What do a retired army officer, a beautician and a lorry driver have in common? No, this isn't a set-up for a cheesy joke — the common thread lining these personalities form the basis of Grace Baey's latest exhibition, 8 Women. Her series on the transgender community stems from a larger project to highlight the diversity in Rowell Road, an enclave in Little India. While known to many as the street that's home to Indian grocers, the occasional hipster cafe and some of the best South Indian cuisine, Baey was struck by the diversity of the communities who live and socialise there. The 30-year-old herself spends time at the coffee shop on the street, in between volunteering for Transient Workers Count Too, a non-profit organisation that runs a soup kitchen for injured or out of work migrant workers.
I meet Baey at Grey Projects, the gallery housing her exhibition, to find out more. The petite photographer walked me through her photographs, which depict colourful and intriguing characters from different racial backgrounds — Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian — across different ages. The youngest is Efa, a woman in her early thirties who stands rather awkwardly in a black dress. The oldest, a 70-something woman named Margaret, wears her favourite butterfly dress and poses dramatically against a wall with graffiti saying, "Killa". According to Baey, this popular character used to be a "Bugis street lady", a term used to describe escorts working in the strip in its debaucherous heyday.
Why did you decide to embark on this project?
Initially, I wanted to do a project looking into the day in the life of a transgender person. I've been around the area for a few years now and made some friends, and I wanted to use photography to learn about these new friends that I made. I was a bit disturbed by how ignorant I was about the transgender community. But as I got to know them better I realised that they were very keen on portraits. They love to pose.
How did you approach these women?
I was already hanging out with friends around the area who I photograph, and pick out the best image and print to give out. I saw Nicole, told her what I was doing: A fun and light-hearted project — choose a spot that means something to you or that is fun, and pose. She must have been thinking, "what is this person doing in the middle of the night carrying a light stand and a camera?"
What was her reaction?
She was keen, and I was like, "okay, where do you wanna take the portrait?". She pulled out a chair from a coffee shop and placed it in the middle of the road and said, "come, lets take a picture."
Apologies for the bluntness — but how did you know that these people are in fact transgender women? Because in some instances, you can't really tell, can you?
Through friends. The pictures try to highlight as well that they're not any different. Usually a lot of pictures taken of transgender women are them in the shadows, so I wanted to put them in the limelight. I wanted them to be fashion portraits.
You once did a series photographing women around licensed brothels. This time, did you at any point felt that you were out of your comfort zone?
Yes. I had to negotiate my position constantly. But after a while as I got to know them better, I would hang out at their homes. I think it helped that I knew most of their friends before.
What surprised you about these women?
How open they were. I mean, I hardly knew them but they would invite me into their homes to chill. They were really nice, I'd meet them for the first time and they would chat as if they're your friends. Its not a typically Singaporean experience where people are a bit reserved and such.
How do you intend on taking this exhibition further?
I'd like to go more in depth into their lives. A friend and I are talking about doing a play on the lives of eight transgender women. One thing that struck me through conversations with some of them is that even the term "transgender", they find it discriminatory. After having gone through a sex change, you are officially a woman — why still have that transgender term?
Do you think our society is more receptive of transgender women?
It depends on who you interact with. When we were at Rendezvous Hotel during the transgender pageant and the contestants were using the ladies bathroom, someone complained to the security guard saying that they're not supposed to be there. Do you expect them to go to the male toilet? Sometimes you can tell that people are staring a bit longer — especially when they talk. People aren't hostile, it's just a natural reaction.
8 Women: Photo Exhibition by Grace Baey is showing at Grey Projects, 6B Kim Tian Road. For more info, click here.