New contemporary art spaces, social innovation labs, hip neighborhoods and an energy on the streets—Singapore’s throwing off its reputation as a dull city for business and getting creative.
Although Singapore’s at the nexus of different cultures—Chinese, Malay, Indian and the expat tribe—the high-rise, tropical city-state hasn’t—until now—been particularly known for its cultural offering. Great food? Check. Air-conditioned malls? Check. Funky architecture? That too. But the arts and an indie scene? Well, yes, as a matter of fact.
An Ode to Independence
Celebrating 50 years of independence was Singapore’s chance to do a big shout-out about its cultural credentials and ambitions.
The government drew up a Renaissance City Plan to establish Singapore as a global art city conducive to the creative industries, and the long-awaited National Gallery opened its doors in November 2015, housing the largest public collection of modern art in Southeast Asia.
When Singapore splashes out, it really splashes out. The island nation spent more than S$530 million to house 8,000 pieces of art in two prestigious monuments—the former Supreme Court and City Hall—and the gallery tops off a new ecology of creativity in the city.
The first half-century of Singapore’s economic miracle has been all about hard graft, but it seems the next decades will focus on smart thinking. As Singaporeans engage in finding new ways to address the city’s challenges and to thrive in a volatile and uncertain world, the city has embraced such forward-thinking mindsets as the maker movement and urban farming.
With a proper indie scene developing, it’s a fascinating destination for the traveler interested in seeing more than malls.
Brews and Boho Chic
Singapore has been undergoing rapid gentrification in hip neighborhoods such as Tiong Bahru. If you’re into the idea of drinking an image of yourself printed on the foam of your coffee (Selfie Coffee on Haji Lane) and you love street fashion, this enclave is worth a browse.
If you’re up for something more cutting edge, though, the place to go is Little India, across the Singapore River from Chinatown and north of the Marina. The colorful neighborhood has a boho feel, with young urbanites and migrant workers, temples and bars, in a happy coexistence.
You’ll be greeted by the smell of Indian food and sudden whiffs of incense as you wander the streets off Serangoon Road, happening across cool little cafes (try the Jewel Cafe and Bar), independent shops, and bars such as Zsofi among the sparkly jewelers’ shops and 19th-century buildings.
A telltale sign that Little India is becoming hip is the increasing number of coworking spaces such as Workhouse, where you can rent desks by the month or day for that brainstorm you need to have with other startups, or a meeting with your architect or other creatives.
Slowly but surely the attitude toward work is changing for this new generation of Singaporeans, who want a better work-life balance than that of their parents or grandparents. Many feel freer to follow their own interests, and the creative industries and maker movement are gaining traction.
Head south on foot from Little India towards Bugis and after 10–15 minutes you’ll reach the National Design Centre, home to the Sustainable Living Lab.
The lab promotes social innovation and is home to a community of makers who share knowledge and skills, and also have access to the technology, tools and space to tinker and come up with prototypes for new designs.
If you want to take an upcycling class or participate in a hackfest, where designers and software developers collaborate, these are the cool kids in town to connect with.
While you’re in the neighborhood, check out LaSalle, College of the Arts. You’ll find lots of interesting people around, plus a few nice cafes and regular free exhibitions.
The Problem Solvers
The forward-thinking, creative and collaborative mindset you find at the shared spaces is being applied to some of the challenges arising from living in a land-scarce, import-dependent city.
For example, only one percent of Singapore’s land is used for agricultural purposes and the city buys in most of its food. But organizations such as Comcrop and Edible Garden City have shown that it’s possible to grow food in underutilized spaces, like rooftops and sidewalks around the city.
The latter group backed a pop-up urban farm called Growell, which had a temporary home in two imposing 1920s shop houses on Little India’s Rowell Road, where they used hydroponic techniques to produce veggies and inspire people to have a go at growing their own.
I went to a wonderful Growell workshop on making krautchi—the lovechild of kimchi and sauerkraut—before they recently packed up their farm and became nomadic again.
As the sun goes down, Little India’s rougher edges are exposed, with a red light here and there signaling a brothel. In 2013, there were riots after a young Indian construction worker was killed in a road traffic accident, and since then it’s been illegal to sell or consume alcohol on Little India’s streets after dark.
Having said this, it is an interesting area at night. You are spoiled for choice for restaurants, offering a range of cuisines from South Indian vegetarian meals to tandoori dishes from the north.
You are not allowed to leave Little India without trying one of the salted-egg yolk and custard buns found in many cafes. They might sound a little odd, but I promise you, they’re yum.
There’s a multitude of swanky expat bars around the city to ensure that you keep your alcohol intake up. But it would be a shame to drink the night away, when Singapore offers plenty of interesting nighttime activities.
For a cool, cultured evening program don’t miss The Projector, an independent cinema on the fifth floor of the historic Golden Theatre on Beach Road (they also have a nice bar for a drink).
Or, if you are really lucky, you may be in town at the right time to catch the larger-than-life and utterly fabulous Becca D’Bus in her show called Riot! This so-called class war in a classy venue can be enjoyed every second Saturday of the month at Shanghai Dolly (Clarke Quay).
Singapore is hot and expensive, meaning that people often just hang out outside at night. Some events are semi-organized, and you’ll find artists, musicians, filmmakers and designers coming together for a few drinks and a bite to eat.
You can pick up info on parties, concerts and exhibitions at The Substation (10 minutes south of the Design Centre), the first independent contemporary art space in Singapore. While you’re there, there’s a good chance they’ll have something interesting on too.
If you’ve had enough of artsy-fartsy cultural undertakings and really want to sit back and relax, you should head to 28 Hong Kong Street, a 15-minute walk further south and close to both the Substation and Shanghai Dolly.
Don’t be put off by the rather unappealing facade, which has no name and gives the impression that not much is going on inside. Behind these closed doors you’ll find a discreet, low-lit cocktail bar where you can recover from the heat, and your Singaporean adventures, in style.