Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Cool Singapore?

I went for Yo La Tengo's show at the Esplanade last night. To those of you who don't know who YLT are (and that must mean almost all Singaporeans), they are an American band that basically defy all attempts at categorisation. I would just call them indie-rock. Very loud indie-rock.

I'm not sure if the Concert Hall had ever experienced such loud music before. It was quite funny to see a sign outside the doors, announcing that the music was going to be loud and that earplugs were available (one pair for each person! first come first served!) for the audience, free of charge. (In typical Singaporean fashion, my friend wanted to grab a pair -- not for the gig, but to use for other occasions. I just looked at her. We didn't take any.)

The gig was great. I enjoyed it a lot. I only wished that it was in a standing venue, not a theatre like the Concert Hall. Although the band did play quite a few slow songs, they were also tremendously rockin' throughout most of the gigs. It would have been great if the gig had been at the rehearsal studio or even in the space behind the stage which the Esplanade had staged gigs at before, e.g. Zircon Gov Pawnstarz.

It was also quite incongruous, when each of the three band members were presented with a bouquet at the end of their encore (which they had to hurry through because of Rickie Lee Jones at 11pm). You could tell from their utterly bemused faces.

But this isn't an entry about the wonders of YLT or the Mosaic Festival (which is praiseworthy). Instead, I wanted to write about all the recent talk about "cool" Singapore (a rather derivative phrase, thanks to Tony Blair's Cool Brittania), and how Singapore has a "buzz" and is a hip place with a great entertainment scene.

Actually, I beg to differ.

Firstly, I don't put too much stock in that survey by FutureBrand that ranked Singapore #2 for nightlife and restaurants. Firstly, FutureBrand are the consultants engaged by the Singapore Government to "brand" Singapore. Secondly, while I think the food in Singapore is fantastic and is one of the best things about the country, it's a little hard to believe that, city to city, we beat New York and London. Maybe it was a country-to-country survey, but still.

Thirdly, I'm not too impressed by Singapore's entertainment scene. I know some of our leaders have waxed lyrical about the various choices and options available here. But come on. Just compare us with, again, New York and London, or even Sydney. I think the entertainment options available here fall far, far short of the options available in those cities (and I'm just talking about those I've been to and enjoyed).

There's a very good reason why Singaporeans watch so many movies and spend so much time shopping: there's precious little to do in Singapore proper in the way of entertainment. I for one am not into clubbing and pubbing. Yes, many people are, and more power to them. There are indeed plenty of choices for clubs and bars and watering holes.

But they are all offering similar types of nightlife, variations on a couple of themes.

We don't get multiple hot, good plays or musicals on at the same time. It's telling that the second coming of Phantom of the Opera is such a big deal.

We don't get gigs on a regular basis -- we get shows from January to March thanks to acts passing through to or from Australia, and then it's pretty much dry for the rest of the year.

We don't have a real comedy scene here, 1nitestand notwithstanding -- and I've never bothered going to 1nitestand, because I don't find the clips on their website funny. And would you watch a movie when you're bored by the trailer? It's telling that the Boom Boom Room and Gold Dust have both bitten the dust.

It comes down to a small market in Singapore for these types of entertainment, too small to sustain a vibrant scene with multiple offerings on a permanent basis. To point to the mega-musicals or limited-run shows that come through Singapore as an example of how we have a thriving entertainment scene is to miss the point, because the very enthusiasm with which they are greeted betrays the paucity of entertainment here. (Having said that, I don't think the failure of Crazy Horse was due to local market size, since they were always aiming for the tourists.)

And I don't think having 6.5 million people is going to change that. Because what you really need isn't people per se -- what you need are young people with disposable incomes and free time and energy at night. Yet, I suspect that Singapore being what it is, the immigrants coming in will tend to be families and married couples who will not seek out such options.

A couple of years ago, I was seriously contemplating emigrating. I've since changed my mind. But one of the key factors for me then was the fact that Singapore really is boring most of the time. I want to laugh every time publications like IS magazine run a piece on all the different things you can do on a weekend, because these pieces are all the same and they all mention the same things, over and over again.

I craved the excitement of New York, where there's always something to do. I yearned for the diversity of London, where there's always something different. I wanted the just-far-enough-but-not-too-far distance of Sydney, where it's livable and has entertainment options and yet is relatively near home.

In the end, I decided that Singapore was my home and, for a couple of personal reasons, I really did want to stay. But that doesn't change the fact that there's precious little to do here in the way of entertainment, and that's likely to remain so for the long term simply because of market limitations. And we should stop pretending otherwise.


haojie said...

Never mind the night life; if you're for some activities unique to Singapore, visit Wild Singapore at www.wildsingapore.com for some native action.

Recruit Ong said...

Not counting the western cities, my friends tell me entertainment in HK, Taipei, Shanghai, and Tokyo are top top in the world. I hope to go there one day.

Dave dude said...

Hey I know earplug girl!

faiz said...

i'm a post-65 singaporean (or whatever citizen categories they put me under)
the fact that you went to Yo La Tengo makes you cooler than then "post-65" MPs - and Eunice Olsen.

oh, and your postings are refreshing, and intelligent. wonderful. i've become a regular ready.


Siew Kum Hong said...

To recruit ong: I find HK too much like Singapore -- the entertainment scene there is much like Singapore's, focused primarily on nightlife and clubbing. Have not been to Shanghai, Taipei or Tokyo, so can't comment.

To faiz: Thanks but you are too kind -- I'm not sure I'm necessarily "cool" at all! I am very sure my friends will chortle if/when they read this comment :)

. said...

Yes there is more to nightlife than clubbing and pubbing.

A sustainable nightlife needs to have a mix of the big-scale events (concerts, big clubs) and small scale grassroots initiated events (small scale events initiated by individuals)

you may want to take a look at FARM.sg for their ROJAK nights

keep up the postings, I'm impressed!

Carl said...

Only the boring gets bored...

spaceoddity said...

Last week's YLT gig was in one word - awesome. Although I didn't particularly care for the choice of venue but I was just elated (and pleasantly SURPRISED) to have finally been able to catch the band live in Singapore. Sure, the local scene still has some way to go before it catches up with NYC (my favourite city), London or Sydney but for me, it's more than that - this city seems to lack real soul, something which I desperately long for. And yes, I'm still trying to figure out the rationale behind the 6.5 million people theory?!!