From bohemian forerunner Holland Village, to reigning king Tiong Bahru and emerging indie centre Jalan Besar, here are the best spots in town to get a taste of local alternative culture.
Known for its skyscrapers and gleaming new facilities, ultra-modern Singapore has been accused of being sterile and dull. These alternative neighbourhoods show the city is anything but soulless.
Named after early resident Hugh Holland — an architect and part-time actor who was active in the early 1900s — Holland Village is home to the city’s well-heeled local and expat population. It was the original stronghold for art concepts in Singapore. And though the city’s alternative crowd has slowly migrated to other neighbourhoods — like Tiong Bahru and Jalan Besar — the old indie haunt has been given new life in recent months, with a slew of new eateries, retail concepts and offices opening in the area.
The district is divided into two main areas: Holland Village proper — which spans commercial streets Lorong Liput and Lorong Mambong — and Chip Bee Gardens, made up of retail stretch Jalan Merah Saga as well as an estate of old British military housing built in the 1950s. On the main stretch, Lorong Mambong, don’t miss Wala Wala. This bar and live music venue is an institution where many of the city’s best loved music acts got their start. Nearby, PARK, a solar-powered shack constructed from a refurbished shipping container, is also a great pit stop for affordable craft brews.
If you have a sweet tooth, head over to slick 2am: dessertbar. Recently renovated, the place offers confections by award-winning home-grown pâtissier Janice Wong. New to the neighbourhood is lifestyle magazine Monocle at Chip Bee Gardens. Housed in a black-and-white terrace house, the space comprises a retail store, coffee counter and office. Close by, on Jalan Merah Saga, hip ice cream spot Sunday Folks has also brought a young new crowd to the area with their soft serve ice cream. Wander down along the stretch and you’ll find restaurants galore, along with respected Southeast Asian art gallery Taksu, which showcases edgy, modern pieces inspired by the region’s urban centres.
Just northeast of the city centre, former swampland Jalan Besar has been home to factories and slaughterhouses since the late 1800s. But now, the industrial estates are turning cultural with an influx of art spaces, creative workplaces, restaurants and bars, all drawn by affordable rents and the underground vibe.
At the heart of the increasingly hip district is Jalan Besar Stadium. The soccer arena has played host to matches since 1929 and is now surrounded by all manner of cafes. Among the earliest entrants was Chye Seng Huat Hardware. The tricked-out old hardware store — perpetually packed with young creatives — offers java by top local roaster, Papa Palheta. Upstairs of the cafe, there’s also a quirky little boutique, Tyrwhitt General Store offering indie publications and artisan products.
A few doors down, another Jalan Besar pioneer Windowsill Pies puts out top notch sweets (think vodka lime coconut pie). Laid back café The Bravery, dessert specialist Tiramisu Hero and no-frills craft beer joint The Papa Shop round out the dining options in the area. Also in the neighbourhood is The Refinery, a three-in-one concept by the folks behind Tyrwhitt General Store. The place comprises a yakitori joint, cocktail bar as well as a well-designed co-working space (geared at creatives). Other co-working spaces in the area include Hackerspace — for tech geeks — and The Growell, an unofficial hub for the city’s urban farmers. If you’re into local art, there’s plenty to see too.
Check out local art collective The Artists Village — active since 1989 — and At Ease Gallery. Both are among the best places in town to view the work of Singaporean talents. The street art is also no slouch. Among the best graffiti pieces is a hyper realistic mural on a pedestrian stretch between Rowell and Desker Road. The work of American street artists Elmac and Tyke Witnes AWR, the piece was commissioned for the Singapore Night Festival in 2010.
Through the 20th century, wealthy business men kept their mistresses at this infamous estate. Centrally located, it was near the ladies’ workplaces in the Chinatown red light district. But today, Tiong Bahru is Singapore’s undisputed king of indie neighbourhoods. It is hipster central: home to trendy cafes, indie booksellers and boutiques touting locally designed fashion. The well-preserved art deco architecture — the neighbourhood was one of the nation’s first housing estates, established in the 1930s — adds to the charm. Though it has been a mite overplayed lately (American site Thrillist named it the eighth most hipster hood’ in the world), it still draws the artsy set with regular bloc parties, pop-ups, concerts and exhibitions.
Shopping at Tiong Bahru is always a highlight. Stop by BooksActually, the local go-to for alternative titles, boosting a strong selection of zines, journals, poetry collections and novels, along with quirky vintage collectables. Also worth a look is vinyl store, Curated Records, design boutique Strangelets, creative studio cum retail outlet Bloesem, plus art galleries Degios Art and Grey Projects.
Diverse food options are a huge draw too. There are trendy two-in-one concepts like Two Face Pizza — a local coffee shop (kopitiam) which doubles as a pizzeria at night — and Bincho, which works as a mee pok noodle store by day and yakitori joint by night. There’s also serious coffee at 40 Hands, and Asian-inflected French pastries at sister joint Tiong Bahru Bakery. For Indian meals, check out Tiong Bahru Club Singapura. Or try ODP for modern European plates. Get homey baked goods at Plain Vanilla Bakery and head to Thirsty for craft beer. Basically, great food is round every corner.