Last Sparks of an Electric Artistic Renewal: Singapore’s Peace Centre in its Final Days


It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon in Singapore’s central shopping district, and I’m running an errand for a friend when I pass a funkily graffitied mallfront on the street. Intrigued, I move closer to peer through the aged windows into a dim, bric-a-brac-looking market pop-up. Moving aside so that a person dressed in drag can enter the front door, I watch curiously as a uniformed soldier disappears behind what looks like a wall of streamers hanging from the ceiling. I’m running late for my bus and I know it, so I make one last scan of the array of posters plastered across the windows, and note the name of this place that stands in bold, brass lettering: PEACE CENTRE.

Standing in front of the mall the next week, I’m able to read the posters properly. “PEACE OUT: ONE NIGHT ONLY,” reads one. “PHOTOCOPY YOURSELF,” threatens another. After chancing upon it in person the previous Saturday, I’d consulted the internet for more clues—and to my dismay, I discovered that the day I found the centre was on its penultimate open weekend. On 29 January it’d be closing its doors to the public for good, and demolished soon after. This date had already been pushed back though: three months prior, an extended lease with the collective PlayPan transformed the space into a colourful community hub, housing an eclectic group of local creatives and indie businesses in its first three storeys.

I push open the same heavy door, to find the lobby markedly emptier than it was the week before (which makes sense—it’s only noon). The further in I step, though, the curiouser it gets. Behind the streamers I spot a giant pink ball made of fabric scraps—which I later learn is a sustainable fashion installation—and a staircase completely covered with graffiti.

I wander up painted steps, tracing swirling patterns and floral motifs with the soles of my boots. At the end of this path I find my first target: Flo, who runs 55 Avenue Vintage. It’s believed that spaces are made of the people who inhabit them. The shop, previously a wedding boutique, now houses eleven vendors: all chosen personally to constitute an effortlessly cool and charismatic collection that undoubtedly reflects Flo’s character. Standout pieces line the walls, alongside posters from times gone by. Flo started collecting vintage in 2001, and expresses a love for dated pop culture, because of how it serves as an artefact for “life in the ‘now’ community”. When I ask where he’s taking 55 Avenue after the 29th, he tells me he’s already got a spot secured on Haji Lane—and he’s evolving it into a community market and lounge, complete with an art gallery and even a barber stall. His determination to expand it into a space that’s “for everyone, not just limited to one culture or subculture” displays great compassion and ambition, and it’s inspiring to think about this thread of diversity weaving itself a home beyond the Peace Centre.

Just around the corner, a miniature mountain of textiles in studious colours catches my eye. I arrive at The Circular Classroom (TCC), and am stitched into conversation with its co-founder, Zinobia. Formed by primary school parent support group leaders, TCC is an initiative that upcycles abandoned uniforms and runs workshops on sustainable repurposing for the community. Zinobia notes that since TCC mostly operates in schools and online, business can go on as usual after the centre’s closure. It’s a sign that Singaporeans will continue to do innovative things with what they have, finding ways to manoeuvre around limiting circumstances.

Next I float into artist Melanie’s gallery space upstairs, and shoes are off in a cluster by the door. A playlist of ethereal acoustics washes through the room—Melanie runs a sound bath session with her exhibition, which she describes as an “open sketchbook”. Soft colours and fluid brushstrokes fill the space, and from the dream-like aura of the works, it’s clear that her art comes from a place of profound emotional freedom. “Art found me,” Melanie giggles. An accountant by training, the artist found a passion in multidisciplinary creation, and found community in meeting other artists throughout her career. She continues to share her work with other people, challenging the public to explore their own artistic expression.

With my shoes back on, I bid Melanie goodbye and wander the liminal “backroom”-scape of defaced toilet signs and closed-off stairways. It’s unusual to see my hometown like this, given its reputation for cleanliness and air-tight laws. There’s something I don’t recognise every time I return, partially because of the country’s epic development rate and partially because I never knew this place very well in the first place. It hits me as I find a hyper-realistic Stranger Things mural on one of the walls: the Peace Centre reminds me a bit of Melbourne. I wonder if that’s okay to say.

Upstairs The Rojak Lab guys at their exhibition-turned-expression space Taking The Piss confirm this, to some degree. “Every other city I’ve visited has a proper art scene. We don’t have that here—it’s just not respected in mainstream society,” expresses photographer Jeremy. The company’s mastermind Odell reasons that, “Singapore is a really special place where… it’s always profit over everything else.”

