The power of a blank canvas: House Master Lee Kooi Cheng of Helix House on creating a home from scratch
In this series, NUS News profiles the personalities shaping vibrant residential life and culture on campus, and how they craft a holistic residential experience that brings out the best in student residents.
Nestled along Prince George’s Park, Helix House is the newest House in NUS, established in July 2023.
When it first came into existence, residents of Helix House found themselves faced with the exciting — and somewhat daunting prospect — of working with a blank canvas, both figuratively and literally, in the empty walls at the House. Over time, the space saw residents dedicate pockets of time outside of academic commitments to transform them into something closer to home.
Today, a heart-shaped mural decorates the wall to the left of the House’s entrance. Adorned with details such as a gift box, plants and flags, they represent the residents’ interpretation of the House’s tagline, “DNA that binds”. On another empty wall is a second mural with the House’s tagline. Both were designed by two creative and talented residents, Jasslyne Oh, a Year 1 major in Anthropology from the NUS College of Humanities and Sciences, and Pearlyn Woo, a Year 1 major in Industrial Design from the NUS College of Design and Engineering.
With a strong focus on creating a strong support system for residents, Houses are a relatively new housing model, distinct from Residential Colleges and Halls. But House Master Associate Professor Lee Kooi Cheng finds the opportunity to start afresh more invigorating than intimidating.
Choosing a name, in particular, was instrumental to building the House’s identity.
After many brainstorming sessions and with approval from senior management, the team settled on Helix, a nod to the double helix of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA – a complex molecule that contains genetic information that helps an organism develop and function.
“(Learning) is iterative, you learn something not just once, it gets iterated, and hopefully it goes into you, becoming the DNA,” said Assoc Prof Lee, who is also Director of the NUS Centre for English Language Communication.
But what exactly is at the core of the House’s DNA? It revolves around one simple principle—the outlook or traits that the House aims to cultivate in its residents.
The Helix House team listed nine core attributes — open-mindedness, respect, happiness, harmony, authenticity, persistence, good naturedness, thoughtfulness, and optimism.
“Happiness is one key value we believe in,” Assoc Prof Lee underscored. “We recognise that happiness is not a given but an emotional state that we hope to support our residents in working toward. We want to materialise this through creating a close knit and caring living-learning environment, and opportunities for positive interactions.”
NUS News sits down with Assoc Prof Lee to find out more about her hopes and plans for Helix House.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What’s a typical day like for you?
I am with the NUS Centre for English Language Communication, where I serve as Director. I spend my mornings there, and usually make my way to the House in the afternoon.
I try to join in for most activities on a House basis, and regularly join the interest groups activities. When I’m not at the House or the Centre, I spend my free time doing long distance running on the weekends.
Q: Tell us about your journey to becoming Helix House Master.
I first served as Master at the oldest NUS hall, King Edward VII Hall, for five years from 2016 to 2021 and went on to Tembusu College as a Deputy Master, which was a totally different environment. Both were very established residences with a rich heritage and traditions.
When Helix House was due to be established, I said yes to becoming Master because I saw an opportunity to cultivate a new House culture from scratch. Indeed, it is a wonderful way of continuing this journey as Master, from serving in the oldest hall to starting from ground zero, and I am looking forward to seeing where the community in Helix House will take it next!
Q: Tell us how Helix House’s name and tagline — DNA that binds — came about.
We went through many rounds of brainstorming for the House’s name and tagline, and Dr Mark Gan, one of the resident fellows, suggested Helix, which was short for Double Helix. That’s also how the House got its name and tagline. The connection comes in the learning process being iterative— you learn something new, it gets iterated and then hopefully the learning goes into you, becoming the DNA.
We also aspire to inspire our residents to remain authentic, thoughtful, optimistic, and persistent in navigating exciting opportunities as well as challenges. Similar to the name of the House, the helix shape means connectedness and resilience in its purest, biological form.
Q: What’s buzzing at Helix House?
There is something for everyone at Helix House! We have about 20 interest groups, from crocheting to coffee-making, with something going on every week! We also have a few “signature events” led by the resident fellows, held throughout the semester. We are piloting them and the response so far has been very positive!
The mural outside our office is example of a signature event that Dr Gan thought of. Led by Jasslyne and Pearlyn, residents were invited via a Telegram broadcast to sign up and participate. It was a relaxing, non-intensive activity that gave people a chance to take a break from the hustle and bustle of academic life. It was also therapeutic and helped students destress during exam periods.
I also lead a signature event with another resident fellow, Dr Rafi Rashid, in a series called Cultural and Heritage Trail. We usually head out on Saturday mornings with a small group of students. Recently, Dr Rafi brought us to Masjid Jamae (Chulia), the third-oldest mosque in Singapore which is located in Chinatown. Dr Rafi did an educational tour which included among others history of the mosque, key values Muslims hold, and key rituals Muslims perform which students had the opportunity to witness. It was an eye-opener for many students, especially those who have never been at a mosque.
We also embarked on a cultural trail in October 2023, to explore historical landmarks near Helix House, a trail that brought us from the Dover-Ghim Moh area to the Holland Village-Portsdown area. Participants not only got a firsthand experience of the heritage of a Chinese temple along the way, which elucidated the rich heritage of the region, but also came up close with the region’s ecological heritage.
Along the way, conversations were started and friendships were forged among the residents hailing from diverse backgrounds and nationalities, which further cemented the bonds among them. It was a truly memorable outing!
Q: What’s next for Helix House?
We are only six months old, so I am observing and letting things emerge from the ground-up, so that students have the opportunity to initiate events and activities that they are passionate about. We really want our interest groups to find their footing and flourish. One such group is the baking interest group. I have had the opportunity to sample the chocolate chip cookies that they baked which were truly delicious! Our baking room is being set up with proper sink, oven, and safety measures. Once that is ready, we look forward to more yummy creations from our very own ‘kitchen’.
Another recent event was a Study Trips For Engagement & EnRichment (STEER) trip to Vietnam led by Dr Hoang, a resident fellow at Helix. One of the participants, Ling Jit Thong (Year 3 Dentistry), reflected:
“We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves learning about Vietnamese culture, as well as how to live a healthier and more purposeful lifestyle by attending the meaningful talks and workshops planned. This trip has definitely got us to think more about aspects of our lifestyles such as sleep, diet and exercise, as well as what we should strive towards. It also allowed us to better appreciate the strategic relationship between Vietnam and Singapore. Above all, we had lots of fun and made friends and memories which we believe will last a lifetime."
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