Culture Vulture

Finding freedom within

The search for an alternative commune and self-proclaimed Free Town made me realise that freedom is within ourselves

Maybe it's me, but it wasn't easy finding Christiania.

On an overcast September afternoon, I took a bus over Knippelsbro bridge - crossing the inner harbour between Zealand and Amager - into Christianshavn. From the bus stop, I zig-zagged my way through the borough, idly following people as they went about their Saturday pre-dusk business: Men with beards and plaid shirts carrying ridiculously tiny and neat leather briefcases; women in trim coats hurrying along in heeled boots; student-types, in purple parkas, looking into shops or laughing in groups.

The Danish weather was still warm enough for T-shirts and summer dresses, even if the rain fell like the thinnest acupuncture needles occasionally.

In Copenhagen for a few days, I thought I'd cap my visit by seeking out Christiania, a remaining bastion of hippie culture and self-proclaimed Free Town.

Formerly military barracks and the city's ramparts, the area was taken over by squatters and declared a self-governing society in 1971. It quickly became a haven for the homeless and disenfranchised, as well as a magnet for students, artists and intellectuals.

Since then, it has become - according to London's The Guardian newspaper - the second most popular tourist attraction in the Danish capital, attracting up to a million visitors a year, with its avant-garde homes, quirky cafes and artistic workshops. But it has also become a hotbed of drug- related activities, and the site of the occasional shooting or riot.

I admit, it was morbid curiosity that drove me to visit it. What was this utopia (which, like most utopias, also threatened to tip over into dystopia)?

As I wandered the streets, in search of the notorious neighbourhood, however, going down side streets and passing hamburger joints with enticing smells, I began to have second thoughts.

Bloggers had posted accounts of solo female travellers being harassed while visiting Christiania, and, with my white broad-brimmed hat and braids, I probably looked like a 15-year-old Asian school girl, a ripe solo target, to any would-be assailants.

Few photographs of Christiania's interior exist in the guidebooks - jumpy denizens of the disreputable Pusher's Street do not take kindly to having their mugshots captured and No Photos signs mark the beginning and end of the street.

Running there is also a no-no; to prevent sparking panic that there is a police raid. So I had no idea what I was looking for.  

Hopelessly lost in a residential alley, I approached a woman dashing from her townhouse to her mini-van with armloads of groceries and asked her how to get to Free Town.

"Christiania?" she said, her eyes widening. "There was a shooting there yesterday. People were killed. If I were you, I'd stay away."

Shaken, I retreated to a burger joint, ordered one with jalapeno peppers and Googled the news.

"Denmark drug raid turns bloody as suspect opens fire on cops," read The New York Times headline.  "Christiania residents demolish stalls selling drugs after shooting," read The Guardian's.

On Aug 31, two police officers and a bystander were injured - and a 25-year-old armed suspect was shot and later died.

I dawdled over my burger. Read a book. Outside, the light deepened from wheat to amber.

I took pictures of some street graffiti, then stopped a couple of happy-looking citizens, nursing plastic cups of beer with their bicycles propped against their roadside bench.

"Am I in Christiania yet?" I asked.

"Not yet," the Santa Claus- looking man replied. "Go back, until you see the church spire and then go straight some more. You will see the main gate."

"Thanks," I said.

"Be good," he mock-admonished.

I wanted to tell him not to worry, to say that I was Singaporean, that we were good at following rules. But I just kept walking.

At last, I arrived at Vor Frelsers Kirke, the baroque Church of Our Saviour, with its famed helix spire.

I kept walking, and then I was there: A wooden arch painted with the legend "Christiania" stood at the corner of the block. The fine rain turned into full-blown drops.

I snapped photos from across the road. A group of ageing hippies with long greying hair and heavy metal T-shirts sat at a long table at the entrance, drinking beer and chatting. "Nice hat," said one of them to me.

Another table was manned by young hipsters in sunglasses and colourful outfits, flanked by big posters bearing Danish text.

"What does your sign say?" I asked a young woman. "'Support Christiania'," she said to me. "'Buy your weed somewhere else'."

Nervously, I walked past the hippies, under the arch and into the slightly crumbling insides of Christiania. The rain kept falling from grey skies. Some of the buildings badly needed patching.

Piles of abandoned junk punctuated the common spaces.

A few stall-owners soldiered on, selling silk-screened T-shirts and other paraphernalia. Clutches of tourists gawked. A crew filmed, as a pretty broadcast journalist did her piece to camera, no doubt doing a follow-up story about the shooting.

It seemed subdued. And so ... normal.

Then, I heard it.

From out of the gloom, like a divine howl of grace, someone was growling the words to Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. Electric guitars jangled, seasoning rock soup.

I followed the music, its hypnotic pull. I walked past No Photo signs, with my fists firmly jammed in my pockets.

There was something in the air. Men in hoodies and jeans perched on rusting railings outside ramshackle buildings. They spilled onto the dirt road, crunching gravel under their feet. The music grew louder. It came from a squat rectangle building, packed full of people carrying beer bottles. A bar.

Out in an empty patch of land, tethered by a microphone on a very long leash to an amplifier, a lone man was singing. He poured out his soul, as the people watching from the windows and verandah of the bar clapped and nodded approvingly.

Hallelujah, he said. Hallelujah. And I couldn't help but answer him in song. The rain came down. And still he sang. And still we answered, as the hard rain pelted us.

So this was freedom, I thought. Or something like it.

Hard to find, somehow fearsome and dangerous at its prospect, but its call remains irresistible. The soundtrack to everything that makes up culture. Its strains and threads; its absence, presence, shadows and hints, shaping our lives, expressions and art.

The fate of Free Town remains uncertain these days, with yet another shooting last week, and the police locking down the area in its aftermath.

And I know there is a tangle of politics behind the touristy facade I saw. But this is what I've learnt from finding Free Town: that the human spirit for an alternative way of doing things is worth much; that freedom is nowhere and everywhere, but keeps the imagination alive.

Freedom is within ourselves.

•Clara Chow is the co-founder of and the author of Dream Storeys (Ethos).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 01, 2016, with the headline 'Finding freedom within'. Print Edition | Subscribe