“Profit and efficiency,” Jeremy adds. His travel photos from Taiwan are collaged on one wall, next to the work of their graphic designer friends, and opposite their “Whine Wall”—which has a wine bottle taped to it (of course), as well as hundreds of multi-coloured complaints scribbled on by frustrated and entertained passersby. This eccentric, home-made feel is reminiscent of Melbourne's many indie art galleries, which invite the community in to socialise and co-create. It brings to mind streetscapes like Drewery Lane—which has mosaics, murals and different pieces of guerilla art in its alley walls almost every time I pass.

Their Peace Centre showroom is actually a soft launch for the next round of “edgier” passion projects they’re starting together, after years of serving the system in “braindead boring” corporate work. This is a bold statement to make—especially given their impressive portfolio, which boasts work for Channel News Asia and Singapore's National Gallery. Nevertheless, the prospect of creations that are better yet and less conventional is an exciting one, and I wonder then if that means Peace Centre, for them, symbolises a sort of new beginning.

“Not really?” Odell refutes. “Though it was good that this happened. There was nothing here anyway.”

Once his mother Sharin arrives at the venue, I ask for her opinion: “... just a waste [that it’s being demolished]. I’ve been coming here for twenty-plus years.” It’s a matter of perspective, of course. Jeremy observes that here, the only time things like this happen is when they’re about to end. For example, the redevelopment of Golden Mile Complex in 2022 prompted a goodbye party in its last nights. The bleakness of being a creative in Singapore is tangible, but I suspect there is a legacy left behind that will be realised in times to come.

Odell explains to his mum that the strange girl typing furiously into Notes is writing an article. “Immortalising your son,” I joke. Their friend Daniel arrives soon after, with boxes of curiously large cookies. We chat casually about the army (and how every conversation with Singaporean men somehow becomes about the army) before I thank them for their company and move further into the building.

Photographer Vance Boo has a similar sense of hospitality, but a very different answer to my question. Like The Rojak Lab, he’s worked big jobs for big names, and has a mission in mind. His much more traditionalist approach encourages young people to stay resilient and refine their craft. His exhibition at the centre displays the calibre of skill he has developed in his career, and specifically seeks to steer youths away from the burgeoning mental health crisis. There’s an undeniable pride he's emanating for the “almost desperate” coming-together of creatives in these final months: “I don’t believe there’s no creative community in Singapore—what’s all this then?”

Later in the afternoon, I’m talking to Natasha Ng of Blueprint Art House when Melanie reappears, passing me two of her prints before floating back to her studio. “I love that woman, she’s so nice,” says Natasha, and I think of the connections that are being made under this to-be-demolished roof. Blueprint’s exhibition is comprised mostly of creative works by School of the Arts Singapore graduates who were offered the space to show and sell their projects—and it’s really, really good. Natasha’s own work includes a mahjong set with fully hand-made-and-painted porcelain pieces in a metaphor for the cycle of life, and it’s perhaps the best thing I’ve seen all day. I empty my wallet for her classmates’ prints of digital, painted and inked illustrations and ask about where they’re going from then onwards.

“Well we’re kind of like, going to be homeless,” Natasha offers. “But I’ve applied to law schools.” It seems that such is the case for many others here, with talents that could make God cry but nowhere stable enough to channel them into. It’s initiatives like Blueprint and Playpan’s that provide young artists with avenues to express their skills outside of formal institutions; but these moments seem to be outliers in the mainstream de rigueur, that pushes pushing over expressing.

After talking to Natasha, I do another lap around the place, as the afternoon ripens and curious after-school kids start to trickle in. Downstairs in the hall, I pass a grid of abandoned letterboxes with the locks all open and envelopes tossed forlornly underneath, atop, in between the stainless steel blocks while someone is playing a YOASOBI song on the piano. The shopfront of what used to be a seafood restaurant is now ocean blue, where a smiling octopus with cartoon eyes tells me to have hope: while this place will soon be gone, it lives on in the memory of many (or something). Next to it is a sentimental silhouette of a whale (without cartoon eyes), painted in the same blue as the floor. Standing in front of it feels like swimming in the gap between past and future, exploring a place I understand so shallowly but feel so deeply for.

I hope that these people I was lucky enough to get to know—can have hope, and can continue to reach out to one another. I hope that these last months in the Peace Centre have planted seeds of inspiration in everyone who walked through its doors, and that prospects, projects and friendships will continue to paint themselves into the margins.

Farrago's magazine cover - Edition One 2024


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