“When was the last time you went to the market?”
Far from a passing enquiry, the answer to this may just put you one step ahead in Bansan, the latest board game from arts and culture groups Arts-ED and LUMA.
Whichever player who has most recently set foot in a wet market or “bansan” in the local northern Hokkien dialect, is designated the starting player or market vendor in this fresh, new game that is based on Penang’s famed Chowrasta Market.
The goal of the game is simple – make the most money – but the how is where things get interesting.
From dealing with wholesalers to bargaining with fellow players for better produce prices, to racing to gather ingredients for dishes like char koay teow, cucur udang and inche kabin as well as managing recycling and waste, Bansan gives players a peek inside the everyday dealings of a large–scale, local wet market.
Every day is different, as ingredient prices rise and fall and woe to the player who isn’t prepared for infrequent though not uncommon occurrences like the freezers breaking down, Covid–19 outbreaks or a gang fight movie scene being filmed in the market.
But aside from all the chaos, bargaining and selling, the heart of the Bansan board game is navigating the rich culture of interactions that live on today in Penang’s oldest market.
“How do you all know each other?” may be a simple question for some but not so in the case of the Bansan all-female production team.
Each of the five members have carved out names for themselves on the homegrown scene and collectively have experience working in different art, culture, heritage preservation and education fields.
Now, at least four of them have the production of two local board games under their belts.
Leading the Bansan venture is Goh Choon Ean, who also heads up LUMA (short for Lighting Up Media & the Arts), a vibrant arts and culture support organisation housed in the heart of George Town.
Goh and Bansan art director and illustrator Charis Loke have frequently worked with Arts-ED, a noted community-based NGO focused on art and culture education, over the last decade.
Particularly during the group’s annual Youth Arts Camp for public school students that ran from 2015 to 2021, they connected up with Arts-ED senior manager Chen Yoke Pin and programme officer Ooi Win Wen.
“Arts-ED was doing a lot of community-based learning programmes and Chowrasta Market was the site that we kept on going back to since 2015.
“At the time, we wanted to make the shift from just general topics like traditional clothing and traditional trades to using a specific site as a boundary,” says Chen.
The youth camps were designed to run at the end of the school year, offering four workshops that married unique market-related topics with different art mediums.
Some 80 to 100 secondary school students from four to six schools in Penang attended every year and got to pick one workshop each, based on their interests.
Both Goh and Loke led several workshops each over the years, exploring topics like the fruit supply chain, waste management, ergonomics and market management through the lenses of photography, stop motion animation, and board game design.
While leading a workshop in 2017, Goh created a simple game with photographs of five-foot ways in the area to capture the students’ attention.
That small seed of inspiration would grow into Kaki Lima, the group’s first tabletop game, which had players as pedestrians making their way around George Town on a grid of five-foot ways.
The world of Chowrasta
Other Youth Arts Camp workshops that was studied the management of Chowrasta Market gave birth to the idea of another game, initially simply entitled “Chowrasta”, which, three years and 22 versions later, became the current game Bansan.
“We were comparing how a public market is managed compared to a supermarket. One aspect is the whole culture of bargaining, which is so different than going to a store,” says Goh.
Haggling, in fact, proved to be so foreign that it needed to be explained to a number of youngsters who have had the opportunity to try Bansan out.
“Kids ask: ‘Huh? Can bargain like that ah?’ They haven’t been in a world where you can bargain. To them, if the price tag says RM5, it’s RM5. Bansan is like a simulation for them and we’ve found that kids are more ‘daring’ when they finally do go to a market,” says Chen.
Ooi adds that through aspects like negotiating and the presence of “Event” cards, Bansan aims to incorporate the reality of authentic, local markets that exist today.
From happenings like a culinary trendologist coming to visit to fogging and the celebration of the Nine Emperor Gods and Navaratri festivals (thus turning all vegetarian dishes in high demand), “Event” cards throw spanners into the works and leave market vendors scrambling for solutions – just like in real life.
“We try to portray the cultural diversity and also real challenges faced by markets, like privatisation and (vendors) passing the baton to the next generation.
“Working on Bansan has been special because it builds on Arts-ED’s years of work in markets, from cultural mapping to arts programmes with youth,” says Ooi, who took charge of Bansan’s content research together with Chen.
Attention to detail
Bansan also gives players a visual taste of what local wet markets are like.
Loke, who did the illustrations on both Bansan and Kaki Lima, tried gel plate printing for the first time, visiting Chowrasta Market to pick up scraps and waste to capture their imprints.
