Jalan Besar gets creative

The Jalan Besar area gets a new lease of life as creative businesses such as design studios and marketing agencies set up shop there

First came a stream of hipster coffee joints, bars and cafes that perked up sleepy Jalan Besar five years ago.

Now, for the second wave, the neighbourhood has become a hotbed for creative types, attracting branding and social media marketing agencies and architecture firms.

An unofficial creative cluster has emerged as small, indie businesses set up shop in shophouses and industrial buildings in the area bounded by Jalan Besar, Lavender Street and King George's Avenue.

Mr Tan Yanda, 31, founder of creative consultancy Do Not Design, has been keeping tabs on new entrants to the neighbourhood.

When he first moved into the attic unit of a shophouse in Foch Road in 2012, he was just one of a handful of design practices there.

By his count, there are at least 25 creative practices there now.

Crowned "mayor" of the area by a fellow Jalan Besar creative for welcoming newcomers and keeping a directory of creative businesses there, Mr Tan says: "Before I moved in, I associated the area with casket companies. It wasn't a place where many people would want to live and work."

Singapore Casket's building along Lavender Street, as well as massage parlours, karaoke lounges and workshops, lend a gritty aura to the old neighbourhood that has significantly changed from its early days as a betel nut plantation and fruit orchard. Foodies travel to the area to get good food at old-time coffee shops, while places of worship, from churches to temples, draw worshippers there.

Despite its randomness, other creatives have settled into their new stomping ground.

Graphic design, branding and multi-disciplinary design practices such as Furr, Somewhere Else and Sarah and Schooling have parked themselves along the main street of Jalan Besar (it means "big road" in Malay).

Design and manufacturing company Industry+ has a showroom of its works in the utilitarian-looking Hock Ann Tractor Spares building in Tyrwhitt Road. The company shares a 3,767 sq ft space with Studio Juju, and Plystudio Architects is a neighbour.

Over in Lavender Street, companies such as Manic Design, which specialises in interactive media and advertising, and Quirk, an integrated marketing communication and design agency, have their offices at CT Hub 2 - a mixed development complex, with units for offices and light industrial trades.

The Half Half Studio, which designs and makes furniture and homeware accessories out of cement, shares a 645 sq ft office space with OWMF Architecture in King George's Building at the other end.

We were attracted to the area because of the diverse businesses and community living and working here. The sense of place is very strong in this neighbourhood. The vibe is organic and not pretentious.

MS STELLA GWEE, CO-FOUNDER OF SHOPHOUSE & CO, whose studio is located in King George’s Avenue

Creative placemaking studio Shophouse & Co, which works with real estate developers to design programmes that create vibrant spaces, is further down, in King George's Avenue.

For many of these newcomers, the main attraction in Jalan Besar is its locale.

It is within walking distance to Bugis and a short ride away from the downtown core, so these designers can easily get to clients and vice versa. The area is also well connected via public transport - apart from Lavender MRT station, the Jalan Besar MRT station on the Downtown Line is slated to open by the end of the year.

The old-world character of the area is also a plus point.

Shophouse & Co's founders Stella Gwee and Adib Jalal were instantly charmed by the 990 sq ft unit in King George's Avenue when they first saw it.

Never mind that their second- floor unit in a mixed-use building - they are sandwiched between canvas making shops below and Housing Board flats above - needed much renovation work, such as installing air-conditioning and fixing up the squat toilet.

Going about their daily work, they often bump into residents and chat with them.

Ms Gwee, 39, says: "We were attracted to the area because of the diverse businesses and community living and working here. The sense of place is very strong in this neighbourhood. The vibe is organic and not pretentious."

Mr Dennis Quek, 32, founder of The Half Half Studio, says being in a light industrial area means he does not have to worry about his noisy machines disturbing the neighbours.

It is also a good hunting ground for tools. When in doubt, he pops into hardware shops below his office and talks to staff there.

While rental rates in other areas of Singapore can be a stumbling block for small and new businesses, these Jalan Besar residents say rent there is decent.

Mr Eugene Lim, key executive officer at ERA Realty Network, says the median rent for shophouses in Jalan Besar last month was $3.62 per square foot. In contrast, shophouses in Tanjong Pagar and Katong commanded a rate of $5.70 and $3.51 per sq ft respectively for the same period.

He adds that as a creative cluster has already been carved out in Jalan Besar, it would not be surprising to see it grow as other companies move in to "leverage on agglomeration economies".

