Inside Four Spots In Singapore Offering Refuge, Support & More To Our Creative Community

by Keng Yang Shuen   /   August 17, 2022

Whether it’s an open-to-all studio redefining how fashion should be exhibited or a bunch of arty boys democratising a stuffy, old recreational sport, the spaces and people featured here share one thing in common: They offer inspiration, support and refuge – in short, a spiritual home – to the local creative community.


THE F&B JOINT REBUILDING AND REJUVENATING THE AFTER-HOURS MUSIC SCENE: OFFTRACK

singapore creative community
Credit:Athirah Annissa

Offtrack co-founders Dean Chew (foreground, left) and Daniel O’Connor (foreground, right) aim to make the eight-month-old, music-forward joint on North Canal Road a hub that connects people from various creative fields. Oh, and the grub and cocktails are great too. Here, they’re joined by the rest of the Offtrack team: (from left) Daryl Chan, Nicholas Bong, Noriko Farahsyazwani, Edmund Low,Angelo Maniam, Souher Wahba, Min An, Aslam Zainal, Ryan Cheng and Joash Conceicao.

“We just wanted to give a bit of optimism back to the communities that we’ve each built; show that there are some good things coming out of everything that went on for the last few years,” says Daniel O’Connor of Offtrack, the eight-month-old music-centric cocktail bar and restaurant on North Canal Road that he co-founded with spatial designer Dean Chew. “And I think the reaction to the place has shown that people do miss and want that.”

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Pre-Covid-19, the two men had masterminded some of the best open-air shindigs on the island. O’Connor is part of the party collective Ice Cream Sundays – known for its down-to-earth, day-to-night pop-up affairs – while Chew is co-founder and artistic director of the critically acclaimed underground electronic music label Darker Than Wax. After collaborating on multiple feel-good, dance-fuelled events, it only made sense that the two coalesced their creativity into one shared physical home. “We position ourselves as a sort of in-between place: an alternative spot with no airs where one can get good food and music, before hitting the clubs later in the night,” says Chew.

“We position ourselves as a sort of in-between place: an alternative spot with no airs where one can get good food and music, before hitting the clubs later in the night.”

Dean Chew, co-founder of Offtrack

That fluid, amorphous approach reverberates through everything at the Mod-inflected joint – in particular, its robust music programming that may focus on retro Japanese city pop tunes on one night, and Afro- Caribbean-influenced remixes on another. The team had never set out to create themed nights. Instead, the diversity reflects the wide tastes of the founders, as well as that of guest DJs and vinyl selectors invited from around the region to helm the deck that takes centre stage in the 40-seater establishment.

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Already, Offtrack’s cemented itself as a ground zero of sorts to discover exciting new music – particularly that by emerging talents. “We put a lot of thought and care into who we invite to play here, and people have caught on that we’re pretty discerning that way,” says Chew. Younger names who have spinned on site also tend to see a boost in their profiles after, he adds.

An inclusive space for music lovers is not all that the duo are trying to build, though. In April, Offtrack hosted a month-long art show curated by the independent consultancy Mama Magnet that featured the quirky works of Yogyakarta-based printmaking collective Krack!. More shows by other young artists are in the pipeline, with the ultimate goal of making Offtrack a hub that connects people from various creative fields. Says O’Connor: “As a community, we’ve lost a lot of such spaces in the past two years. If there’s any chance at all of bringing that energy back, we’re down for that.”


THE ALTRUISTIC INDIE INSTITUTION OFFERING SPACE AND SUPPORT TO CREATIVES OF ALL STRIPES: THE GLASS HUT

singapore creative community
Credit:Athirah Annissa

Since opening in January, The Glass Hut has had an impressive output of workshops, markets, live gigs and exhibitions that cut across different creative fields, including a multi-disciplinary art show in May by the Japanese artist Sakiko, whose paintings are exhibited here. Running the joint is a motley crew of 20-somethings, all of whom juggle full-time jobs while establishing this safe space where creatives can work and be discovered. Among them are (from left) Melvin Chua, Natalie Phay, Sandra Tan, Dione Keh (who co-founded the space with Cruise Chen, who was unable to make the shoot), Isaac Chia, Farhan Remy and Wan Jie Che.

