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On Sundays, We Play: Portraits of Community and Resilience

Being a migrant in a new country can be confusing, lonely, and heartbreaking. Anyone who has ever moved to a different country with no family or support networks will understand firsthand the struggles of being separated from their loved ones.

In Singapore, migrant workers make up a significant portion of our population. Yet, how much of their inner world do we actually know? On Sundays, We Play is a photobook documenting the strength of migrant domestic workers through an exploration of their weekly volleyball tournaments.

The photobook, produced by a team of sociologists and photographers comprising Kristine Aquino, James Loganathan, Selvaraj Velayutham, and Amanda Wise, is a visual ethnography spanning over the course of several years. The book platforms the voices of women domestic workers, showcasing their strength and resilience as breadwinners of their families. I had the opportunity to not only look at the publication, but chat with its producers and subjects. 

In the photobook, we see the unwavering gaze of the women as they look confidently into the camera, and the smiles on their faces as they are caught candidly mid-tournament.

In one such portrait, Jeniffer, the leader and one of the organisers of the games, cuts a striking figure in red. Like many other domestic workers, she faced her share of financial and emotional struggles when she came to Singapore. Sharing the impetus for starting the games, she explained that being away from home and all alone can be depressing. While she initially found it difficult to start and organise these volleyball tournaments, the gratitude and blessings received from the community continue to motivate her. 

Jeniffer gazes directly into the camera, confident, kind, and proud. The camera is a tool for truth, and here, Jeniffer’s personality is obvious as a woman and leader of her community. James Loganathan, the photographer for the photo book, had a vision of editing the images in a timeless yet nostalgic way. When photographing the women, he made sure that the team involved was just a small crew so that they wouldn’t feel intimidated. All images courtesy of the On Sundays, We Play team.

A league of their own

When these volleyball tournaments are held, the migrant domestic worker community comes together to collect entry ticket fees, and the funds then go back into the community to whoever is in need of financial assistance. This initiative began during the first games event, when Jeniffer realised that a player’s child was badly in need of medical help. As the games expanded, the aid evolved—the group now makes donations not just for medical purposes or for those who are in need of support, but also to communities back home in the Philippines or Indonesia when natural disasters strike and help is required.

“On Sundays, we see a different side to these women—away from their identities as workers, away from domestic duties, social isolation, physical restraint, and quasi-incarcerated lives. Singapore is obviously a highly regulated society, but we can see the power of informal sport in bringing people together, establishing social connections, and being integral to the building of social resilience,” Selvaraj tells me. 

The games are held on the site of Singapore’s first airport at Old Terminal Lane. This liminal space suits the community just fine and offers itself as a “third place” for them to be with each other and rest. Third places are places separate from the home and the workspace—places that migrant workers cannot always easily access—and which allow them to connect with each other and gather in community on their days off.

This is one of my personal favourite images from the photo book. James has captured these women in a humanising way, and their personalities outside of work really show here. It feels like I’m right there with these women, cheering them on.

The team behind the photobook spoke on the lack of third places for migrant workers to gather, as a result of hostility from the public and subsequent policing. Selvaraj shares, “The volleyballers initially started playing (around 2016 onwards) on the unused green space that leads to several HDB flats on the northern side of Kallang MRT station. The frequent Sunday gathering and steady expansion of volleyball teams turned the space into a sports carnival. Residents began complaining about the noise level, the unusually large gathering of migrant workers, safety concerns and unease, litter left behind, etc. to the local town council and also the MP.”

He explained that as a first measure, some twenty surveillance cameras were placed all around the field along with rubbish bins, and that the police began conducting a regular patrol of the area all throughout Sunday. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, the area was completely cordoned off, preventing any gatherings or sporting activities. This continued even after lockdown measures had eased. Subsequently, the site was permanently boarded up, and construction work started in late 2022. The volleyballers then relocated to the Southern side of Kallang MRT station at Old Terminal Lane.

The documentation of the transformation of the empty space in Kallang on Sundays is particularly interesting for me. There is an underlying sense in this image that things are temporary despite the frequent Sunday tournaments. “Cities are always changing, especially a place like Singapore. We wanted the photography to capture a place in time and how these women have made their mark in this city,” James tells me.

