Hipster culture helps spur business growth and transform neighbourhoods

The hipster wave has claimed in its wake anything trendsetting that can be turned into a commodity, including hand-crafted wares and terrariums, classy barbershops, cool cafe concepts and (above) vinyl records and players. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
The hipster wave has claimed in its wake anything trendsetting that can be turned into a commodity, including hand-crafted wares and terrariums, classy barbershops, cool cafe concepts and (above) vinyl records and players. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
The hipster wave has claimed in its wake anything trendsetting that can be turned into a commodity, including hand-crafted wares and terrariums, classy barbershops, (above) cool cafe concepts and vinyl records and players. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
The hipster wave has claimed in its wake anything trendsetting that can be turned into a commodity, including hand-crafted wares and terrariums, classy barbershops, (above) cool cafe concepts and vinyl records and players. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
The hipster wave has claimed in its wake anything trendsetting that can be turned into a commodity, including hand-crafted wares and terrariums, (above) classy barbershops, cool cafe concepts and vinyl records and players. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
The hipster wave has claimed in its wake anything trendsetting that can be turned into a commodity, including hand-crafted wares and terrariums, (above) classy barbershops, cool cafe concepts and vinyl records and players. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
The hipster wave has claimed in its wake anything trendsetting that can be turned into a commodity, including (above) hand-crafted wares and terrariums, classy barbershops, cool cafe concepts and vinyl records and players. -- PHOTO: TYRWHIT
The hipster wave has claimed in its wake anything trendsetting that can be turned into a commodity, including (above) hand-crafted wares and terrariums, classy barbershops, cool cafe concepts and vinyl records and players. -- PHOTO: TYRWHITT GENERAL COMPANY
-- PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG
-- PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG
Hipster enclaves in Singapore include Haji Lane and Tiong Bahru. -- PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM
Hipster enclaves in Singapore include Haji Lane and Tiong Bahru. -- PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Student Tan Yong Da has made peace with being called a hipster after years of struggling with the label.

The 23-year-old Singapore Institute of Management undergraduate is often in skinny jeans and T-shirts featuring bands that few have heard of, collects vinyl records - he has more than 100 - and takes photos with film.

From time to time, he throws small parties for friends in remote public spaces such as a quarry, playing all kinds of music from punk and electronic to shoegaze and noise from a boom box.

His sense of fashion and personal interests, which began taking shape in his late teens, have prompted friends to brand him a hipster. Although it irks him, he has "tried to stop running away" from the label. His self-denial, distress and eventual acquiescence in the face of hipsterism mirror what has been building in Singapore's social and cultural fronts in recent years, which some say has likely reached a tipping point.

The term hipster, a sweeping description of what is at the forefront of style, fashion and taste and is used on both people and things, has been a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, the label has made it easy to put a finger on anything trendsetting, be it music, apparel or a lifestyle offering, and turn it into something that can be bought and sold.

This has spurred the growth of businesses here, from artisanal cafes to bespoke clothiers, and transformed the neighbourhoods they are in.

Trendy boutiques and eateries that moved into Tiong Bahru in recent years, for example, have turned the once-sleepy housing estate into a sprawling shopping enclave. The stores, touting heritage as novelty, draw the cool and curious on weekends. Hungry for everything homemade and hand-crafted, they squish into 1.5m-wide walkways and coffee shops built for a time when the population was a fifth of what it is now.

As this potent mix of commerce, lifestyle and tastes became couched as "hipster", however, the word quickly became anathema. The have-nots and know-nots excuse their exclusion and ignorance by employing gentle mockery. The other camp, ill at ease about their privileged, too-cool-for-school status, take offence and deny their hipster status.

These vague feelings of hurt and envy, however, go beyond a class struggle fought on taste.

Its earliest use, in the 1940s in the United States, was to describe enthusiasts of the nascent jazz style, bebop, which rebelled against the prevailing genre, swing, with its quick tempo and asymmetrical phrasing.

Those who bought into the subversiveness of bebop, and the life and style of its musicians, dressed and behaved in defining ways. A hipster would not greet by raising his arm, he extended his index finger; he wore peg trousers and padded shoulders with a presence of their own.

