What future paths does an ex-offender have?
To be honest: I, too, thought that their goal was to simply reintegrate. Lie low. Prevent from re-stirring the proverbial pot.
However, is that really their only option? Architects of Life disagrees. A social enterprise that specialises in working with ex-offenders, they believe in the contrary — the potential for ex-offenders to be figures of hope rather than stigma; To help them matter in our society.
I interviewed three wonderful people involved in Architects of Life, to get their unique perspectives on its initiatives. I began by venturing to sit down with its Executive Director Low Yi Juan, to get a sense of the enterprise’s vision.
When asked about Architects of Life’s message — Stereotypes to Archetypes, Yi Juan expresses this with great enthusiasm.
“These people can achieve far greater than what the ordinary individual because of what they have gone through,” she conveys, smiling.
“Their past is not a stain but can be used to inspire and do good. They encourage others to heed good influences, and with insight from their experiences, they want others not to follow in their footsteps.”
A New Page
With international travel out of the way in 2020, the public took a good hard look at what the local fare had to offer.
As Yi Juan simply puts it: “People wanted something unique, new and interesting: they were looking for fresh local experiences, local stories.”
Thus, amid Covid-19, Architects of Life and their team of volunteers set to work, seeking a solution to a growingly hungry market.
Clicking on an introductory video courtesy of Architects of Life, the sight is a bit bizarre. “We are your gang leaders!” remark a couple of previous ex-offenders. They stand in the walkway of Pagoda Street clad in Architects of Life shirts, arms slung around each other, clearly excited to share.
“Oi! Tour leader, lah!” one of them corrects, laughing. And yes: tour leader.
Triad Trails was the resultant brainchild of Architects of Life. Singapore’s first-ever tours led by ex-secret society members, the tour leaders lead you down the pavements of Chinatown. However, the focus is not on the shiny souvenirs one can buy along the busy streets, nor is it on the architecture.
“Rather, it focuses on the historical value of Chinatown,” Yi Juan says steadily, “as the tour leaders share about the seedy underbelly of colonial Singapore, home to triads, drugs, and crime: even intertwining with the personal stories of the ex-offenders’ struggles with crime.”
For the nitty-gritty of the tour, I sat down with our friendly resident tour leader and ex-offender, Notle Chew, to describe the two and a half hours spent with his attendees.
Having been interested in history and stories for years, and reading up on Chinese history whilst in prison, the tour leader is passionate about his role, as well as his tour sessions.
The walking tour is structured in two parts. Firstly, there is a one-and-a-half-hour walking tour around the landmarks of Chinatown, the current route stretching from Boat Quay to Pickering Street.
Today, while Pagoda Street’s ‘dens’ only offer souvenirs packaged in crinkly plastic, tour attendees find it fascinating that the ground they are standing on once belonged to weary coolies, as well as restless gang members of the past.
Some people may be puzzled about the connections between these figures of the past and ex-offenders today, as Yi Juan had promised earlier: with 200 years of distance, the cityscape of shophouses and opium dens replaced with sleek metal buildings, what’s there to find in common? How do these entirely different spaces intertwine?
Yet, the parallels, when pointed out, are all too similar.
Feeling out of place, neglected, or isolated, individuals: lonely immigrants coming off the boats of China and India, draw similarities to lonely children in the modern-day.
The search for somewhere to belong is universal, after all — usually culminating in the desire to seek companionship and brotherhood in large groups.
Immigrants would burrow into secret society groups pledging protection and money. Modern children would seek or be roped into gangs pledging friendships and excitement.
This principle carries forward from secret societies of the past to the gangs of today, making the ex-offenders’ stories all the more important: that we cannot simply pass immediate judgement, as we are not privy to their internal struggles: possibly loneliness, poverty, neglect, that had driven them to such actions.
To facilitate an understanding of ex-offenders, their backgrounds, and struggles, this then brings us to Notle’s favourite part of the tour: the dining-in.
Yes, after a long hour and a half of walking, the package gets their attendees to sit down for a dinner with their tour leaders, trading stories over warm and homey food.
“We share our experiences, encounters with gangs, how the prison was like,” Notle shares. Their candour enriches their attendees’ understanding of ex-offenders, as they no longer view them as formidable silhouettes behind bars — but as friends; viewing them as people who they can genuinely bond with, and not strangers whom they can judge off the bat.
