Climb up the sheltered flight of steps facing the back of People’s Park Food Centre or, if you’re driving, wind up the meandering Pearl’s Hill Terrace off Eu Tong Sen Street, and you’ll find yourself face-to-face with a modest three-storey building. Its neoclassical style – maintained since the ’30s when the structure was erected – could surprise many. Ditto its tranquillity – for all its proximity to Chinatown, the site is hugged by the leafy Pearl’s Hill City Park along the entire length of its back. What makes being at 195 Pearl’s Hill Terrace feel most like stepping into another world, though, is its eclectic, artsy community.
Businesses offering workshops on the latest lifestyle trends (tufting, pottery, sound healing, you name it) reside alongside speciality stores hawking anything from crystals to artisanal cheeses. Recently, a crop of Gen Z-run enterprises have popped up: the creative outfit Anteiku Studios, which also retails vintage clothing, and the tattoo studio Crevice, to name a few. There are also offices and work spaces occupied by artists, architects, interior designers, filmmakers, fashion designers and dancers – and what’s reportedly Singapore’s only taxidermy gallery.
Many of these inhabitants decorate the open corridors with plants, artwork and furniture with a pop art bent, adding not only to the venue’s photogenic quality (it’s a hot spot among Instagrammers), but also bohemian charm and conviviality. It’s not uncommon for tenants to gather after-hours for meals and to share ideas. Says Cyaan, a mononymous artist who set up her studio, A Tiny Dream, in a second-floor unit this March: “Our little daily dinner group is made up of people from three studios here. It started out of pure convenience – we could split food delivery fees – but has become much more than that. We share funny stories, help one another with business woes, and talk about anything. Creative collaborations have also sprouted from these sessions.”
And as Geraldine Faith Chua, owner of the metaphysical store Magick Mama Shop located on level three, puts it: “If you need something, you can simply go around knocking on doors and invariably, there’ll be someone happy to help. I really dig that kampung spirit.”
It’s a long way from what 195 Pearl’s Hill Terrace had previously been home to: a host of public service facilities mostly related to national security. It was originally built to serve as barracks and was the Singapore Police Force’s headquarters until it moved in 2001. The over-140,000sq ft site would remain vacant until 2007 – a year before it was gazetted for conservation – when the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) put it up for tender to provide more office space.
Master tenant Jerry Tan – who won that bid and has been subletting and taking care of the property since – says he had first noticed more creatives moving in around 2019. Today, 90 per cent of the 200 units available is occupied, with those in arts and culture forming well over half of the tenants – the most ever – according to Tan.
“If you need something, you can simply go around knocking on doors and invariably, there’ll be someone happy to help. I really dig that kampung spirit.”Geraldine Faith Chua, owner of the metaphysical store Magick Mama Shop, which is situated on the third floor of 195 Pearl’s Hill Terrace
It could, in part, be due to the affordable rent. Tan reveals that the rate for the smallest units, which measure between 60 and 80 sq feet each, currently starts from $500 monthly – what some might consider a steal given the central location. A self-professed art lover, Tan has also been trying to transform the venue into a cultural hub by pushing for units to be officially approved for arts and lifestyle use – something he points out has only been possible with the support of the SLA.
“It feels so good to be working around these young talents in the arts community every day,” he says. “Think about how their workshops have helped visitors to relieve pandemic-induced stress, bringing them joy and turning this place into a peaceful hideaway where they can relax.”
Coupled with the diverse tenant mix and community’s grassroots spirit, it’s unsurprising that 195 Pearl’s Hill Terrace would draw creative types, resulting in the most vibrant and stimulating of arts enclaves: one that’s come about naturally and is free to evolve. Says Rafi Abdullah, a researcher, writer and curator who’s part of the art collective ToNewEntities that works out of a second-floor unit: “The growth of events and activities you find here is very organic and unique, borne out of the different aspirations and motivations of the tenants.”