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
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.