Filmmaker Ng Yiqin on how food can help to connect people

Wong Jia Min
Filmmaker Ng Yiqin used food as a way to frame the stories she wanted to tell. (Photo: Viddsee)

SINGAPORE – Food is an important aspect of most cultures, and nowhere more so than in Singapore, where people often discuss where they plan to have dinner even whilst eating lunch. Adding her voice to the mix is local filmmaker Ng Yiqin, who shared with us in a previous interview about topics that were seen as taboo in Singaporean society.

Now, with the second season of the Viddsee series Memories On A Plate, Ng uses food as a way to frame and tell stories of people from all walks of life, from migrant workers, to home cooks, and even a food scientist.

Ng sat down with us recently to talk about the importance of food in Singapore, and the way it can help connect people from different cultures.

What was the inspiration for Memories on a Plate?

Beyond subsistence or nutrition itself, I think that food can be a window into how we connect with the people around us or the world we live in. That was the premise of the stories. Food is not just nice to eat or looking good, there are also stories hidden. That was how we approached the series, with it being more like a window into each person, like family history or where they come from.

What does food mean to you?

I think it’s a way for me to understand people better, whether I’m travelling or here in Singapore, I think food is a way to understand cultures and a person, so how they live, their lifestyle.

Ng said that the stories of the Indonesian domestic workers involved in the Indonesian Family Network touched her the most. (Photo: Viddsee)

Do you have a favourite story from this new season of Memories on a Plate?

I think the one story that resonated the most was the Indonesian Family Network. I think the dish they presented is not just the dish itself, it also symbolises how they get together in a foreign place and how they try to make this a home away from home. As for why it spoke to me the most, it’s because of their personal stories. Coming here to Singapore, they have many barriers to overcome, versus local workers. Being migrant workers, they have debts to pay and they have different laws, they’re in a different class. Yet beyond these barriers, their resilience and spirit really showed through. In the interviews we conducted, there was a spirit that was very inspiring for me, personally. It also came across in the dish that was presented. Everybody contributed something.

What place do you think food holds in Singapore?

Like what I said earlier, it’s a way to understand our histories and our cultures. And Singapore is a place where many migrant cultures come together. When they come together, they borrow techniques and ingredients from each other, and then come up with something new. They come up with Singaporean-style food like Peranakan food, or our Malay food. This is quite different from Malay food from Malaysia or Indonesian food. It’s Southeast Asian but not completely. Food is a way of understanding how this fusion came about.

How was your approach in filming Season 2 different from filming Season 1?

I think the premise was the same throughout. We used food as a way to explore different parts of the Singapore identity, whether it’s home cooks or migrant workers or personalities. I think that the premise has always stayed the same, but there was more experimenting in the way we edit and shoot.  This season we tried to be a bit more playful and tried to have more slice-of-life shots, like the real life interactions at the markets, we tried to include that in the edit.

I noticed the inclusion of the market scenes as well. Did you try to seek out people who only shopped at markets?

Those were the markets that the subjects usually go to. Prior to filming we asked the stallholders if they were alright with being featured in this.

Private chef Tinoq's attempt to revive the kampung spirit in his home is one of the stories told in the second season of "Memories On A Plate". (Photo: Viddsee)

In the episode about bak kut teh, I noticed that there were quite a lot of graphics used. Could you talk more about that process?

I think that that treatment suited the subject’s personality because as a food scientist, I think he looks at food in a different way from us. He thinks of food as elements. So I think it’s nice to have a bit of that science-y play on things with regards to how we have a little bit of motion graphics. He compartmentalises the way he looks at one ingredient, and breaks it down into compounds, which I thought was interesting. That’s what I meant by being more experimental. It suited him, but not the rest of the profiles.

What was the most challenging thing about filming this season?

Right from the start, I would say casting was the most challenging. The story will make or break the episode, whether it’s a successful or enriching story depends on that. The casting team spent quite a lot of time on that. We had quite specific criteria when it came to selecting stories. We really spent a lot of time online casting.

There was even quite a bit of street casting, where we had to knock on the doors of some restaurant owners. Some were also mentioned by acquaintances. Home cooks were cast usually by word-of-mouth, you can’t find home cooks by knocking on doors. So there was a lot of time trying to gather this group of people. There were also a lot of pre-interviews that were done to assess whether they were suitable. For the story to work, the profiles had to be equally invested in us. It’s not like a commercial story. There’s no payment. They’re spending quite a fair bit of time filming with us, so the story has to resonate with them as well. It’s their story.

A lot of the people featured started off as home cooks, as you mentioned. What would your ideal home cooked meal be?

To me it’s more about the setting and the gathering of friends, the act of making and sharing a meal together rather than the dish itself. But if I had to point to a dish itself, it’s something that needs to be balanced. I want something rich and spicy, but also something more neutral. So the beef noodles episode in Memories On A Plate, that’s a heartwarming meal that has these two elements.

Is there any hope for a third season?

This format is short-form, only five or six minutes. If there were a third season, I would want to explore it in a different format. It could be a longer piece of storytelling, or two profiles that talk about something similar and have parallels. The format would have to change if there were a season three.

Memories On A Plate: Season 2 is available on Viddsee now.