Arty way to sell Singapore

PHOTO: The Straits Times

From the sprawling Singapore Festival in France to a cultural showcase in Mexico, an unprecedented number of international festivals are putting Singapore in the spotlight this year.

So far, at least five such festivals have taken place, with another three coming up next month. And while many of these arts events are organised by the Government, others are led by passionate individuals.

There Is Something To Write Home About, an intimate multidisciplinary festival by a group of New York-based Singaporeans, runs from Sept 12 to 22 in the Big Apple; followed by Singapore: Inside Out, a city-hopping showcase of creatives and artists presented by the Singapore Tourism Board - its New York leg runs from Sept 23 to 27.

On the other side of the globe, the Brisbane Festival, running from Sept 5 to 26, has a special Singapore Series as part of its line-up.

Damon Chua, a Singaporean playwright who has lived in the United States for about 18 years, says: "There's only so much you can do in saying, 'Come to Singapore, it's clean and you can go shopping.' These festivals are another way of showcasing Singapore... People are still discovering the arts that is in Singapore, I think there's a lot of potential."

He will be participating in Something To Write Home About and was involved in last year's Singapore Literature Festival in New York, where Singaporean writers came together for readings and discussions.

Each of these three upcoming festivals represents Singapore's arts and culture in different ways.

Something To Write Home About is a cosy festival with small-scale events, including The Necessary Stage's one-woman show Best Of, starring award-winning actress Siti Khalijah Zainal. It will take place on the premises of La MaMa, a prominent experimental theatre company in the city.

The event was started by ceramics artist Wee Hong Ling, a scientist- turned-artist based in New York. She had organised a visual arts group exhibition of Singaporean artists in New York 10 years ago and wanted to do a showcase in tandem with the Golden Jubilee celebrations - this time with several art forms.

Dr Wee tells Life over the telephone that the festival was built through word of mouth with artists and volunteers generously giving their talent and time.

Chua, 49, feels the fact that this was a grassroots festival meant that artists were free to "define the scope and content of the festival".

The event received about $110,000 in direct funding - about a third of it went to booking venues. Some arts groups were supported by organisations such as Singapore International Foundation and some sponsorship was in kind, such as air tickets from Singapore Airlines.

Dr Wee, 47, says: "I've been away from home for 23 years, but I still want to celebrate SG50. There are many of us here who feel the same way. In this big birthday bash, it's also an opportunity for us to show our friends and family, the nonSingaporeans especially, what Singapore is about."

Of a more official bent is Singapore: Inside Out, which is being orchestrated by the tourism board to showcase Singapore as a "vibrant and creative nation to augment our established business- city credentials".

The event travelled to Beijing in April and London in June. The New York edition next month will take place at Madison Square Park before it returns to Singapore in November.

With its roving performances and interactive art installations - including an edible art creation by pastry chef Janice Wong - the showcase has garnered positive feedback in Beijing and London.

For instance, professor Xu Ding Zhong, from Beijing Dance Academy, told the tourism board that "the amalgamation of traditional and modern elements ignited a spark and allowed me to see Singapore in a new light, as a creative city".

Artists who participate in Inside Out also feel that the event is an effective showcase of Singapore's creative scene.

DJ Cherry Chan, 36, co-founder of the audio-visual collective Syndicate, which have performed at every leg of the showcase, says the festival "works better than a magazine telling you what Singapore is about".

She adds: "It's like how seeing an artwork in a catalogue and looking at the art on the wall right in front of you are two very different things."

Some audience members were so intrigued by the performances that they exchanged contact details with the artists in the hope of future collaborations.

Where possible, Syndicate collaborate with local artists at every stop. Their London set included a British DJ, Kidkanevil, who sampled Singapore's beeping traffic lights as part of his mix.

For the New York leg, Syndicate are flying over five-piece Singapore band Octover, which Chan describes as "electronic soul with some jazz influence, which we felt was suitable for that New York sound".

Organisers say the challenge of such Singapore showcases is to make sure that these events do not feel like a one-off burst of activity or a thinly veiled marketing programme to boost tourism to Singapore.

Former Singapore Arts Festival director Goh Ching Lee runs arts management and consulting agency CultureLink, which is co-producing the Singapore Series at the upcoming Brisbane Festival.

She says: "Too often, we do a big bang and disappear afterwards... Personally, I'm in favour of working with local festivals, working in partnership with local organisations, which will be the parties presenting our artists, rather than a direct presentation by the Government."

CultureLink signed an agreement with Brisbane Festival to continue bringing in Singapore artists and groups over three years.

The festival's artistic director David Berthold is also keen to collaborate with festivals such as the ongoing Singapore International Festival of Arts. Two arts festival acts - T'ang Quartet and pianist Margaret Leng Tan - will travel Down Under for the Brisbane festival.

Mr Berthold says: "We know about Singapore as a business and economic powerhouse, as a business centre, and most of Australia's engagement with Singapore is very much on that level... It's probably the arts and culture of Singapore that we know the least about.

"But in the last few years, Singapore society has opened up enormously and that's really what I wanted to help show."

Singapore's contemporary dance and music are a few things on his radar.

The art created by Singapore artists living abroad often bears a touch of longing, of missing home.

Jamie Lewis, a Singaporean artist and performance maker living in Melbourne, has created an autobiographical performance called Saltwater for the Brisbane Festival. Each show is limited to 15 audience members, who will help her prepare a homemade meal as they have conversations and hear stories about her life.

Lewis, 29, who migrated to Australia about 5 1/2 years ago and is married to an Australian musician, says: "We're Singaporeans, so we love food. The biggest thing I've missed in the past few years is home-cooked meals. Your memories of home are tied to those things. And it's not just the things you can find in Asian restaurants - it's your mother's congee."

Meanwhile, over in New York, Dr Wee created 50 small ceramic houses for Something To Write Home About, reminiscent of the HDB blocks she grew up in.

She says: "They're a little bit different, but they're similar; there's conformity, yet each estate is individual. Singapore culture is about striking that balance."

Ms Goh says that while responses to Singapore art have been varied, ranging from "standing ovations" to the "lukewarm", "I do believe they do go some way in changing or updating international perceptions about Singapore".

She adds: "They would have an appreciation of the Singapore paradox - that is while we may have strict rules and censorship, our artists have not lost their creativity."

This article was first published on August 25, 2015. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.