The Projector, housed in an old cinema in Golden Mile Tower, has been a welcome home for artists, filmmakers and civil society organisations. The Projector

Singapore’s Creative Underground Struggles for Space

Author: Nisa Kreems
Published:

Singapore’s creative underbelly is used to homelessness.

The island’s tiny size and sky-high rents force most entertainment establishments to prioritise their bottom-lines over programming. For nightclubs, bars and restaurants, that means attractions geared to maximise crowd turnout—think model DJs, VIP rooms, and Instagram-appealing visuals. That profit-oriented mindset, however, leaves little room for alternative content.

Within this tough environment, however, are a few precious gems that cater to the tastes of nonconformist artists and musicians. Housed in an old-school 1970s movie theatre, The Projector is more than just an independent cinema screening foreign films—it’s a pillar of underground culture in Singapore. Since launching in 2015, The Projector and its foyer café, Intermission Bar, have become go-to spaces for collectives looking to throw left-field events.

The island’s tiny size and sky-high rents force most entertainment establishments to prioritise their bottom-lines over programming

Slam poetry sessions, a photography exhibition of LGBT portraits, DJ nights championing global sounds, a fashion festival and even a hair show have all taken place at Intermission Bar. The neon-infused screening rooms, meanwhile, have harboured experimental musicians, drag queens, Russian literature nights and panel discussions organised by civil society groups. This very publication also held its crowdfunding launch at one of the two cinema halls in September 2017.

“Their broad minded approach to a varied range of events has made it invaluable to the creative community,” says Sharon Seet, co-founder of record store The Analog Vault. Seet runs a pop-up events brand called The Analog Assembly, which has held several vinyl markets at Intermission.

An unpretentious vibe, vintage décor and rental prices that don’t raise eyebrows are just some of The Projector’s appealing factors. Its open-minded philosophy is the real draw for patrons and collaborators.

“Not many venues can accommodate such a variety of vibes such as punk bands and seminars, which is all possible at The Projector,” says Ramesh Krishnan, co-founder of new music/arts festival Tropika. A veteran DJ and sound producer, Krishnan throws a monthly dance night at Intermission alongside local record label Darker Than Wax.

And while most commercial enterprises shy away from political issues, The Projector does not. Given Singapore’s stringent controls on freedom of speech, businesses find it easier to avoid association with anything that even slightly questions established norms.

The ruling party, which has been in power since 1959, has a long history of using defamation suits to counter critics. Addressing hot-button issues such as race and religion is also a thorny affair. Individuals or publications seen promoting “ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore” can face imprisonment and hefty fines, according to the Sedition Act.

Establishments typically concentrate on events with the highest bar spend potential but image is also a major consideration, adds Krishnan, who’s been organising shindigs since the late 90s. Places tend to eschew gigs that are perceived as contentious or progressive, favouring the safe model of mainstream appeal, he suggests.

Activists have said that, sometimes, venues that agree to more controversial or “sensitive” events ditch organisers at the last minute after getting cold feet. The Projector, however, is an exception.

Last year, it hosted the book launch of 1987: Singapore’s Marxist Conspiracy 30 Years On, on the 30th anniversary of Operation Spectrum, a sweep in 1987 in which over 20 activists and volunteers were detained without trial and accused of being involved in a “Marxist conspiracy”. It followed on with this theme by hosting multiple screenings—with question-and-answer sessions—of the short documentary Untracing the Conspiracy. The cinema is also supportive of minority communities, encouraging customers to sign a petition against a Singaporean law that criminalises consensual sex between men.

The Projector’s liberal approach is sorely needed in a country where self-censorship and risk-averse mentalities are the norm

“Function 8 first hired The Projector in 2015 for its annual Freedom Film Festival. The ambience, acoustics and big screen provided a great experience for all. More importantly, the progressive and independent outlook of the owners assured us of a venue that is free from interference from hidden hands,” says Teo Soh Lung, a member of civil society organisation Function 8. The group was also behind the Operation Spectrum event; several of its members, including Teo, were among those detained in 1987.

Teo adds: “In today’s Singapore where venues are readily available to government and grassroots organisations but not to others, The Projector is a space that is cherished by all civil society organisations.”

The Projector’s liberal approach is sorely needed in a country where self-censorship and risk-averse mentalities are the norm. But the cinema’s future is now shrouded in uncertainty amid fears that it will be forced to vacate its current premises.

En bloc fever on the Golden Mile

Several iconic landmarks on the island have been demolished in recent years due to the phenomenon of collective property sales, known as “en bloc.” If at least 80% of the owners of a building agree, the entire structure can be sold to a real estate developer.

The Projector is housed in Golden Mile Tower, a Brutalist edifice that was completed in 1975 and makes up the “Little Thailand” district alongside an adjacent development known as Golden Mile Complex. The latter, which boasts some of the city’s best views, has already gone en bloc; many fear its neighbour could be next. Earlier this year, local media reported that Golden Mile Tower and other old properties such as People’s Park Complex were already in the process of forming collective sales committees.

