An arts infusion in sterile Singapore

In a city known for its rigid laws and heavy fines, a community of independent artisans and designers are breaking the mould with quirky cafes, bold galleries and artisan ateliers.

There has been a noticeable cultural shift in Singapore over the last few years. In a city known for sky-high buildings, upmarket rooftop bars and luxury hotels, locals and visitors alike are seeking out tiny independent stores instead of sprawling designer malls and choosing hidden 15-seat restaurants over notoriously big – and sometimes brash – resort dining options. And in a city that has long had a reputation for being sterile, thanks to its strict laws and heavy fines, it is a community of independent artisans and designers that are breaking the mould and leading the charge.

To experience the epicentre of quirky Singapore, head to the shabby but spirited Haji Lane in Kampong Glam, the city’s Arab quarter, where old nestles among the new. Once a street of empty 18th-century shophouses, today the colourful storefronts are home to retro cafes, tiny laneway bars and vintage boutiques such as Victoria JoMo and eighty two tales. Stop by Victoria JoMo for one of the “fashion buffet” events, where customers buy a bag for 55 Singaporean dollars and have 20 minutes to pack it full of clothes at no extra cost.

“Although the market for quirky unique shops, designs and restaurants is niche, I see a growing demand for artisanal alternatives,” said Carolyn Kan, who opened Carrie K Artisan Jewellery in the Newton neighbourhood after the former advertising executive left the corporate world to study silversmithery in Florence.

Kan’s shop hosts the Keepers Artisans Showcase, a quarterly event that brings together independent designers and consumers. The crafts on offer differ depending on the theme, and range from hats to inventive cocktails and cakes from four or five different artisans. Past themes have included “Tailored for gentlemen”, “Flights of fancy” and “A fresh twist” where designers gave their heritage-inspired work a contemporary edge.

“Singapore is a melting pot of cultures and a fusion of east and west, with traditional and modern values,” Kan said. “The partners we showcase often focus on traditional methods of craftsmanship re-interpreted in a contemporary and relevant way that draws on our eclectic mix of cultures and worldly experiences.”

Kan also organises the monthly Lolla’s Secret Supper Club, where details of the chef, venue and menu are not made public until just before the dinner, which ranges in size from 20 to 30 guests. One of the most successful supper clubs was held at a boat quay shed where there were no cooking facilities or running water and where Singaporean sculptor Chong Fah Cheong was surprise guest artist. A nine-course menu of Peranakan food was served with traditional Straits-Chinese dishes including beef sambal curry, sambal timbun (cucumber salad), babi pongtay (slow-braised pork) and itek sioh (duck braised with tamarind sauce).  

“We had to plan a menu that could be cooked off-site and still be delicious when served at the shed,” Kan said. “It was one of those magical evenings in a very unexpected location, with a special guest that few would have the opportunity to dine with.”

Interesting shops, galleries and cafes are also opening elsewhere in the city. The Ann Siang Hill and Club Street neighbourhoods on Chinatown’s fringes, for example, were once the quarters of traditional Chinese clan associations and select social clubs. But today, a new community of creative design agencies, arts spaces and independent shops has turned the formerly seedy Chinatown quarter into a trendy district that still retains its old-world charm, with preserved colonial-era shophouses and historic covered walkways.

Affordable urban art can be found at 83 Club Street, a bar where visitors can buy what they see on the walls as they sip cocktails and eat French-influenced bites such as marinated salmon blinis and roasted beer and Harissa sausage. At Jigger and Pony, drinks created using recipes from the 1800s and early 1900s – such as the Chatham Artillery (cognac, bourbon, dark rum, lemon, sparkling wine and soda) and Classic Rum Punch (Jamaica rum, dark rum, lime, sugar and green tea) – are served in vintage punch bowls.

Substation, a power-building-turned-arts-venue in the Civic District, encourages local artists to create experimental works as well as raise awareness of Singapore’s cultural past. The Experimental Film Forum in June, for example, will showcase unusual and intriguing works that examine the ideas behind storytelling.

Gillman Barracks Art Galleries opened in September 2012 on Lock Road in the Telok Blangah neighbourhood, with 13 different gallery spaces for contemporary works by artists from across Asia. The 1930s former military buildings are also a hub for young local artists to come together and share ideas, art and film enthusiast Julian Chua said.

“Art was never the main thrust of growth in Singapore until the last 20 years, but there is certainly a very active arts scene now,” Chua said. “It is now an Asian society with an international arsenal.” 

Across the city, boutique hotels are springing up, offering an alternative to mainstream options like the 2,500-bed Marina Bay Sands, a glitzy, towering resort with a casino, skypark and shops and restaurants galore. Stay at the cosy 1929 hotel in Chinatown where no two rooms are alike and each one has its own unique vintage chair. Look out for some unusual antiques hidden around the place too, including an old-fashioned barber’s chair in reception. And to help with the tropical climate, the hotel serves free ice cream on its rooftop terrace.