various social services agencies and with volunteers, the project aims to provide both information and comfort during this confounding period, and beyond.

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Photo: Unsplash

Produced by 3Pumpkins, a local non-profit arts company that was incorporated in 2018 and helmed by Artistic Managing Director Lin Shiyun, the company mission lies in creating inclusive arts-based platforms that connect and build positive relationships for community development and social sustainability for youth and children, such as the Kids Stay Home (during the lockdown) and Tak Takut Kids Club (an emerging community space that provides a safe environment in public rental flat estates for children to interact daily). Hence, Lin’s creative work in the community puts her in a unique position to quickly respond to the predicaments brought forth by the sudden imposed isolation on the elderly from 11 March 2020. However, the isolation of the seniors is a phenomenon she has observed way before COVID-19 struck. As a socially engaged arts practitioner, she realises that the arts can play a significant role to support the needs of this underserved community, particularly the underprivileged seniors.

But conversations with several of them revealed that the problem … (it) has more to do with their sense of displacement in a pandemic-hit offline world and their inability to exploit the online world, which has helped to make the circuit breaker period more bearable for younger generations
- The Big Read: Digitally Estranged, Seniors Struggle with Sense of Displacement in Pandemic-Hit Offline World

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Photo: 3Pumpkins

Lin has always recognised a need to create content in the vernacular languages to engage seniors and to promote intergenerational understanding in the family unit and across society. Particularly for those above the age of 80 - many of them only understand dialects and are hence heavily reliant on social services, their families or community networks for their most basic needs. Some of the underprivileged seniors do not even own a television set, a phone or a radio set. Hence, with the circuit breaker in place, they would not be able to rely on television programmes for information or leisure, and are unable to go online to pass time or stay connected like everyone else.


Theatre practitioners create new contents in the vernacular languages

Theatre exists everywhere, whether it’s digital or physical space. It is how we connect and explore interactions with the listeners/audience/communities.
- Li Xie, theatre practitioner
(Let's Connect the Circuit - Interview with Creators of 大声D茶室 / Warung Cakap Apa)

The first season of Teahouse is funded by Our Singapore Fund under the Ministry of Culture, Community & Youth’s (MCCY).

Season One of Teahouse - Behind the Scene

During the first phase of the circuit-breaker, Lin gathered a small group of theatre practitioners including former DJs Li Xie, Zelda Tatiana and Oliver Chong, and artists helming their own shows for the first time - Moli Mohter, Farez Najid and Doreen Toh - artists versed in the vernacular languages to create new programmes that will appeal to our seniors.

Since mobility is limited during this period, most of the artists had to create independently and record their own programmes in their homes. While former DJs such as Li Xie and Zelda Tatiana were able to put together full audio programmes on their own, other artists recorded voiceover files that were then sent to the technical team for tracks layering and sound engineering. A small team also took care of video editing, transcribing and translating of text before the files were finally uploaded onto social media platforms (Facebook and Youtube) for sharing.

In the first season, the programme ranges from radio plays, storytelling to talk shows. For example, Oliver Chong an acclaimed theatre performer performed the popular Chinese classic, Journey to the West in Cantonese while Ding Yi Music Company provides music accompaniment to his story-telling.  These stories were broadcasted five days a week at 9pm on 3Pumpkins’ YouTube and Facebook pages, and the content will remain accessible to the public, adding to the small pool of content in the vernaculars for interested parties.

Season One Programme:

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Baabuu Time with Aunty Jalyn
▪ Artist: Jalyn Han / Language: Various / YouTube playlist
Baabuu Time with Aunty Jalyn is a community channel that aims to bring across the message of caring, sharing, and the need to look out for each other. In each episode, Aunty Jalyn will invite special guests on show to share their talent and positivity! Baabuu is a familiar sound of van horn in childhood memories, announcing the arrival of goodies at our doorsteps. Every Individual Counts!

Burung Kakak Tua
▪ Artists: Farez Najid and Moli Mohter / Language: Malay / YouTube playlist
Burung Kakak Tua is about Moli and Beep, two Malays searching for their cultural identity through friendly banter and quirky assumptions. The duo seeks to entertain their senior audience with funny anecdotes of misconception in the community, inspiring them to facepalm, shake their heads, smile and discuss the truth amongst themselves while lamenting "Eh eh budak-budak nie, ada ada aje!"

Do you remember?
▪ Artist: Aishwariyah Shanmuganathan / Language: Tamil / YouTube playlist
Do you remember? by Aishwariyah relives memories of childhood stories and oldies for the seniors, as well as introduces the younger generation to folklore and popular culture of the past. In this episode, she tells the story of Thenali Raman, a witty man who found his way to serve as the king’s advisor.

Journey to the West
▪ Artist: Oliver Chong / Language: Cantonese / YouTube playlist
An award-winning actor most recognised for his solo performances, Oliver Chong will relive street storytelling days by performing Chinese classic Journey to the West in Cantonese. In collaboration with Phang Kok Jun as the music director and music accompaniment from Ding Yi Music Company, the work is performed in 18 episodes. While the older generation reminisces captivating stories such as Three Attacks on White Bone Spirit , the younger generation gains an opportunity to learn and understand Chinese culture and vernacular.