Sharing postal codes aside, the close proximity of these creative companies to one another means that the opportunity to collaborate is on the cards.

Do Not Design's Mr Tan did an art installation for an exhibition at Industry+'s gallery last August; while Shophouse & Co curated a design trail that included The Half Half Studio last year.

Ms Stephanie Phua, 28, founder of social media marketing agency Duo Studio in Jalan Besar, organised a casual meet-up in September last year. Fifteen people from different agencies turned up after she sent out "cold e-mails", she says.

Before she started Duo Studio, Ms Phua used to work for an agency in Tanjong Pagar.

"I was surprised that people turned up (for the meet-up), but that's the vibe in Jalan Besar. It's laid-back and less stuffy. People will drop by with no agenda and we'll just have a conversation.

"Back when I was in Tanjong Pagar, I felt that people had their blinkers on and it was so fast-paced," says Ms Phua, whose studio along Jalan Besar shares a space with illustrator Natalie Kwee.

Jalan Besar old-timer S.K. Phua, who runs Wayman Enterprise in Cavan Road, is nonchalant about his new, and younger, neighbours. The 65-year-old makes props and film sets, and does some renovation work too.

The affable Mr Phua, who has been there since 1984 and used to have pipe sellers and metal work companies as his neighbours, says: "They've got their business and I do mine. It's not a problem for me (that new businesses move in), as long as they don't create trouble."

While uncertain rent increments are a perennial issue across Singapore, Mr Derek Ong, 34, who founded Elementary Co. with his wife Charmaine Seah, 34, does not think Jalan Besar will change much in the future.

The area has often been compared to Tiong Bahru, an ageing estate that became Singapore's hippest spot after an invasion of cafes and trendy shops. When that happened, rents surged and businesses there - both new and old - struggled to survive.

But architecture-wise, says Mr Ong, Tiong Bahru offers up more "charming" options versus Jalan Besar's gritty, industrial neighbourhood, which has industrial fare at its core.

The occasional bar fight happens and Mr Ong says that police were seen raiding a seedy massage parlour in the day.

Still, he vouches for the neighbourhood. "That's just part of the scene here. We like it here."

Elementary Co.'s office takes up a 1,500 sq ft ground floor unit - a light-filled, spacious place its owners would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere in town.

Surrounded by good java joints, eateries and like-minded creatives, Ms Seah loves that Jalan Besar is "alive", even at night, and that the neighbours are friendly.

She says: "We'll only ever move around Jalan Besar. The neighbourhood has spoilt us."

A look back at the Jalan Besar area

1. Back in the 1830s, brothers Richard and George Norris, who were sons of an East India Company army officer, bought the land on which a betel nut plantation and fruit orchard stood. They went on to add more fruit trees to the plot, which counted for a large swathe of the Jalan Besar area.

A small track was cut through the vast plantation. Later, in the 1880s, the road was expanded several times. It was then named Jalan Besar, which means "big road" in Malay.

2. The area near Lavender Street had vegetable farms, which used human excrement as fertiliser. In 1858, Lavender Street was named as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the stench that hung in the air. 3. In 1889, Singapore's first refuse incinerators were built in the vicinity of what is known today as Syed Alwi Road. They no longer exist.

4. From 1926, streets such as Tyrwhitt Road, Foch Road and Kitchener Road were named after World War I British and French military men. This was done by the Municipal Council to remind those in Singapore, which was a British colony, of the conflicts in Europe.

5. The Jalan Besar Stadium was completed in 1929. Crowds thronged the stadium for their football fix in the years before the National Stadium opened in 1973.

The no-frills stadium, built on the site of a swamp, was also used as an assembly point and language centre during the Japanese Occupation.

6. Jalan Besar shophouses feature a hodge-podge of various architectural styles - Late, Transitional and Art Deco. The area also drew residents from different communities. Indians, Chinese, Straits Chinese, Europeans, Eurasians and Malays made Jalan Besar their home.

7. Rubber processing and pineapple canning factories were set up in the area. Well-known philanthropist Lee Kong Chian owned a few in the area. When the industrial sector expanded, many engineering and vehicle workshops opened there too. Some still remain.

8. Jalan Besar was first given conservation status in 1991. Besides conserved shophouses, the area is home to different religious places of worship.

The former Victoria School premises at 9 King George's Avenue, which was built in 1933, is now the home of the People's Association headquarters.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 25, 2017, with the headline 'Gritty enclave for creatives'. Print Edition | Subscribe