Redevelopment is considered essential to optimising land use in Singapore, one of the world’s most densely populated countries. But as more post-independence monuments get demolished, many fear an erosion of cultural heritage. The 24-storey Golden Mile Tower, designed by local architect Goh Hock Guan, is home to a medley of businesses that include eateries, architecture firms, karaoke dens, travel agencies and even a recording studio. Some call the building sleazy because of its multiple hostess bars, while others are frightened by the occult shops. But for art aficionados who flock to the fifth floor where The Projector is located, the structure wields a charm of its own.

The Projector - New Naratif
building owners may not share The Projector’s progressive mindset when it comes to indie movies, offbeat soirees or discussions by political activists. The Projector

If the Tower does go en bloc, The Projector’s existence is at risk. Luckily, it has a plan B. “We’ve been casting our eyes for another space if we do need to move out,” says manager Sharon Tan.

Tan, who previously worked for the state’s urban planning authority, is all too familiar with the difficulties of sustaining culturally significant spaces amid commercial and property pressures. “As much as we’re attracted to Golden Mile Tower, we knew from the start that its time was ticking, so we weren’t surprised by the en bloc news.”

The team is on the lookout for another 70s-style cinema up for rental but choices are limited. Singapore law stipulates that movies rated R21 can’t be screened in cinemas within the heartlands. “That means we’ll have to pay city rent, which narrows our options, but I still want to screen interesting films, so there’s no way we’re giving up on that,” says Tan.

The spectre of higher prices aside, there’s also the question of how flexible their new landlords will be. Being in an old building like Golden Mile Tower enabled The Projector to feature offbeat content. But given Singapore’s conservative climate, other building owners may not share The Projector’s progressive mindset when it comes to indie movies, offbeat soirees or discussions by political activists.

 

Disappearing spaces

The recent closure of Great Escape—a bar in a parking lot outside Intermission Bar—was the first taste of looming shutdowns at Golden Mile Tower. The open-air establishment, which failed to get its lease renewed, was a fixture on the nightlife circuit and loved by regulars for its willingness to host all kinds of music nights.

It now joins an ever-cascading list of shuttered clubs, which includes Ministry of Sound, Home Club, Broadcast HQ and Montreux Jazz Cafe. Blu Jaz Cafe, whose second and third floors hosted underground parties for years, could also join that roster. The live music locale may lose its public entertainment licence amid repeated violations of overcrowding, sparking a huge public outcry. If it closes, that’s a big loss for jazz cats who regularly play there.

“In the history of unique spaces in Singapore, we have seen so many amazing ones come and go,” laments Vijay Singh, who is one half of party organiser duo Kampong Boogie. Great Escape was the de-facto home for Kampong Boogie functions, which have since been moving around the island. “We are going to continue our quest to identify spaces that work for us,” Singh says.

The city-state’s challenging nightlife ecosystem—pricey rents, noise pollution laws and strict licensing regulations—is typically the usual culprit behind shutdowns. But a lack of brand identity is also a factor. Faced with a constant influx of new players, clubs, bars and restaurants often concentrate on staying alive rather than pursuing a long-term vision. “Venues will do anything for short term success but nobody thinks about sustainability,” Singh explains, recommending establishments to invest in “an authentic experience, space and energy” rather than “bottle service, air conditioning or trendy DJs.”

The Projector - New Naratif
“People have simply grown used to accepting that their favourite locations are closing instead of fighting it.” The Projector

With every passing year, another underground locale closes its doors, hindering the expansion of local subcultures. Without accommodating spaces, groups advocating gritty electronica or eclectic exhibitions are unable to share their crafts, pushing individuals who don’t fit into Top 40s culture to the margins of society.

A lack of supporting infrastructure also limits performance opportunities for local talents, who are unable to grow and reach wider audiences. That doesn’t bode well for Singapore’s “Smart City” aspirations.

Building a thriving cultural scene is essential for metropolises to attract talent and maintain a dynamic economy, Elizabeth Cawein, adjunct professor at the University of Memphis, explained in a September TED Talk. Cities can encourage the development of professional artists by creating a conducive business environment for residency programs, festivals and studios, she argues. Encouraging public-private investment for initiatives like free concerts and regular jam sessions is also a commonly touted solution, as is the creation of independent advisory bodies who ensure that artists have a voice in decision-making.

For now though, a sense of bittersweet acceptance pervades Singaporean creative coterie. “Singaporeans tend to be pragmatic, most of us have an ‘adapt and move on’ mentality,” says Tan. “People have simply grown used to accepting that their favourite locations are closing instead of fighting it.”

 

Nisa Kreems

Nisa Kreems is a Singapore-based freelance journalist who enjoys connecting the dots between culture, history and current events. Coming soon to write about a scene near you.

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