State of the arts: four of Singapore’s coolest cultural experiences
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
This article is part of a new guide to Singapore from FT Globetrotter
At the time of writing, Singapore has largely contained Covid-19, with the daily number of locally transmitted cases hitting zero or low digits. A national vaccine drive is under way, with authorities saying the entire population should be inoculated by the end of 2021.
Life feels like it has, in most ways, returned to normal. Restaurants, gyms and shopping malls are open, though distancing measures such as mandatory mask-wearing in public and limiting the size of group gatherings to eight people remain in force.
The mandatory use of TraceTogether — Singapore’s contact-tracing app that uses Bluetooth to record distance between users and the duration of their encounters — to access public venues including cinemas will be expanded to schools, shopping malls and places of worship, among others, from June 1.
But what about Singapore’s broader cultural institutions? How have they navigated the pandemic?
Galleries and museums are open again — though at reduced capacity — after closing their doors during the first wave last year. But many have since evolved beyond analogue iterations, launching digital initiatives that are becoming exciting permanent features in Singapore’s cultural landscape.
The selection below includes some of my favourite spots in Singapore’s cultural scene which have adapted to Covid-19, as well as activities I have rediscovered in a world of sealed borders, including walks to explore hidden corners of the city I inhabit.
National Gallery Singapore
1 St Andrew’s Road, Singapore 178957
Good for: A diverse multitude of exhibition spaces, restaurants, trendy bars, a free children’s centre and a beautiful museum store
Not so good for: An intimate gallery feel
The National Gallery is one of Singapore’s first cultural hubs I grew fond of and where I often return to.
It is a great spot to see the world’s largest public collection of Singaporean and south-east Asian modern art — and to do so in a grand building with plenty of natural light coming through glass ceilings, which remains quiet and peaceful even at weekends.
I recently visited an exhibition dedicated to Georgette Chen, a Chinese painter influenced by Post-Impressionism during her studies in Paris, who moved to Singapore after the second world war. Her self-portraits, her brushwork on paintings of bodies of water and her family portraits focused on matriarchs were some of the most striking aspects of the show, which runs until September.
Beyond art, the museum offers a wide dining selection, including the three-Michelin-starred Odette, serving modern French food; National Kitchen by Violet Oon, which offers heritage Peranakan cuisine; and a more relaxed café on the ground floor. Pop up to the sixth floor for a drink at Smoke & Mirrors and a stunning view of Singapore’s skyline.
During lockdown last year, the museum launched #GalleryAnywhere, a collection of digital initiatives including virtual tours, podcasts and an online children’s festival. It also streamed artistic workshops and performances live on Facebook.
“#GalleryAnywhere has allowed us to reach beyond the walls of the museum to engage new and existing audiences, both locally and overseas, and will continue to present fresh offerings even after Covid-19,” said Chong Siak Ching, CEO at the National Gallery.
The museum is now blending digital and physical to run activities such as the Children’s Biennale launching in May, which will have online offerings as well as on-site art installations.
“As the world and Singapore continue to evolve, the gallery, as a national institution, will need to keep pace with the changes, be open to learning from the developments and adapt our plans along the way to advance the role of art in society,” said Chong.
STPI Creative Workshop and Gallery
41 Robertson Quay, Singapore 238236
Good for: Pairing a visit to a walk by the river
Not so good for: Evening weekend visits — STPI shuts at 6pm on Saturdays and 5pm on Sundays
STPI (formerly known as the Singapore Tyler Print Institute) is one of the most multi-faceted contemporary art spaces in Singapore, promoting in particular “works that are made with printed paper techniques . . . in collaboration with artists from around the world”, said Emi Eu, executive director at STPI.
This is part of an initiative to bring contemporary Asian print work to public prominence. Although woodblock printing hailed from Asia centuries ago, “contemporary print work was still seen as a very western invention or tradition, and the word ‘print’ [did not have] such a prestigious connotation” when STPI launched in 2002, said Eu. Informing the public was “quite an uphill challenge”.
Now STPI has a spacious art gallery (not devoted exclusively to print work) — with a lovely gallery store that has an excellent book selection — sprawling across the second floor.
The current exhibition (running until May 9) by Singaporean artist Suzann Victor, titled Of Waters, is part of Galleries Curate, an informal collaboration among contemporary galleries around the world that joined forces during Covid-19. In its first initiative, all 21 galleries are hosting exhibitions linked to the theme of water.
