“Bazaars of Kyrygzstan” exhibit in Singapore 12JUL

SATay Bazaars of Kyrgyzstan

If you’re in Singapore this Friday, 12 July at 6pm, and fancy a tipple while listening me drone on about Central Asia, come on down to SPRMRKT (2 McCallum Road) for the launch of my exhibit “Bazaars of Kyrgyzstan”, which runs through September.

SPRMRKT is a popular London-styled bistro in Singapore’s financial district, run by my high school friend Quek Sue-shan and her very talented chef cousin Joseph Yeo. They’ve received nothing but rave reviews for simple but fresh and delicious foods, excellant service and a great ambience.

Sue-shan is a woman of many talents and vision, having studied art in London and delving deep into a real estate business. She envisioned SPRMRKT to be more than about food and has used her space to promote and support the arts, including exhibitions and art collaborations with emerging artists.

Back in February, over SPRMRKT’s (in)famous sticky toffee pudding, we got to talking about a collaboration. Why not feature another form of retail space like SPRMRKT in SPRMRKT? Trade bazaars came to mind. Readers know I dig them in all shapes and form.

Months went by in a blur of countless Whatsapp messages in the dead of the night, endless emails and Dropbox transfers, the “Bazaars of Kyrgyzstan” exhibit was born. But we didn’t stop there (we’re both products of a very ambitious high school), Sue-shan wanted to do build an art project inspired by my time at SPRMRKT. I’ll share more of that in a different post!

So T-minus one day. I’m flying into Singapore tonight like the rock-star that I am, for a modest but very personal show on my favorite subject other than Shanghai. If you have friends in my hometown, please spread the word via the blog’s FB page. I’ll be talking about my ongoing documentary work on Central Asia and a little about Shanghai Street Stories.

Sue-shan has generously featured both an exhibit introduction and artist interview of yours truly on their blog. Below are a few excerpts and some previously unpublished photos. For more, check out “SPR MRKT: 3 minutes with Sue Anne Tay”.

Kyrgyzstan Ala-too Square

1. I guess the question on quite a few of our minds is… what is Kyrgyzstan like?

Kyrgyzstan is a dream for any nature lover. The landscapes are simply stunning as the country is mostly made up of mountains, valleys, glaciers, gorges and clear lakes (most famously, Issyk Kul Lake). Hence, eco-tourism is a major driver of the local economy.

A drive from the capital Bishkek in the north starts with beautiful snow-capped mountains and ends in the southern provinces surrounded by lush, tropical landscapes of Fergana Valley. In between, you see herders with hundreds of sheep, horses and yak dotted along highways and over mountains because the Kyrgyz are historically semi-nomads with a strong tribal culture. There was no concept of a sovereign state until the territory came under the Russian empire and later Soviet Union. Independence only came in 1991, so politically it is a young country.

I find Kyrgyz to be very friendly due to the tourism culture and also very laid back. The Kyrgyz are predominantly Muslim (around 80%) with a more secular brand of Islam as they co-exist (though not always peacefully) with minority ethnic Russians, Uzbeks and Tajiks. The sense of tradition varies; people in the capital Bishkek mainly speak Russian. As a Tsarist Russian and Soviet administrative centre, Bishkek is like a sleepy East European town with strong Russian influences. But as you move south, the Kyrgyz language and semi-nomadic cultural practices are more deeply rooted.

Being landlocked by Xinjiang province in China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan makes a first great stop for a really unique travelling experience.

2. From growing up to living in a diverse and cosmopolitan city, could you relate to the Kyrgyz and their culture? Could they relate to you?

I’m pretty unabashed when it comes to approaching strangers and had a ball of a time talking to pretty much anyone who could understand me! It helps that I can manage a smattering of Russian, and younger people in cities are more comfortable with English.

In my time there, college students left the deepest impression, especially in the capital Bishkek. If there was anything good the Soviets left behind, it’s a strong emphasis on education. Prospect Mira (or Peace Street) is lined with universities and colleges and I spent a few afternoons talking to students who spoke about their hopes and aspirations, for themselves and their country. I think that’s a universal theme that really closes any cultural gap.

Kyrgyzstan Manas University

They talk about how Kyrgyzstan’s cities are teeming with well-educated young people but given few good opportunities. The country is still less developed compared to say Kazakhstan, Russia and China, so everyone wants to leave for better prospects. They often go to Russia to be construction workers, shop keepers and if lucky, students. No matter how tough or discriminatory life can be in Moscow, wages are still significantly higher than back home. I see these problems in China and across Southeast Asia, so I think it’s easier to relate to people than one thinks. 

Kyrgyzstan Osh Bazaar Bue Lady

Head over to the SPR MRKT blog for the rest of the interview where I talk about street photography, Shanghai’s cafe culture and upcoming projects. Spread the love!



  • Reply July 11, 2013

    Adam Daniel Mezei

    Hopping over right now to read the rest of Sue-shan’s interview with you, but I remember when you took this trip — I believe it was the year before last — and I was eagerly awaiting the next batch of your photos to emerge with each daily dispatch.

    I love how you’ve been coloring between the lines and spaces here with play-by-play…and I can just see you approaching those students for an interview and a sit-down. Totally.

    I had opportunity to head to Bishkek in the fall of 2010 — don’t know if you remember when I mentioned it at the time — with a former girlfriend of mine who worked for the UN in Copenhagen, but at the time there were elections and we were concerned — or at least the diplomatic team — was concerned that since I’d be the only one who *wasn’t* traveling on a diplomatic passport that it might be difficult to evacuate me in the event of civil unrest. Normally, I’m game for that sort of action, but since I’m not trained as, say, a war photographer is for that sort of on-the-ground responsiveness (I mean, I’m very street smart, but I’m not Janine Di Giovanni or James Nachtwey or my all-time favorite Gerda Taro/Robert Capa combination), I was concerned, especially since I’d be going there with just a few hundred USD in my pocket and not much in the way of wiggle room. So it didn’t take place, long story short, and I’ll be sating myself with your photos and anecdotes of same as well, if that’s alright by you.

    Just wanted to wish you a wonderful afternoon in SG and I would be SO — and I mean *beyond* — honored to meet you one of these fine days, SAT. You and I would have so much to discuss, artistically…


    • Reply July 20, 2013

      Sue Anne

      Adam, sorry for my late reply. You’ve mentioned your time in Kyrgyzstan ebfore and clearly it has resonated strongly with you. I’ve never photographed in a conflict, I can’t imagine it’s easy and one has to be well-trained for that. I’ve always wanted to read about Nachtwey’s experience, believe there is a documentary out there. The latest one is “Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington.”, I saw Restrepo and believed the director had consulted Hetherington who had subsequently died in Libya. Hope to talk in person as well! Cheers.

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