“If we are comfortable, we also share our emotional stories about how families are broken up, and the struggles we had gone through, or even are going through now,” Notle confesses. “I actually teared up during some dinner sessions myself.”
Apart from simply providing new experiences for locals, the true impact of the Triad Trails initiative is more than meets the eye. A multi-prong impact scale is what Yi Juan promises — on ex-offenders, the general public, as well as volunteers.
When prompted about the rationale for ex-offenders donning unexpected, new roles as ‘tour leaders’, Yi Juan confirms an optimistic way forward.
“Triad Trails actually opens up many more opportunities for them,” she explains. “They are not just limited to the typical employment an ex-offender enters: menial factory work, or odd jobs, such as on-and-off deliverymen.”
She promises them a greater sense of legitimacy, being acknowledged and certified by an institution as established as the Singapore Tourism Board. “This grants them a steady, reliable livelihood, as well as another viable career path,” she concludes.
The ex-offenders themselves have also found inspiration in their newly-minted tour lanyards.
Notle shares his story brightly — he has strengthened his interpersonal skills, becoming “more mindful and sensitive” to others’ needs, such as briefing his attendees on safety measures, ensuring there are no health issues, and making sure no one is left behind on their trek.
Notle also adds that the knowledge he has gained through being a tour leader has greatly enriched his understanding of Singapore.
“In prison, I learnt about China’s history. It was really rewarding to do research for Triad Trails then, to find the information I learnt in the past complementing what I’m doing today.”
He follows this up with a series of questions that even make me ponder Singapore’s history myself.
“Why are Chinese Singaporeans predominantly Cantonese, Teochew and Hokkien? Why did opium become such a valuable commodity? Why is a Samsui woman statue located in the middle of my tour route? I needed to get these answers! And so I researched and gained lots of inspiration from my sources, thanks to being a tour leader,” he says while stifling a laugh.
A Fresh Perspective: for you and me!
Moving forward, the positive impacts don’t stop there. Volunteers have come together to share their gratitude for the social change the tour has brought about: to destigmatize ex-offenders as a whole.
Speaking to Sarah Tso, a longtime volunteer of Architects of Life, as well as a key member helming the ropes of Triad Trails, affirms the social impact of this initiative
“There is still this mindset in society that fixates on labels: they think they know you, after just knowing one thing about you. In the context of ex-offenders, they might think they might harm them. However, they may not have even personally met and understood them yet,” Sarah comments.
Sarah’s observations are rightfully backed up by local studies, stating that ‘an important contributor to stigmatisation is a lack of contact with the target population’: that inherent biases build up as a result of ‘speculation’ and ‘fear’.
However, repairing this divide is precisely where Triad Trails comes in: facilitating honest, personal interaction between the group and their leader on a familiar and equal scale, bringing them authentically closer together.
Through sharing their personal struggles and transformation to become the face of this initiative, the ex-offenders affirm this belief: “I am proud of what my past has taught me, but I am leaving it behind. I want to pursue an anti-crime message, to positively impact others.”
“In fact, some tour members and their leaders have forged such strong bonds within the few hours of their time together, that they even want to extend their dinnertime,” Sarah recounts. “The ex-offenders’ stories of their pasts aren’t sources of shame either, but rather talking points to build mutual understanding.”
This receptiveness Sarah lauds is only testament to the success of Triad Trails, where this fear to approach ex-offenders is traded for enthusiasm and openness.
The Heart of the Operation
Moving to the backstage of the operation, the positive impacts of the initiative are no less felt.
As a volunteer, Sarah also feels this incredible warmth towards the ex-offenders. “Working with them was really lovely. Their personalities are all so vibrant and unique; they really believe in the work that Architects of Life puts in to create new opportunities for them.”
She sums up her experiences with a smile. While working alongside these men and women to reach their new goals, the volunteers themselves are also constantly learning new things as well — growing from this experience together.
As the new year opens to new possibilities, Architects of Life is constantly improving Triad Trails to deliver its inspiring message. You can find more information on Triad Trails and its evolution on their exclusive page, or catch other initiatives by Architects of Life on theirs!