Beyond the gallery, STPI has a 1,000sq m workshop filled with presses and paper mills where, pre-pandemic, artists from across the region would descend to create. The studio is currently hosting Singapore-based artists.
The public can take part in workshops on anything from origami, screen printing and embossing to drypoint portraiture and intaglio printing.
STPI also organises artist talks, which at the height of the pandemic last year translated into weekly webinars. These events are now in person with artists who are Singapore-based (talks with international artists are streamed online). “People were just getting saturated with these webinars . . . it’s a clear manifestation of the fact that digital cannot replace seeing the real thing,” said Eu. “But it can complement it.”
6001 Beach Road, 5th floor, Golden Mile Tower, Singapore 199589
Good for: Eclectic movies, events and festivals
Not so good for: Movie-goers looking for The Avengers
The Projector is the most well-known independent cinema on the island. It stands out as a welcoming space for film-lovers, liberally minded folk and the LGBT+ community alike, with a film selection that runs the gamut from Oscar nominees to local documentaries on migrant workers, or queer movies.
“We wanted to create a space where people would be comfortable to be themselves . . . [and] that fostered different perspectives and open minds and dialogue,” said Karen Tan, co-founder of The Projector, which she defines as “mental breathing space”.
Situated on the fifth floor of the Brutalist Golden Mile Tower, the gritty venue was built in the 1970s and used to be a Chinese movie theatre. In 2014, three women who worked at a company repurposing old buildings decided to turn it into The Projector.
Most of the original theatre is still intact. “There’s a sense that you’re part of something with history and with soul,” said co-founder Blaise Trigg-Smith. “We didn’t just clean it up completely. We’re trying to just let people experience it for what it was”.
The Projector’s programming has something for everyone, from drag shows and reggae performances to film festivals celebrating women film-makers, the LGBT+ community or cinema from countries such as Poland, Israel and France.
Grab a craft beer at the industrial-style, neon-lit bar and be sure to check out the murals by Singaporean street artist Speak Cryptic on the way to the restrooms, one of many collaborations with local creators throughout the venue.
The cinema (which under current distancing rules operates at 50 per cent capacity) is aiming to expand a digital platform with movies on demand that it launched last year at the height of the pandemic. Projector Plus — which Tan said “provides an alternative to online choice fatigue” — has become an integral part of the cinema, accompanying the physical theatre.
Jane’s Singapore Tours
Good for: Exploring new aspects of Singapore
Not so good for: The sedentary
FYI: The company organises intimate dinners at the founder’s home with “special guests” including journalists, designers or entrepreneurs (Website)
With borders currently shut, local residents have taken more time to discover what lies beyond the swanky business-district skylines often associated with the island.
Jane’s Singapore Tours — a company launched by Jane Iyer, a British woman who first visited Singapore in 1963 — offers small group or private walking tours to explore the city’s history, culture and heritage.
Amid Covid-19, the company has also launched shorter tours of two hours designed for people living in Singapore.
The tours range from exploring nature reserves and smaller islands surrounding the city to walks covering Japan’s retreat from Singapore at the end of the second world war.
Some sessions also explore colonial architecture, including premises known as “black and white houses” that were built in the early 20th century for British officers or medical military personnel.
On a recent two-hour evening tour, I walked through Kampong Glam and Bugis, which were among the neighbourhoods created by Stamford Raffles (the British statesman who occupied and founded the port city of Singapore) in the early 19th century under a redevelopment plan that formed separate clusters for Singapore’s many different ethnic groups. The Bugis community — which originally hailed from Indonesia — and the Malay population settled there.
The rowdy nightlife on Bugis Street — formerly a red-light district — is no more. In the 1980s, a shopping centre replaced what had been nicknamed “Boogie Street”, a mix of street food and cabarets, as well as a haven for drag queens and trans people.
On our tour, we strolled past the golden dome of the Sultan Mosque during Ramadan night prayers; sniffed the mouthwatering smell of fresh murtabak (dough stuffed with meat and eggs) wafting out of Zam Zam restaurant (also known for its fierce rivalry with the Victory eatery next door); and enjoyed the Dalí and Botero sculptures outside Parkview Square, a striking skyscraper built in Art Deco style that includes Atlas, a plush, 1920s-themed bar.
What are your favourite places for a culture fix in Singapore? Tell us in the comments