Singapore softly now

Pastry chef Janice Wong's chocolate house has more than 8,000 laksa- and chilli-infused chocolates (above) and a London visitor at Speak Cryptic's interactive graffiti bedroom Karma Kamillion (left).
Pastry chef Janice Wong's chocolate house has more than 8,000 laksa- and chilli-infused chocolates (above) and a London visitor at Speak Cryptic's interactive graffiti bedroom Karma Kamillion.PHOTOS: TAN SHZE EE
Pastry chef Janice Wong's chocolate house has more than 8,000 laksa- and chilli-infused chocolates (above) and a London visitor at Speak Cryptic's interactive graffiti bedroom Karma Kamillion (left).
Pastry chef Janice Wong's chocolate house has more than 8,000 laksa- and chilli-infused chocolates and a London visitor at Speak Cryptic's interactive graffiti bedroom Karma Kamillion (above).PHOTOS: TAN SHZE EE

Tourism board sells cultural offerings with more subtle approach

Singapore has progressed from merlions and orchids to street food and star violinists parachuted onto international stages.

But the latest attempt by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) to conquer hearts and minds in Beijing, London and New York is taking a more subtle turn.

Singapore Inside Out, the three-city tour of Singapore art and design, wrapped up its five-day gig in London yesterday.

  • Forging partnerships

  • Working with local partners seems to be the trick up the Singapore Tourism Board's sleeve this year. For the showcase in London, three unusual collaborations were forged.

    Gingerline's Secret Island, London's pop-up cult kitchen featuring mystery dining experiences, had unsuspecting gastronomes seduced into a disused railway station in Dalston. They were then led on a magical tour of the port of Singapore and beyond.

    A team of interactive dinner-theatre actors played different roles in rooms themed from a tropical jungle to a Peranakan family home. Diners were treated to fusion food inspired by South-east Asian cuisine and in collaboration with Singapore chefs and designers.

    Ex-Parte at Brick Lane Gallery was an exhibition of works by artists from Singapore and the UK "living in between places", and working in conversation across continents.

    Rough Trade in Brick Lane, London's cult independent record store, opened up its lunch-time music platforms and more to Singapore musicians Charlie Lim, Pleasantry and Gentle Bones.

Strategically opening in London's hip (and some say hipster) Brick Lane, the project eschewed the traditional prestige-venue format of over-earnestly wowing audiences with showcase after showcase.

Instead, cultural diplomacy through deliberate soft sell - working from the ground up with local partners, forging word-of-mouth connections and singling out the quirky - ruled the day.

"We try as much as we can to be part of the scene as opposed to being this alien foreign object that we are foisting onto the London public," said STB's chief executive Lionel Yeo.

"We want to plug into the global conversation. Singapore artists have relevant things to share on the issues of the day, whether they deal with the environment or equality or marginalisation of people in society."

This time around, the festival had caught the attention of London's Evening Standard and Time Out publications. On site, positive impressions appeared to be the order of the day when Life! spoke to visitors across the range of events last week, largely because they were allowed to be "pleasantly surprised" without the hard-sell priming each exhibition.

Ms Anne Kagoya, a school teacher in her 40s, "accidentally came across this festival" while leading a group of primary school students from Leyton on a school trip to Brick Lane.

"Our students are from East London, but they would not have been familiar with this part of town, or honestly - even Singapore as a place on any map. We saw the street art signs and decided to come in when we were told the show was appropriate for all ages," she said.

"It's delightful to stumble across this. Just imagine how the performance has planted so many seeds of inspiration in these children's minds and what they will do with them."

A few students in her group had whipped out their smartphones to record dance company T.H.E's showcase.

Other popular acts included Speak Cryptic's interactive graffiti bedroom Karma Kamillion, Vertical Submarine's mirror illusion A Pier Is A Half-hearted Bridge and artist Jason Lim's incense box Inside/Outside, the last of which attracted a constant stream of cameras.

As a high-end alternative to the usual presentation of Singapore's well-known hawker fare, pastry chef Janice Wong created an edible chocolate house featuring more than 8,000 laksa- and chilli-infused chocolates that doctors Natasha and Thavem Chetty, both in their 30s, came to sample.

"This wasn't what I'd expected of Singapore, a place famous for its business centres and skyscrapers," said Natasha. "But I loved the flavours so much the first day, I brought Thavem here to try them again."

But soft-selling Singapore's quirky attributes can be a tough game, not least in uber-cosmopolitan London and, particularly, the showcase site of the East End.

Here, indie artists and designers flood the streets, clamouring for the attention of increasingly blase audiences.

Apart from the Evening Standard and Time Out, major British dailies were absent from the festival due to engagements at the Glastonbury Festival, although there was talk of future reviews coming in over the weekend.

The launch event officiated by Mr S. Iswaran, Second Minister for Home Affairs and Trade and Industry, attracted about 100 guests on June 24.

Visitor numbers last Thursday were fewer than hoped for, with typical crowds of 20 to 30 for each performance. However, attendance figures had shot up over the weekend by last Saturday, with about 9,000 people in total having been exposed to the fete and the project's various partner music and food events.

Fomenting interest and capacity in ground-up networks takes time. But as far as the festival seems to have shown, results from careful niche-marketing were slowly but surely coming in.

Hackney-based TV producer Helen Kelly, 32, who dropped into the show, said: "For once there's time and space to actually look more closely because things are so chilled out here. I ended up spending more time than I thought I would. It's certainly left an impression."

stlife@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2015, with the headline 'Forging partnerships Singapore softly now'. Print Edition | Subscribe