“How do we talk about the market in terms of the current when it comes to art, instead of always showing it in an old fashion sort of way? Through an art style, how do we make sure it looks not contemporary but different from art that promotes a very surface-level understanding of heritage?” says Loke.
“As an artist, I’m very interested in how we can depict people’s culture in media back to them.
“So, part of the goal for me with Bansan was how we make a game that’s very inspired by culture but not caught up in nostalgia,” she adds.
Loke says the starting point was undoubtedly research – visiting markets, taking lots of photos, making sketches, paying close attention to how stalls were set up, what containers were normally used and how things were arranged.
Then came the printing.
Not wanting to generate more waste, Loke went around collecting everything from discarded chicken heads and fish tails to pieces of tofu and stray spices.
She then rolled lino ink onto a gel plate, placed the objects on top and then flattened paper on top, twice; once to capture the silhouettes and again to capture the imprints of the objects themselves.
“It’s a completely new art form for me so some of it was figuring out things like how do you print with tofu. How do you get it dry enough to print but not so dry that nothing comes out? It was a way to capture actual impressions of the market,” she says.
The prints were then digitalised, combined, sometimes with illustrations and put here, there and everywhere in the game.
“The cards for the ‘Waste Bins’, for example, those were made from actual waste; the ‘Paper’ card used prints of corrugated cardboard, the ‘Organic’ waste card had different leaves and onion skins and I used plastic straws on the ‘Plastic’ card.
“The art for the whole game was a mix of digital illustration and printmaking where the very physical, tactile nature of printmaking met the very fluid, changeable nature of digital work,” says Loke.
On top of adding authenticity, the imprints provide another layer of intrigue to players with a keen, curious eye as they can look and guess what items made the various designs in the game.
“It’s amazing that this form can capture not just the texture, but also (evokes) how you feel at the touch of the thing,” Chen interjects, pointing to a particularly wrinkly-looking imprint of a raw chicken foot.
The team also worked with local foundry @hrftype to develop the unique “Bansan” logotype seen on the top of the box.
Each letter of the title font was fashioned from the use of different produce from Chowrasta: a cinnamon stick, fish tail, tofu puff, coconut husk, okra and raw chicken wing.
Bansan is set to be unveiled to the public on July 7 – Heritage Day and a public holiday in Penang – as part of the George Town Heritage Celebrations 2023.
Visitors to the historic city will be among the first to get to play the game as well as try out printmaking at the Bansan station located at the Hock Teik Cheng Sin Temple compound.
For the team, getting to see people play the game will be a wonderful ending to the production journey that saw multiple challenges.
From working through the pandemic to sourcing overseas printing, assembly and packaging quotes (as no one company can do the whole package locally) to talking with distributors and retailers, Goh credits many quarters who have helped the team along the way including playtesters (often family and friends) and the Krishen Jit Fund which contributed funding for the game.
Stephanie Kee, who rounds off the production team and is charge of marketing and outreach, hopes Bansan will be a gateway for people of all walks of life to experience and remember the role of wet markets in our local culture.
“As our society consumes more processed and pre-prepared food, we forget fundamentally where our (fresh) food comes from and the various people involved in bringing food from farms to our tables.
“I hope people who experience Bansan will grow to appreciate not only our slowly diminishing culture, but also how markets instill values of sustainability and conservation in our everyday lifestyle,” says Kee.
She adds that the official launch of the game will be held on July 15 from 1pm to 4pm at no where else but Chowrasta Market.
In conjunction with the launch of George Town Festival 2023, a "Bansan: Rasa–Rasa Pasar Experiential Programme" will be held at three locations with open play sessions available alongside three-hour market exploration activities (open to individuals aged 15 above).
Rasa–Rasa Pasar will be held at Chowrasta Market on July 15, the Seberang Jaya Market on July 16 and the Air Itam Market on July 18. Registration for the market exploration activity is required.
“We think that markets have really shown the changes of society throughout the different years and depict the authentic daily life of the community.
“When we hear about culture and heritage, a lot of people tend to ask how many years old it is but actually, if we take for granted what we see as common daily life now, many things may just die off because we no longer appreciate and practice it,” says Chen.
“We want to share the value of markets to the younger generation without overwhelming them. Sometimes, when we take groups to the market, they look around lost at where to start.
“Bansan is like a bridge; it’s a type of documentation where they can see and understand a bit first and then, raises their curiosity to go to the ground and see more about what markets have to offer,” she concludes.