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You might have seen this video of hawkers busy at work in this Bedok South hawker centre even before the crack of dawn.
Shot by a YouTuber couple, whose channel is called “Chengdu Family”, it rapidly garnered thousands of views among local Singaporean audiences for its quaint take on the life of ordinary Singaporean hawkers who work through the night before the sun comes up, in time to serve breakfast to the early risers of the area.
Among the compliments commenters have left for the couple who hail from the Chinese city of Chengdu, some said they were touched by the sincerity the video exudes, and that they were glad to have learnt more about their own country through the lens of non-citizens.
Filmed in a short documentary style with a heartfelt voiceover, the subjects were presented as they were, raw with no added embellishment.
Speaking toMothership via a video call, Nelson Liu and Cecilia Chen – the husband and wife duo who make up “Chengdu Family” – said they simply wanted to show their lives here in Singapore through the perspective of someone who may not have been born here, but have made the country their home.
Sharing more details about the video, which was part of their “neighbourhood series” – they have also done similar videos in Bedok and Tanglin Halt as well, they said they simply wanted to share with their audience one of their favourite breakfasts that their neighbour had introduced them.
“Nanyang breakfast is everywhere, but their bread is really different and together with their tea, the meal is really good,” Chen enthused.
The couple also surmised that such videos are popular among Singaporeans partly because no other creators were doing the same thing.
“Apparently, our Singaporean viewers, which form the majority of our audience, love to see how we look at Singapore,” Chen shared, adding that she and her husband were surprised when “a young English-speaking Singaporean” came up to them once and told them he was a fan of their channel.
Before this happened, they thought only Mandarin speakers watched their channel, Chen explained.
To Liu and Chen, highlighting the sheer effort and hard work that hawkers put in behind the scenes is also something they wish to do through their videos.
“I’ve been eating hawker food in Singapore since young, as a child. And when you tuck into your meal, you’re only thinking about whether the food is good, you’re rarely thinking about the hawker behind the food, and you don’t see the work they’ve put in,” Chen said.
The couple also sees food as a “bridge between Singapore and China, or Sichuan”, where they’re from.
“Good food doesn’t come by every day, so when we see something good, we want to introduce that to others,” she added.
Despite the popularity of such videos among their audience – their three “neighbourhood” videos combined have garnered around 270,000 views – Liu and Chen have no plans at the moment to pump them out as part of their regular content.
That can be a rather unusual move, as most content creators on YouTube or any other social media platform typically try to cater to their audience by posting content that they know will get them the most views.
Explaining their outlook towards their channel, which was started when the pandemic hit, Liu said, “I think a rather major characteristic that our channel has is ‘sincerity’, and ‘sincerity’ is something that the audience can feel.”
“If we feature a hawker centre or a place just for the sake of featuring it, even without us having much thoughts or attachment towards it, that wouldn’t be us, that wouldn’t be what our channel is about.”
Liu further shared that although it only took around a week for them to produce the “Bedok South at 4am” video, the voiceover they included took longer than that, as it was “a culmination of thoughts and feelings” that they’ve gathered over the years living in the area as Bedok residents.
They further shared that they had first resisted filming Tanglin Halt when it was first reported around mid-2021 that the estate – one of the oldest in Singapore – would be demolished by 2024 to make way for redevelopment.
“We knew that if we made a video on this place, people would definitely watch it as the news was still rather new at the time. But Tanglin Halt is actually an unfamiliar place to us, and if we simply push out a video just to ride on the trend, we would lose the element of sincerity,” Liu explained.
In the end, it was a comment left by one of their followers that prompted them to pick up their camera and get cracking.
“(The follower) left a lengthy comment that detailed his connection to the estate over the years. That was when I realised I could look at the place from the point of view of someone who has had similar experiences,” Liu said, adding that old neighbourhoods are not unfamiliar to him as he had grown up in one as well.
“We decided to go early in the morning as old neighbourhoods, with its elderly residents, tend to wake up earlier than other neighbourhoods,” Liu said.
So resolute were the couple towards their philosophy of only producing videos of subjects that they feel for, they are willing to take relatively low views in their stride when a video doesn’t do as well.
“Which content creator doesn’t want their videos to go viral? It can be disappointing to see our videos slump in views, of course. But it’s something that we’re willing to trade off in return for making videos that we’re personally touched and inspired by,” Chen said.
“If we’re led by the hype, we wouldn’t be ourselves anymore. And we want to be true to ourselves.”
Having sunk their roots here in Singapore – Liu moved over to be with Chen in 2017 after they got married, while Chen has been living in Singapore since she was 12 – the couple has come to see the island state as their second home.
Singapore also holds a special place in their hearts, as together with Malaysia, it was the place where they found their first audience.
Their travel vlog in West Malaysia, which was taken as part of their honeymoon trip, has racked up more than 1.6 million views since it was posted in July 2020.
Probably their most watched video since they started the channel, it had gone viral among a predominantly Malaysian audience, some of whom left supportive comments saying that the video captured the spirit of Malaysia, and even inspired them to travel overland in Malaysia themselves.
The couple had not expected the video to blow up.
This was because the feature length travel vlog, which runs over 100 minutes, was a rare format on YouTube, where shorter, more bite-sized clips tend to be shared and viewed a lot more times.
The video helped contribute to their channel’s growth, and as the couple made more videos in Singapore, their content resonated with a group of their audience.
“I grew up in Chengdu, and I’ve been making films since my university days in Zhuhai and Hong Kong, but my first audience weren’t from these places, it was from Singapore and Malaysia, so I have very special feelings towards these countries,” Liu said.
He further shared that their followers made them feel at home in Singapore as whenever the couple runs into people who know them through their channel, they are treated like regular friends, rather than people who are idolised simply because they have a public presence.
These followers often have a word of encouragement for the couple, who said meeting their fans in real life helps motivate them and drive them in their work. Still, there are some who might decide to get a little cheeky.
“Sometimes they would be so blunt as to say things like, ‘It’s been a while since you went to the gym right?’” Liu said while giving a small chuckle.
Despite them being complete strangers, Liu and Chen don’t get offended by these remarks as they come from a place of care and concern. “It’s like friendly banter between friends,” Chen said.
Liu also recounted a time when a follower bought him a beer once after they saw in one of their videos that he managed to chug half a can without taking any breaks.
And sometimes, it’s these frequent interactions with locals who appreciate their work that make them feel like they belong.
Chen added, “We don’t have any family here, it’s just us two, so when our followers see us in public, approach us and encourage us, it feels like we have a family here as well.”
Another unique thing about their channel, as Chen pointed out, is that they rarely receive negative comments online, if any – a rather rare phenomenon in today’s internet culture where remarks made under the cloak of anonymity can be rather critical or even demeaning.
Elaborating further on how they’ve settled into their home in Singapore and found a sense of belonging here, Liu surmised, “The most important thing is not to stick labels onto anyone you meet, and just treat them as individuals, whom they are.”
"And most important of all, have an open heart," Chen added.
If you want to hear more about Cecilia Chen's experiences in Singapore after moving here, tune in to our Facebook page at 9pm this Friday (Mar. 18). Debate champion Pang Ying, whose achievements are well-known in China, will also be sharing her thoughts as to how Singapore has played a formative role in her life.
Also tune in on Thursday (Mar. 17), 9pm, to listen to two Singaporean entrepreneurs, Francis Low and Jackson Kwa, as they share how they managed to eke out a path of their own abroad in China.
These speakers appeared at "Singaporean Trailblazers Abroad: China edition", an event hosted byMothership in partnership with Business China.
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Top image via Chengdu Family