▪ Artist: Li Xie / Language: Mandarin & dialects / YouTube playlist
LelioFusion consists of original radio plays, public service announcements, parody news reporting, telephone call-in, fusing audio creativity, quirkiness, nostalgia, imagination, current affairs and stories.

Singapore, Old Stories
▪ Artist: Liu Xiaoyi / Language: Teochew / YouTube playlist
Singapore, Old Stories is presented by Liu Xiaoyi as he talks about food, festivals, street names – from Chang Er to Cheng Ho, from Qian Long to Hsien Loong - that we know of in the past and in the present.

Super Fan Club
▪ Artist: Zelda Tatiana / Language: Cantonese / YouTube playlist
Movies from various eras had their own traits… How do you remember them? Iconic actors and formulaic plots are fond memories of youth and the ‘good old times’. Super Fan Club hosted by Zelda Tatiana will take you cruising through 70 years of Chinese cinema from the 30’s to early 2000, sharing with you the stories and songs that accompany some of the most classic movies and TV series.

Sure or Not? Ah Kee Dare Dare Say
▪ Artist: Doreen Toh / Language: Hokkien / YouTube playlist
Without explicitly saying so, one may be unaware of the many myths and taboos in Singapore. Some of them may sound illogical, bizzare, and some have originated from superstitions and folklore. This show is not aimed at ridiculing folk culture, but to explore knowledge that has been passed down for generations. How many taboos have you heard of, or even experienced?


A partnership across sectors: How our seniors access Teahouse content?

We want to create something that is familiar to them, and that is also easily accessible.
- Lin Shiyun
(Let's Connect the Circuit - Interview with Creators of 大声D茶室 / Warung Cakap Apa)

Teahouse, produced by 3Pumpkins is part of a larger community collaboration with community partners such as Project Audible Cheer, Cassia Resettlement Team, All Saints Home, Outram Community Hospitals and grassroots organisations in order to bring the content to the seniors in the form that can be accessed easily. Each partner plays a distinct role they are best placed to perform, based on their work in the community, to fuel their missions: 3Pumpkins creates the content (Teahouse) which will go into the MP3 radio sets fundraised by ground-ups such as Project Audible Cheer, and distributed by social service agencies and voluntary welfare organisations to the seniors under their care across the island.

Planning for the long haul, rather than a one-off drop-off to the seniors (we do live in the digital age), the contents are pre-loaded in SD cards that are swapped out when the volunteers visit the seniors at their homes. Not only does this allow our seniors to enjoy updated content, volunteers would also be able to gather direct feedbacks and provide any assistance, if required. This also allows the seniors, the direct beneficiaries of this project to influence the creation of future content.

At the end of the first season, 3000 MP3 radio sets were distributed. Feedbacks from the seniors has been positive, with a few commenting that they would play the set very loudly to “occupy their loneliness”. According to the Department of Statistics, 53,800 households (2017) with the head of household age 65 and above, are classified as “living alone”, which makes the 3000 sets distributed a far cry from the quantity required. As 3Pumpkins prepares for Season two of Teahouse (December 2020), they are also planning to raise funds to acquire more of the radio sets for our seniors.

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Left: a set consists of a radio, a speaker, a SD card and a set of ear phones. Right: Seniors holding a radio each.
(Photo: Project Audible Cheer)


Socially engaged arts practice in Singapore

We take time to observe and understand the spaces and their inhabitants, then suggest ways to change habitual practices which are not conducive to social relationships. This is usually done collaboratively, by bringing different groups of people together so that the process enables deep change in how people relate to one another. To me, transforming human relationships and interactions forms the basis of socially engaged-art, or what we call community arts in Singapore.
-Lin Shiyun
(Let's Connect the Circuit - Interview with Creators of 大声D茶室 / Warung Cakap Apa)

So, what is socially engaged arts practices?

According to Grant Kester, socially engaged arts as practiced by contemporary artists and art collectives are defined by the “facilitation of dialogue among diverse communities” which involves the creative collaborative encounters and conversations well beyond the boundaries of traditional institutions. This practice departs from the traditions of “object-making” - such as a painting or a theatre play, making practitioners “context” rather than “content” providers. In these projects, the conversation becomes an integral part of the work “that help us speak and imagine beyond the limits of fixed identities and official discourse”.

In Singapore, community arts has become one of the key pillars of Singapore’s cultural policy after the release of the Renaissance City Plan III (2008) and the Report of the Arts and Culture Strategic Review (2012) which led to major initiatives by National Arts Council (Arts for All) and the People’s Association (PAssionArts) to make arts accessible to the people. The development of community arts was covered under the IPS-SAM Spotlight on Cultural Policy Series - Roundtable on the Development of Community Arts in Singapore on 15 March 2017.

In the roundtable discussion, it was acknowledged that agencies such as the PA have been successful in delivering the “spectacle” of events and bringing large numbers of people together. They were generally large-scale events, focusing on footfalls. What they fail to deliver are meaningful ways for people/communities to engage with the issues they face, especially with difficult or contentious topics. In this sense, our community arts appears to provide a certain level of entertainment and engagement, without wanting to meddle with the complexities of living.

