Opening Their Homes and Hearts

Entertainment media veteran Rose Sivam and home cook Christopher Choo draw on their event production skills to host an unforgettable evening for special-needs guests.

BY Desiree Koh

H

ome is where the heart is, and for Rose Sivam and Christopher Choo, the way to a person’s heart is also through his or her stomach.

Rose Sivam and Christopher Choo's non-profit initiative, My Home Your Home, welcomes disabled people of diverse backgrounds for an evening of fun, food and festivities.

Since March 2018, the couple and their 12-year-old daughter Aleia have welcomed more than 300 guests with disabilities and special needs to their flat for feasts featuring dishes from around the world – from Spain and Morocco to timeless Eurasian classics based on Sivam’s mother’s recipes.

These are re-created in authentic gastronomical detail by 50-year-old home cook Choo, inspired by hours of culinary and cultural research, and brought to life across days of painstaking prep using meticulously selected ingredients.

It doesn’t end there – against a backdrop of exotic antiques and curios from the family’s global travels, live entertainment by some of Singapore’s most talented acts infuse these dinner parties with vibrant music and dancing, transforming them into complete feasts for the senses with a rhapsodic air of La Bohème.

“We’ve always loved hosting at home in ways that connect people through food and music, and wanted to extend it to people who very likely would never have the opportunity for private dining and amazing entertainment,” says Sivam, 54, who draws on her three decades in the media industry in staging professional-grade performances, down to cast, sound and script, during these events.

“ IT REAFFIRMED FOR US THAT PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE, AND WHETHER THEY’RE IN A WHEELCHAIR OR ILL, WE ALL SHARE DREAMS, PASSIONS, INTERESTS AND PHILOSOPHIES.

Rose Sivam and Christopher Choo’s non-profit initiative, My Home Your Home, welcomes disabled people of diverse backgrounds for an evening of fun, food and festivities.

CONNECTING OVER FOOD AND MUSIC
No matter the handicap, age or social background – if it’s a “My Home Your Home” dinner party, everyone’s singing and grooving into the night. For most of the special guests, this would be their first time tasting a tagine or coq au vin, and partying without judgment or inhibitions.

With entertainment like reggae music, flamenco and kathak dancing to inspire interaction, set against flowy tangkas, exquisite Chinese vases, and Indonesian and African art and sculptures, every sensory experience reflects the cosmopolitan guest list and is part of the gamut of beautiful culinary adventures, giving new meaning to lots of meaningful fun.

A Muslim guest explains the words to Christmas carols using sign language to a deaf guest.

My Home Your Home is the sociallyconscious offshoot of Sivam and Choo’s private dining series. An offshoot of their Relish private dining, With tickets starting at $78, My Home Your Home continues Sivam’s mother’s tradition of regularly hosting chronically-ill residents from Singapore Cheshire Home, where she worked as a nurse, on a bigger and much more elaborate scale.

For Choo, the first iteration of My Home Your Home over Christmas 2016 was his first time interacting with people with disabilities in an intimate setting. “I’d never done much volunteering or had the opportunity to meet such folks before,” says the former corporate and dotcom executive, who now focuses on private dining full time. “I was charmed by their mirth and wisdom, and felt no different from them as we share a common humanity. This exchange starts by giving everyone a seat at the table.”

A typical My Home Your Home dinner party hosts 50 guests, more than half of whom have special needs. These guests are either friends of the family, or come from word of mouth invites.

“ It shows off our truly Singaporean diversity, where we go to each other’s houses for celebrations regardless of religion or belief, and enjoy festive fare from around the world. ”

Rose Sivam (left), co-founder, My Home Your Home

Through a partnership with the National Council of Social Service (NCSS), Sivam has also been able to tap into homes connected to its networks while putting together her guest lists.

“It reaffirmed for us that people are people, and whether they’re in a wheelchair or ill, we all share dreams, passions, interests and philosophies,” Sivam reflects. “We’ve expanded our guest list so everybody can come together and have fun – we do our best to seat folks with different life experiences together to motivate memorable exchanges. A millennial would get to know an elderly, a child would learn something about music from a musician.”

The attendees also pick up culinary skills such as breadbaking from Choo (centre).

So far, Christmas 2017 has been their most talked about party – months after, attendees continue to gush over memories of an evening that made merry long into the night. Held at a friend’s house to accommodate an unprecedented turnout of 70 guests, performers and crew, the party overflowed with heartwarming moments such as the performance by a disabled dance troupe and a Muslim woman in hijab explaining the words to Christmas carols using sign language to a deaf guest.

“There were multiple levels of communications unfolding – even if people didn’t know all the lyrics or spoke the same language, they were still sharing the spirit of fun,” Sivam reminisces. “It shows off our truly Singaporean diversity, where we go to each other’s houses for celebrations regardless of religion or belief, and enjoy festive fare from everywhere.”

AN EXPERIENCE WORTH THE EFFORT
The logistics for each event go beyond days of marketing and kitchen prep that often start at 5am – when working with homes for special needs residents, the level of coordination required brings Sivam, Choo and their team of volunteers together in another unique way.

clockwise from left: Children and grown-ups come together to enjoy a night of revelry; the dinner affairs are made livelier with the help of professional performers; dance and music performances are an integral component of the dinner events.

From being on site to seat wheelchairbound guests within specially-equipped ambulances to timing bathroom breaks, all the planning and effort that go into bringing them an exhilarating evening is as much a part of the production as the party itself – and always worth it.

“I had never attended something like this before – most such events are just gatherings for food and chit chat,” shares Michael Quek, 54, a stroke survivor who uses a wheelchair because his right side is paralysed. “We made bread, we sang, we danced – it was so unique, especially since we helped Christopher make so many delicious dishes I had never tasted before. It made us all feel like every life is meaningful.”

Most volunteers are My Home Your Home guests who have been so moved by their experiences that they want to contribute skills, time or funds to keep the festivities going. A veteran of five private dinners at the Sivam-Choo home, Canadian banker Kishi Texeira, who has lived in Singapore since 2014, now photographs these parties, a way to combine a hobby he’s passionate about with volunteering.

“My younger sister had special needs and our family had many opportunities to meet and engage with other special needs people,” explains Texeira. “Attending My Home Your Home events reinforces my belief that there are good people everywhere – including Singapore – who care enough to raise awareness of special needs people, and to also commit their time for a good cause.”

For Texeira, “the high point is always seeing all guests light up while enjoying the entertainment or relating with each other.” Even Sivam’s performers and crew are part of the volunteer effort. Although all of them are paid, they typically take up to 40 per cent less than their usual fees. They particularly appreciate the exposure of working a different kind of stage, and be part of a production for an exceptional and worthwhile purpose.

“ Attending My Home Your Home events reinforces my belief that there are good people everywhere – including in Singapore – who care enough to raise awareness of special-needs people, and to also commit their time for a good cause. ”

Kishi Texeira, guest and volunteer at My Home Your Home

“It’s completely different when you film or perform and yet you’re still part of the party,” says Sivam, who once helmed Singapore’s most successful TV shows such as Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd and Growing Up. “When it’s eating time, we all sit down and dig in together, and no matter who you are, we’re all on the same page or at least, at the same table.”



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