There’s a greenhouse of sorts that’s taken root in the buzzy Pearl’s Hill Terrace enclave, and the folks behind it are fermenting the best possible vibes through their fervid support of the arts. Dubbed The Glass Hut, it’s a multipurpose, multidisciplinary space opened this January by a group of 20-somethings from wildly varied backgrounds. Co-founder Dione Keh, for example, is a financial consultant with a background in organising music festivals, while its ever-growing coterie of volunteers includes one Nathan Hartono.

To date, the 1,000 sq ft site has hosted workshops on butoh (a Japanese dance art), applied theatre sessions (where theatre is used as a form of therapy), live gigs (music genres have ranged from death metal to instrumental), flea markets and mixed-media performances. One of its most memorable showcases took place in May and featured the Japanese artist Sakiko coating the bodies of dancers with neon paint who later took part in a staged procession, with nagashi somen and kakigori (shaved ice dessert) served up. Expect more to come including classes on music production, DJ-ing and digital art, reveals Keh.

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In short, it’s near-impossible to define the type of cultural arts The Glass Hut champions – and that’s exactly how the team behind it likes it. Says Keh, who got the idea to launch it after seeing her musician friends struggle with unemployment during the early days of the pandemic: “We want The Glass Hut to be a safe space for all kinds of folks who might be into the arts, but see it as difficult or unrealistic to pursue it as a career due to this prevalent stigma that one can’t make a living out of the arts.”

“We want The Glass Hut to be a safe space for all kinds of folks who might be into the arts, but see it as difficult or unrealistic to pursue it as a career due to this prevalent stigma that one can’t make a living out of the arts.”

Dione Keh, co-founder of The Glass Hut

At the start, some artists were offered use of the space and its resources pro bono. Now – to help sustain the place – rates are adjusted according to whoever’s knocking. (These have spanned corporations looking for a venue for team-bonding activities to fresh art school graduates in search of studio space.) There’s a collaborative, can-do spirit about The Glass Hut team and its diverse background means that it’s able to take care of everything from operations to marketing, allowing guest creatives to focus on their craft.

The eventual goal, says Keh, is to develop The Glass Hut into a platform where creatives can connect with others – schools, corporations, events, you name it – and be discovered and find paid work. “Somewhat like a Carousell for creatives,” quips Keh. We’re sold.


THE STUDIO THAT WANTS TO REDEFINE WHO (AND WHAT) SHOULD BE IN THE FASHION SPOTLIGHT: FASHION ON DISPLAY

singapore creative community
Credit:Athirah Annissa

Fashion writer and researcher Weiqi Yap started her self-funded studio-slash-gallery Fashion On Display three months ago to explore experimental presentations of fashion and, in turn, start alternative conversations about what and who’s important in fashion.

Exhibitions, events and other venues or real-life experiences that offer the public a chance to look at fashion from a cultural or anthropological lens (read: no shopping) are rare. Enter writer and researcher Weiqi Yap’s studio-slash-gallery, Fashion On Display, located in an industrial building in Bukit Batok Crescent. Having trained in fashion curation at the London College of Fashion, the 26-year-old was struck by the absence of such spaces crucial to fostering a vibrant fashion scene that goes beyond commerce. Three months ago, she opened the doors to her L-shaped, 300 sq ft site, with all visitors and potential collaborators welcome.

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Her first exhibition, Dressing For The Dream Space, staged in June looked at what people wear to visit art spaces. How Yap explored the topic was similarly unexpected. She invited four friends – each from a different creative field (a graphic designer, a film programmer, a fashion academic and a curatorial researcher) – to be the main subjects, and showcased garments and accessories from their wardrobes that they had worn to exhibitions and art galleries.

Complementing these were extracts from interviews done with the participants which were displayed in delightfully playful ways. Two of them, for example, had mentioned songs that came to mind during their exhibition visits, so Yap scrawled the lyrics on the floor, walls and even pipes as a visual representation of those fleeting thoughts. In all, it made for a show that felt unusually personal and thoughtful, with the modest studio size offering an intimacy that’s hard to find or replicate in a traditional museum or gallery. On a more holistic level, it succeeded in injecting a humanness into fashion and drawing out the relationships people have with clothes that go beyond retail or aesthetic trends.