Every single government programme is programme-centric and is determined by the politics of national unity and social cohesion. This portrays a very simple story when the story is not that simple in reality.
- Felicia Low (Roundtable: Beyond Happy Arts for Happy People)

This is where trained practitioners and arts groups come in, to facilitate dialogues and work with the communities, to provide both the context and the content. In the case of Teahouse, with the circuit breaker and social distancing regulations still in place to date, it has created physical barriers between the practitioners and the underserved community. Arguably the social service agencies are supporting the seniors in this project but the deeper engagement between the artists and the communities, such as to co-create content over an extended period of time would not only engage the seniors but can potentially empower them as co-creators. They can be invaluable resources for the creation of content in the vernacular languages for other seniors, by sharing their expertise and experience with their peers and the younger generations.


Looking ahead to Season Two

By the end of season one, 84 episodes have been produced, distributed and broadcasted. Besides targeting the seniors, the project is also designed with the younger generations and healthcare workers/professionals in mind, hence all the broadcasted contents contain subtitles (in English and Chinese).

The contents were also shared with other community partners to encourage sharing within their followings, such as heritage groups with an online presence, and with teachers teaching dialects. The desired outcomes are twofold - to promote intergenerational communication and understanding, and to add to the limited content and materials available, and for free.

From the feedbacks gathered from social service agencies and grassroot associations, there is still a high demand for the radios and the project can be further developed to be a sustainable platform to engage seniors who have no access or are unfamiliar with digital technology. The project also opens up new co-creation possibilities between the social service agencies and the arts community to develop creative ways to engage seniors in the future. While the theatres stay closed, this project has provided a creative outlet, some income and new collaborative opportunities for artists to work across sectors.

In season two, 3Pumpkins is planning for 32 new episodes with a focus on Singapore stories and has planned for deeper engagement with the community through the creative process. Theatre director and one of the artists from season one, Liu Xiaoyi will step up in the second season to provide artistic direction, content wise.

To realise the missions of reconnecting with the seniors with vernacular languages, and to promote intergenerational communication across society will take more than two seasons of curated arts programmes. How does a small arts company get the resources and financial support it needs to keep the programming running beyond the COVID-19 period?

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Photo: Unsplash

Also, there has been little or no dialect programmes produced for the past 40-50 years, so these languages have been effectively “lost” for the younger generations for that amount of time. Though there has been a revival of interest in learning the vernacular languages for sectors working with the elders, the interest is limited. Hence it becomes integral for arts programmes like Teahouse to widen its audience-ship in order to reconnect with our isolated seniors, and to connect them to the society at large.

How does a nation revive a language? 
How does a nation retrieve its lost narratives?
How does a nation socially integrate its ageing population?


Works cited:

Arbaje, Alicia. “Coronavirus and COVID-19: Caregiving for the Elderly.” Coronavirus and COVID-19: Caregiving for the Elderly | Johns Hopkins Medicine, John Hopkins Medicine, 2020,

“Beyond Happy Arts for Happy People”, Mar 15, 2017, Singapore, Tarn How, Tan, Institute of Policy Studies.

“Give.Asia: Project Audible Cheer.” Project Audible Cheer, Givola PL, 2020,

Kester, Grant. “Conversation Pieces: The Role of Dialogue in Socially-Engaged Art.” Conversation Pieces GKester, University of South Florida, 2005,

Ministry of Trade and Industry, 2018, Population Trends 2018,

Wong, Pei Ting. “The Big Read: Digitally Estranged, Seniors Struggle with Sense of Displacement in Pandemic-Hit Offline World.” CNA, Channel NewsAsia, 3 May 2020,

Yam, Max. “Let's Connect the Circuit - Interview with Creators of 大声D茶室 / Warung Cakap Apa.” Arts Republic, 5 June 2020,

Yeo, Skye. “Project Audible Cheer Brings Happines to Needy and Isolated Elderly through Music during Covid-19.” Project Audible Cheer Brings Happines to Needy and Isolated Elderly through Music during Covid-19 | Press Releases | Asia | Sustainable Business, Project Audible Cheer, 11 May 2020,


Creative and production team of Teahouse Season 1:

Managing Artistic: Director Lin Shiyun
Music Director: Phang Kok Jun
Assistant Producer: Cheryl Gan
Production Manager: Ang Cheng Yan
Technical Support: Farez Najid
Accounts: Pat Ng

Chinese/Dialect Programmes
Video Editor:Eric Lim You Wei
Transcription, Translation: Jodi Chan, Max Yam
Key Visuals: Ric Liu

Malay Programme
Video Editor: Paradise Pictures
Transcription, Translation: Aqmal Noor
Key Visual: Hashima Hassim

Tamil Programme
Music composer: Jay Lim
Video Editor: Horsemen
Transcription, Translation: Aishwariyah Shanmuganathan
Key Visual: Ric Liu


This article was originally titled What did You Say Teahouse / 大声D茶室 / Warung Cakap Apa: Reconnecting with our seniors with "vernacular radios" during the COVID-19 pandemic in Singapore.

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