As Amanda narrates, “One of the volleyballers told us that a representative from the Singapore Land Authority approached them one recent Sunday and remarked ‘enjoy this place while you can, it will be gone soon.’”

Carving out space, freedom, and identity

“The volleyballers wonder if they will ever find somewhere else suitable to run their leagues and enjoy the social freedom this unused land affords them. It is more than a place to play sport—it is a space to build community, social resilience and friendship. They have always felt anxious about being closed down by the authorities for noise or mess,” she continues. 

Amanda tells me that the women are “super conscious” about leaving the space tidy and clean at the end of each Sunday. If anyone leaves even the smallest piece of litter behind, a message will go out on Facebook shaming the litterbug for placing the whole volleyball league at risk, should a local decide to report the transgression.

When flipping through this photobook, the strength and joy of these women is palpable. In documentary photography, capturing your subjects in their most honest way is key, but what they don’t tell you is that in order to do so, you need to look at someone with love in your eyes. This is what James, the photographer of this project, has managed to do, prompting the viewer to acknowledge these women as equal citizens deserving of our respect in Singapore. The accompanying essays and poems written by domestic workers reach through in a way that crosses languages and social divides. These women could be our mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, friends. And to many, overseas in foreign lands, they are. 

As a Filipina herself, Kristine says, “I feel so proud to be a Filipina when I see the strength of these women amidst all the adversity they face—through their volleyball activities they display their leadership qualities, their physical talents whether it’s in sports or dance, their amazing style, their toughness and sass, but also their enormous capacity to care for everyone around them despite often feeling uncared for by the rest of the world.”

To have your subjects looking so frankly and softly into the camera says a lot about the person behind the camera, and how they are able to put their subjects at ease. I feel that James did this really well here. He says: “Usually there’s always a bit of discomfort from subjects in portrait photography. But the women were very comfortable in front of the camera, and I think that wasn’t just because photo-taking is a huge part of their volleyball scene, but because there was a level of trust in me to tell their stories because we have shared roots.”

Making an effort to see the unseen

We have a long way to go in making our migrant workers feel as though they are a part of our community. Amanda puts it well: “Singapore stands out for the way that domestic workers are seen as separate to ‘legitimate’ local residents, and this translates into an unusual demarcation around the places that [these] workers can go, and how they are expected to behave in public.”

When we give migrant workers a space to be heard, and listen to their stories, we’re not just doing our duty as fellow members of the same society, but taking our first steps towards integrating them into our intimate spaces. 

As I complete my interview with Jeniffer, I ask her what she wishes would change that would help her community to have a better life in Singapore, and she leaves me with this:

“I wish that Singaporeans will treat us fairly, decently, and with love. We are away from our families, we are alone, we are sad … so next time they see us sitting down under a tree, lying down in a park, or having a party in public, please don’t judge us immediately. Most of us are kind, friendly, and well behaved. If they can’t socialise with us, at least be nice to us. I wish that more locals will … share their blessings for us to encourage us to continue what we are doing, will be like our employers that support us, [and] will be like those teenagers that come and play with us.” 


On Sundays, We Play is an ethnographic portrait of “game day” for Singapore’s migrant domestic worker community by Kristine Aquino, James Loganathan, Selvaraj Velayutham, and Amanda Wise in partnership with HOME Singapore. Proceeds from the book sales will sponsor the women’s Sunday leagues and charity games.

You can purchase the book via Ethos Books, and the short ethnographic film will be available for view online for a limited time.

Keen to read more about the complexities of migrant and diasporic identity? Check out our article on Sean Cham’s  2019 photographic project This Is Where, which spotlights migrant construction workers, or past reviews of exhibitions in Malaysia and England that deal with these themes.

Header image: A group of domestic workers connecting with friends and family back home over TikTok or video calls. The tournaments are a source of pride for the players. This is a side to these women that we rarely see during their work, and their innocent joy is something anyone can really connect with. 

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