When the label came back into circulation in the early 2000s in the US, a hipster continued to have "an air of knowing about exclusive things before anyone else", says author Mark Greif in the 2010 New York Magazine article, What Was The Hipster?.

But this knowledge was no longer creative; it mostly borrowed from the forgotten past and thrived on anachronistic mash-ups.

Drainpipe jeans of the 1950s were reincarnated as skinny jeans and paired with lumberjack flannel shirts. Heavy-rimmed glasses shed their lenses and Civil War-era beards invaded men's faces.

Taxidermied animals and terrariums, once fixtures of homes in the 19th century, reappeared in the design of interiors. Fixed-gear bicycles and vinyl records that had earlier fallen out of favour cycled back into currency.

Eateries and bars took a leaf out of the book of speakeasies of the 1920s with secret, password-protected entrances. Food, drinks and clothing made the old-fashioned way by hand instead of machine overthrew efficiency and productivity.

Many of these trends later found their way here, from lumberjack fashion in the concrete jungle of Singapore to the rash of farmers' markets that have sprung up.

It did not take long for clones of hipsters from New York City's Williamsburg and Seattle's Capitol Hill neighbourhoods to be spotted in London's Shoreditch, Sydney's Redfern and Singapore's Tiong Bahru and Haji Lane.

In Singapore, the hipster wave is driven by a young generation "seeking and consuming authenticity in a rapidly changing urban environment", says Assistant Professor Liew Kai Khiun of Nanyang Technological University's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.

"Compared with contrived megamalls and mass-manufactured consumer items in chain stores, icons from the past can come across as more authentic," he adds. "For digital natives and the Starbucks generation, the analogue vinyl or rustic kopitiam would seem to be more 'real'."

Around 2010, cafes serving hand-crafted coffee began opening in old shophouses here; bespoke fashion boutiques were launched; shops selling vintage furniture and knick-knacks sprang up.

These stores, often in old neighbourhoods such as Jalan Besar and Haji Lane, were typically filled with the halogen glow of vintage light bulbs, the warmth of recycled wood furnishings and a set of young, trendy customers seeking a singular experience.

Had these disparate developments happened at a time when "hipster" was not already trending around the world, they might not have come under the same banner.

But being birthed at a time of books and TV shows parodying hipsterism - The Hipster Handbook, a tongue-in-cheek guide to the wave in Brooklyn, New York, was published in 2003; the hit TV series Portlandia, a satire on neo-bohemian types in Portland, Oregon, aired in 2011 - their fate was cast. They would be viewed through the hipster lens and unwittingly subsumed in a wave sometimes seen to be bingeing on cool.

Voicing this conundrum is Ms Cynthia Chua, 43, founder of the Spa Esprit Group which includes businesses such as the cafe 40 Hands Coffee, serving artisanal coffee alongside old-school local treats such as tau sar pau (steamed red bean bun), and the men's grooming salon We Need A Hero, both in Tiong Bahru.

She says, nonchalant: "Anything that is new, cool and attracts a certain group of people, influencers who are active on social media, becomes labelled as hipster. But the concepts we create are about identifying a gap in the market and coming up with something that is relevant to the local palate and what people want."

Indeed, few, if any, of the businesses commonly associated with the wave had any intention of being hipster, hence their owners' unease about being lumped with the social phenomena.

Mr Leon Foo, 32, owner of the cafe Chye Seng Huat Hardware in Jalan Besar, says he has had to "deal with" the label since the cafe opened in 2012 selling hand-crafted coffee in an industrial-looking space that channels the spirit of its former occupant, a hardware store.

"We are part of the hipster wave because coffee is a subculture which hipsters like, but we didn't do it intentionally to be hipster. What we believe in is showcasing coffee in a different way," he adds.

It is the same for people who buy into these commodities and find themselves slapped with the label that carries shades of both tastemaker and trend leech.

Mr Darren Lee, 34, founder of street-style website Shentonista and director of creative consultancy Uniform, says in half-jest: "Now, it's almost dangerous to be cool or informed or to have cultural cachet because you are immediately labelled a hipster."

It is not easy, however, to brush aside the perniciousness of the wave, especially in the dining scene.

