OH! Open House Executive Director Alan Oei on His Art Journey, New World's End, and More

The artist-curator also talks about OH! Stories and what visitors can expect during the experience.
Published: June 21, 2024
OH! Open House Executive Director Alan Oei on His Art Journey, OH! Open House, and "New World's End"
Photo: Courtesy of Alfonse Chiu

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Today, he's the executive director of OH! Open House—an independent arts organisation curating art walks and exhibitions within people's homes and underutilised public spaces. The aim is to connect people with art and Singapore's heritage outside museums or galleries. Oei also helms OH! Stories which is an experimental art group blending art and storytelling through site-specific audio experiences like New World's End—the first permanent experience under OH! Open House.

Unlike your typical tourist walking tour, New World's End uses a fictional love story set in the '60s that allows you to explore the history of the Jalan Besar area. Particularly, it hones in on the Hotel New World collapse in 1986, one of the worst tragedies in Singapore post-war, as well as New World Amusement Park, Singapore's first amusement park.

ELLE Singapore catches up with Oei to talk about his journey in the art world, creating New World's End, and why Singaporeans should see it before it ends.

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Could you tell us about your journey in the art world?

I had just come back from being overseas in the late 2000s and there was an air of possibility and change, whether it was art, design, or civil society. It felt like you could do anything, whereas previously, you had to leave Singapore to encounter any alternative or independent scene. In that way, when we launched the first art walk in 2009, I felt like we were all participating in reshaping Singapore. We had stakes, and it meant something. If I was an artist overseas, it’d always be about myself, but here was my home, and if my art could reveal something about the Singaporean condition, then that was a sense of purpose. So, whether it's curating or making art, it’s always about the particularities of Singapore and OH! Open House is about the alternative stories of it.

What inspired the creation of OH! Open House and OH! Stories?

I’m just making shows I want to see for myself. When I’m travelling, I want to see real lives, real stories, or find an emotional understanding of a foreign city. I don’t really find walking tours that interesting—usually they’re just about arranging a series of convenient locations with photo-ops.  I wanted to be able to go into private houses, see how people live and work, and how their environment shapes their lives. That’s almost all of OH! Open House projects: They are site-specific and shaped by people, places, and stories. Our flagship is the art walk—a guided walking tour where guests visit homes, private spaces and more, to see site-specific art installations around a neighbourhood. Some of our past art walks include Tiong Bahru, Joo Chiat, and this year, in Kampong Gelam. Where OH! Stories is different is that you’re following a story, there are characters, plots, and theatrical sets you enter. My favourite comment from a guest is that you’re inside a Wong Kar Wai film. 

What compelled you and the team to create a story within the Jalan Besar area?

Kaylene Tan, the writer and director of New World’s End, was fascinated by the story of the Hotel New World collapse in 1986, and the New World Amusement Park. Within these two cultural milestones in Singapore, we found both dreams and tragedies were the perfect backdrop for a love story about two very different individuals struggling through the rapid change of Singapore. 

What was the creative process like for New World’s End from conceptualisation to the final product?

This was a creative team brought together by Kaylene Tan, all people who’ve worked with her on numerous occasions. From Brian Gothong Tan (creative director of National Day 2024), to Evan Tan, to NADA, to the actors and actresses, it was a collaborative process. What’s different and extra difficult is that we weren’t working in a controlled environment. Whatever locations we chose for the sets, the story had to be rewritten and this happened several times. I eventually had to come in as a set designer because the original set designer couldn’t work with the constantly changing schedule and story. 

With New World Amusement Park and the tragedy of the Hotel New World serving as elements in the story, what was the process like adapting these key parts of Singapore's history?

Beyond collecting online research and newspaper clippings, we also interviewed people who have memories of New World Amusement Park and the Hotel New World collapse to hear their stories first hand. This helped inform how to flesh out the story, set details etc. One of the uncles we interviewed remembered meeting his now-wife at the amusement park. Another remembered how when Hotel New World collapsed, the whole intersection was blocked off, and many were trapped in a bank nearby. We wanted to make sure that the story we told reflected such lived stories – their nostalgia, their emotions and more.

How would audiences connect to the story’s leads, Kiran and Rosa?

They’re both imperfect flawed characters with their own dreams. Kiran is a rich man’s son who loves bohemian life, he’s an artist and dreamer, a bit of a boy who refuses to grow up, but there’s something fascinating about how much he gives himself over to art. Rosa, on the other hand, had a more difficult background, and so she’s always independent and striving to improve her life even as she holds on to her dream of being a singer in the big lights. It’s been interesting seeing how our guests have been a little polemical, picking either Team Rosa or Kiran, and it says a lot about who they are. 

With the story set in the '60s, what research went into creating the set designs and sourcing props and materials from that era?

The set and props have to be historically accurate of course. So, you have to find out not just what’s historically placed, but were there objects that could reflect some of the milieu changes. For instance, this period of the '60s to '70s was also a period of female empowerment, women participated in the workforce and found a new sense of independence. Johnson Baby and Sam Fong Hoi Tong powders were part of a new consciousness of femininity and were part of Rosa’s daily regimen—it helped us to define her as someone neat, organised and organising her life for the better. On the other hand, Kiran was a budding filmmaker, so we referenced many iconic films in both the set and the multimedia. You want to make a space that feels like Kiran and Rosa really occupied, that they lived, laughed, wept here.

Without spoiling too much, are there any particular elements within the show that you believe are must-sees for the audience?

There’s a secret apartment set along the way. When you enter, you’re full of uncertainty, it’s like walking into someone’s home—and it’s Kiran and Rosa’s home. We picked this location because it was frozen in time, so we kept all of the original mosaic tiles and kitchen space. It’s got a very filmic Hong Kong or 1960s feel. This transport back in time is essential to how you weave in and out of the immersive story.

Will we see more experiences like New World’s End in the near future?

Yes, hopefully! We have already developed two other stories, but we’re raising funds to launch.

Lastly, why should people experience New World’s End before the end of its run?

Singapore changes so fast that we lose touch with our memories, our sense of where we come from. How did such seminal events like the Hotel New World crash or the closure of our first-ever amusement park shape our lives? What did they represent? And how did we forget them so easily? These aren’t questions easily answered, but I think you’ll find some glimpses of truth and dreams, fantasy and fiction through Kiran’s and Rosa’s lives in Jalan Besar. This neighbourhood is rapidly changing, but somehow it feels more real than many of the places we encounter. It’s not always easy to know Singapore, but I think there’s a moment of connection here. 

New World's End is on from now till 14 July 2024 at 85 Desker Road, Singapore 209646. For more information, visit their website.

*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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