“Remember Chek Jawa” is an independent documentary by Eric Lim. It chronicles the efforts of individuals who volunteered to help out with Joseph Lai‘s biodiversity survey of Chek Jawa, one of several efforts that would provide feedback to government.

Many efforts and factors eventually contributed to the deferment of reclamation at Chek Jawa (see http://chekjawa.nus.edu.sg/backgrd.htm). Eric Lim was particularly inspired by one element that he witnessed – the efforts of the ordinary, urban Singaporean’s efforts to help out a tiring, muddy and incomprehensible biodiversity survey, at a time when all hope had been lost.

The video shoot was sporadic and conducted between July 2001 – 2004. Post-production was an ongoing process from 2001-07 whenever my schedule allowed. It was finally completed in March 2007. The film was first unveiled at Wildlife Asia on 13 Mar 2007.

N. Sivasothi (22 Aug 2007)

I asked Eric Lim a few questions when we setup this webpage:

“How and when did you find out about Chek Jawa?”

“I first heard about Chek Jawa from Ria Tan in July 2001, who was my fellow volunteer with the Docents in the Singapore Zoo. As I listened to her describe a wonderful oasis filled with amazing marine biodiversity that only reveals itself at low tide, I was intrigued and decided that I must visit it as soon as possible.

I was told this wonderful gem will soon be buried by land reclamation in a few months time for future development projects. As Ria and her friends were documenting the biodiversity of Chek Jawa through photos, I decided I would contribute by documenting it in video.

Chek Jawa is so fascinating and it kept me coming back for the next 3 years.”

“Many things going on at Chek Jawa, why focus on the biodiversity survey?”

“In August 2001, I got to know Joseph Lai through Ria. She was helping him plan a biological survey to record the plants and animals that could be found there.

The project was called “Remember Chek Jawa” and would be carried out on 22nd August 2007. The data collected was meant to serve as a permanent record of what would be lost if reclamation was carried out, as well as for submission to the government to reconsider the fate of Chek Jawa.

At that time, most of them felt that this record would simply serve as an obituary for Chek Jawa, as the reclamation was to begin in just a few months. As I listened to their plans, I was amazed by the concept of the project and that it is conducted mainly by untrained volunteers and completely self-funded.

Joseph Lai, the project leader, a botanist, was not a trained biologist. How was he going to do it? And the roughly 50 volunteers needed to cover a land area of about 1 square kilometer!

It did not help that the best time for the survey was a weekday morning. Other then a few retirees, most of the volunteers were students and working professionals. They took leave to come out the previous night for the dawn’s effort. I was surprised that they would be willing to work so hard, especially so when there was little hope.

I decided I needed to tell the story of this effort through film and at the same time, show Singaporeans some of the precious natural inheritance we still have.”

“What were the challenges you faced while making the film?”

Filming started from Aug 2001. The filming for the survey story was only completed in March 2007. After that, I carried on filming the wildlife at Chek Jawa till 2004. The opportunities for filming the wildlife are only a window of about 2 hours each time during the low tides, which only happens about 3 or 2 times each month. Sometimes we have to be there as early as 3am just to catch the tide. It was much harder than I expected…

This is my first documentary and essentially a “one man show” all the way.

Overwhelmed by the complexity of the Chek Jawa story:
There were just so much material and so many angles through which to tell the Chek Jawa story: political, natural history and active citizenry. I shot a total of about 1500 minutes of footage. Attacking the political angle was very attractive initially, but I quickly realized I don’t have the resources to do it justice. Finally, I decided to just concentrate on the survey story.

Gaining trust:
As Chek Jawa involved sensitive political concerns at that time, I had a lot of problem in the beginning convincing Joe and his team to let me document their efforts. I think the main issue was that they didn’t want the media attention in case people thought they were just out for attention.

Secondly, I guessed they were worried that I might portray them as anti-social elements! It was only at the eleventh hour and after much assurance that they agreed to let me film the survey.

However, I was not allowed to conduct any interviews or disturb the survey process. That was tough but I decided to go ahead and keep a low profile as much as possible.

The interviews in the film were only recorded a month after the survey. I think they finally gave in to my relentless persuasion so that I will stop pestering them. Ha!

Direct, shoot and record sound:
Due to a non-existent budget, I was unable to hire assistants or a sound recordist. Anwyay there were some crazy hours involved (e.g. 2am- 6am). So I basically did everything myself.

I carried all my gear in a backpack and it was physically very challenging having to cover that 1 square kilometer area alone, during the survey. I could not leave anything on the shore because there’s no one to look after and I have to have everything I needed with me to capture animal or people in action spontaneously. Times like this calls for ingenuity and improvisations in shooting techniques.
During other trips to shoot only the marine life, some kind friends did brave the elements and helped me out with lights, tripod and spotting animals.

The editing marathon
Having shot and directed everything myself, it was really tough to edit objectively after some time. Eventually friends graciously took time to examine my first cut and gave me some much needed affirmation and ideas! Amongst them were Gek Lisan and Alvin Lee who helped fine tune my first draft. Their fresh eyes saw things I had missed, which was great!

They also gave me a lot of encouragement to persevere and finish the film. This experience made me further appreciate the significance and joy of collaborative efforts in film-making.

Finding time:
I could only work on this film in my free time; mostly after office hours as I had a full-time job till 2003. After that it was even harder working as a freelance cinematographer. Family and social lives suffered. I think my friends gave up asking me out after a while.

“When there’s no one to help you, you have to help yourself.”
– N Sivasothi (Research Officer, Raffles Museum of Biodiversity & Research, NUS)

This is something you said about the survey effort during your interview. As I listened to this over and over again during the editing sessions and looking at the volunteers’ efforts in the survey, I was constantly encouraged to press on whenever I feel like giving up. It had been a long and tedious process of gathering information and resources and making things happen. However, after some time, I also learned when and how to let go.

Being quite a perfectionist, it was really hard to decide the film is completed. But I guess, it is time to move on…

THANK YOU to all who had walked with me and pushed me on in my journey of making this film. That’s the best part!

One Response to “Background”

  1. Susanna Ho said

    Kudos to all who are involved in the process….. and it is amazing how Eric actually managed to capture footage of the process. I was helping with the survey of anemones and it was hard even w/o any equipment, let alone bulky ones!
    I am now in Bendigo, Australia and will not be back till Dec for my semester break…. at the same, it seems painful to be missing such a great movie. Would there be any possibilities that it will be sold as DVDs or something? I’ll love to purchase them when they are available. Kindly keep me posted at susannaho@mac.com…. Very much appreciated.

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