With its resident artists and vibrant venues, Kampong Glam is proving that arts are quickening Singapore’s pulse.
By Marco Ferrarese.
When thinking about Singapore, it is the images of the most sprawling modernity that immediately come to mind; maybe Marina Bay and its futuristic skyline, one of Southeast Asia’s most iconic success stories, or the glitzy dining scene of Clarke Quay, where Singapore’s expatriates enjoy some of the most user friendly, clean and safe Asian nightlife experiences.
Singapore is also known for being a business-oriented metropolis, one not very well suited to have a real artsy side, especially when thinking of the draconian government and its tight grip on everything that’s bound to pass on local stages and screens. Believe it or not, these days something is definitely boiling arts-wise in Lion City.
It radiates from the Kampong Glam district, a gracious area of old heritage shop houses perched a bit north of Marina Bay along the Nicoll highway. Like a well-thought out pun, the word ‘glam’ already evokes images of decadent rock and roll, David Bowie, hair rock and flamboyant cross-dressing. And for inasmuch as we’ll see that rockers are involved in this Singaporean artsy renaissance, the origin of the district’s name comes from the cajeput tree, which pronounces as “gelam” in Malay.
Prior to British colonization in 1819, the area was the seat of Singapore’s Malay aristocracy. By 1822, it was designated for the Sultan and his household, as well as the Arab and Malay communities. That’s the reason why even today, Kampong Glam maintains a very Islamic vibe, possibly helped by the presence of a number of Middle Eastern restaurants fitted with Arabian-Nights-influenced furniture all along the main walking street, Bussorah Pedestrian Mall. Palm lined and elegantly cobbled with maroon tiles, it’s a great path to access to the Sultan Mosque, a majestic golden dome that rises at the center of the district. The Islamic charm here mixes with the colonial cool of refurbished shop houses lining Arab, Baghdad and Kandahar streets, where many Indian and Malay restaurants dish up some of the most affordable street food Singapore has to offer.
It’s not casual then that such a different place could become Singapore’s den of bohemians and artists. As to mark its boundaries for the attention of art lovers, it’s along adjacent Victoria Street that famous Penang-based mural artist Ernest Zacharevic painted a gigantic girl caressing a lion’s cub. Right opposite in Jalan Pisang and Jalan Kelapa, there are two more of Zacharevic’s murals, one of a child peeping out of a window, and another of two children freewheeling in shopping carts – which are real, and installed into the wall.
Just in a couple minutes walking distance from the girl with lion-cub painting and the Sultan Mosque is the Artistry (artistryspace.com), an art gallery and café housed in a restored shop house and totally dedicated to arts. On one end of the tiny and cozy interior there’s a bar serving refreshing drinks, strong cuppas of locally roasted Liberty Coffee and excellent homemade cakes. On the opposite side, a small and informal stage is the platform where emerging local and international artists perform, play music, talk, and present their artworks, which of course hang in profusion from the walls of this multifaceted café cum art gallery.
It’s not a case that Kampong Glam is also home to one of Singapore’s most important arts spaces, the Aliwal Arts Center (aliwalartscentre.sg). A multidisciplinary arts space with a strong focus on performing arts, Aliwal organizes an annual urban art festival and boosts an incredible array of events spanning the whole gamut of performance, from Chinese Opera to ballet, from theatre to traditional Chinese music courses, and even punk and heavy metal shows.
Speaking of the latter, just up the road from Aliwal Arts Center is Independent Archive (independentarchive.sg), a reference library and collection of archival material on Singapore’s arts opened in an attractive shop house in 2012 and run with a totally Do It Yourself spirit. This place is run by some members of Singapore’s punk and hardcore community, who took residence upstairs. The ground floor is open to regular film screenings, acoustic music performances, discussions, artists’ talks, and book launches. The place is also friendly to researchers interested in delving deeper into Singapore’s alternative history, a topic they can discuss directly with some of the space’s occupants.
Between a bohemian cuppa, a spoken word performance, and a sweaty gig, don’t miss the Children Little Museum, a hidden gem at 42 Bussorah St. Don’t be fooled by the name, because this place is everything but for children: this two-storey shop and museum is a glorification of past pop culture, sporting the owner’s amazing personal collection of toys spanning from the 1950s up to the early 1990s. A huge 1950s toy robot that seems to have been taken straight out of movies such as “Forbidden Planet” or “Tobor the Great” will point the way in for a throwback to another form of art that existed before consoles, videogames, and smartphones.