For one, colonies of similar-looking cafes, bars and restaurants have saturated the landscape.

Ms Cherin Tan, 30, creative director of interior design firm LAANK, says it has received requests from clients who want their set-ups to look like a certain hipster cafe "because it is a look that has proven to work and is popular for now".

"But we try to steer them away from that because it is a trend that is not going to stick around for long," she says.

It has also crippled some business-customer relationships.

Mr Foo of Chye Seng Huat Hardware laments the loss of customers "who love our coffee but felt out of place" in a cafe associated with a trend, even as it gained new fans. "Nobody should care. They should just come for the coffee."

But some good has also come out of the wave.

Mr Lim of Uniform notes that it has spurred the growth of bespoke, craft-based menswear here such as shoemakers ed et al and menswear tailor Kevin Seah Bespoke.

"For these local craftsmen and makers, it has helped them sustain their business," he says.

Ms Tan of LAANK says the strong aesthetic push of the wave has also made the public and clients pay more attention to design.

The only way forward for hipsters of any kind, then, is with confidence.

Mr Muhamad Jamuri Busori, 42, founder of the I Am cafe in Haji Lane, which ticks all the hipster checkboxes with an industrial look, mason jar mugs and staff who sometimes dress in the hipster theme, says: "I didn't know what was 'hipster' until my staff told me about it this year.

"People may use the label on us but we know where we are headed. The cafe was inspired by my holiday to Amsterdam. My staff dress up to make the work environment more fun, and my target audience has always been working adults in the area."

Similarly, Ms Ginette Chittick, 37, programme leader of Lasalle College of the Arts' diploma in fashion and a forerunner of the alternative music scene here, tells friends she is "too old" when they teasingly call her a hipster for her trailblazing taste in music and fashion.

"The ones who are using the term in a derogatory manner should lighten up. Hipster is a sign of the times, part of the zeitgeist of today; people should just let it be," she says.

lijie@sph.com.sg


Are you a hipster?

Take our test to find out how much of a hipster you are.

1. Your idea of a perfect Sunday is one spent...

A. Sleeping in until 3pm and waking to a fast food-TV binge fest

B. Visiting a flea market then attending a do-it-yourself craft workshop

C. Hopping from one cafe to another in Tiong Bahru on your fixed-gear bike, quizzing the barrista at each shop about the beans used for your cup of joe and taking tasting notes at every stop

2. Aeropress is...

A. The title of an inflight magazine

B. A new type of letterpress machine

C. A coffee-making device that is known for its quick, rich brew

3. The symbol "!!!" is...

A. A punctuation disaster

B. Your reaction to news of George Clooney getting married

C. The name of an American band, which is pronounced "chk chk chk"

4. Your favourite festival is...

A. The Singapore International Festival of Arts

B. The Singapore Night Festival

C. The Laneway Festival

5. Your wardrobe is filled with...

A. Clothes bought from a department store

B. Buys from blogshops and online retailers

C. Clothes bought from boutiques in shophouses

6. Tian Kee & Co is...

A. The name of a provision shop

B. The name of an old-school jewellery store

C. The name of a provision shop-turned-cafe in Dakota Crescent

7. Chuck and Vans are...

A. Unrelated; one is a cut of beef, another a vehicle

B. Nicknames of people

C. Among the pieces of footwear you own

8. You own a fixed-gear bicycle because...

A. You have a good sense of balance and control

B. Nobody except a hipster will steal it and hipsters don't steal

C. It was love at first sight when you laid eyes on its curves in the magazine Kinfolk

9. Pitchfork is...

A. An agricultural tool

B. A newfangled cousin of the hybrid cutlery spork

C. Your daily read online for the latest news on independent music

10. Your Instagram account is populated with...

A. Oops, you don't have an Instagram account

B. Photos of your breakfast, lunch and dinner

C. Outfit-of-the-day pictures snapped against mysterious, moody backgrounds

If you answered C for seven or more of the questions, you are pretty much a hipster. As a hipster, however, your sense of self-denial and secret self-loathing will cause you to seethe at our suggestion. We recommend you nurse those feelings over an ice-cold bottle of craft beer. Cheers.