“I don’t think there is a right-or-wrong, ideal-or-less-ideal way to engage with fashion exhibitions. My favourite thing about fashion is that it tends to be the one medium that everyone can relate to just through the act of us getting dressed each day.”

Weiqi Yap, founder of studio-slash-gallery Fashion On Display

Yap is candid about her grassroots approach – Fashion On Display is fully self-funded (which is also why it’ll run only for a year). “It was important for the first show to be about everyday dress and less about designer fashion or historical dress, which have already been valorised in museums,” she explains. “I wanted it to demonstrate that everyday clothing can be as, or sometimes more, illuminating and worthy of observation than what’s shown in traditional institutions.”

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Her next exhibition takes place this month and focuses on the craft and technical aspects of fashion. There are also film screenings and other collaborative events lined up later in the year. “I don’t think there is a right-or-wrong, ideal-or-less-ideal way to engage with fashion exhibitions. My favourite thing about fashion is that it tends to be the one medium that everyone can relate to just through the act of us getting dressed each day.”


THE CREATIVE COLLECTIVE BUILDING AN INCLUSIVE COMMUNITY AROUND A STUFFY BOARD GAME: ALIWAL CHESS CLUB

singapore creative community
Credit:Athirah Annissa

The convivial boys behind Aliwal Chess Club have been making chess not only cool, but also inclusive, with their monthly, free-for-all meets held on the streets of Kampong Glam.They are (from left) Muhd Irfan, Shaiful Bahri, Hirfan Romzi, Haikel Hakiff, Zuhaili Amin, Muhd Syariz and Amirul Daniel.

Even with the attention brought about by the hit 2020 Netflix drama The Queen’s Gambit, chess tends to suffer the reputation of being a slow-moving sport with elitist connotations. In recent months, however, a young collective by the name of Aliwal Chess Club (ACC) has been reviving interest in the board game here.

Sessions organised by this seven-member team are typically informal events. Think of them more as casual gatherings literally held on the street with wooden stools and discarded pallets for seats, which was how members of the ACC had started off getting into the game. These monthly meets are held on Sultan Gate, the feeder road that leads to the Malay Heritage Centre in Kampong Glam and just a stone’s throw away from Aliwal Street, which explains the group’s name.

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ACC founder Hirfan Romzi says that while there are organisations and societies for chess enthusiasts here, they tend to have strict rules and membership fees. He and his posse are not interested in all that gatekeeping. “People have this image that chess is played in formal tournaments or staged at fancy places, but I believe chess should be for everyone and anyone can learn and enjoy the game,” he says.

“People have this image that chess is played in formal tournaments or staged at fancy places, but I believe chess should be for everyone and anyone can learn and enjoy the game.”

Hirfan Romzi, founder of Aliwal Chess Club

The collective’s convivial energy (their motto: “drink teh, then we play”) has won it a devoted following, since it started last November. Those who have turned up for sessions include children (accompanied by guardians) and lawyers (decked out in full suits). Gen Zers make up a large number of participants, and they include the ACC members themselves – all of whom are in their early to mid-20s and are from the creative industry.

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Players of any level, including novices, are welcome – other participants guide them through the basics – and one can BYOB (bring your own board), but the ACC encourages participants to share the boards it provides to foster community spirit. Unsurprisingly, people tend to come back (follow the ACC’s Instagram account @aliwalchessclub for event updates).

And, if one finds playing chess on the streets a little rough, the ACC has also been invited to host sessions for as many as 70 people at F&B joints, which is another indication of its success. All one needs to do is to purchase a drink at the host site – the collective’s way of supporting small local businesses. Hirfan lets on: “Through collaborations on merchandise with local creatives and highlighting F&B spaces with our cafe (meets) series, I’m hoping to build a movement where more people thrive together.”


Photography Athirah Hassan Art Direction Jonathan Chia Grooming Beno Lim, Sarah Tan & Eunice Wong


This article first appeared in the August 2022 Home Edition of FEMALE