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  • isle of innovation

Singapore Renaissance

With leaders in fashion, design, and the arts calling Singapore home, hot neighborhoods have become lively destinations for tourists and locals alike.

At any given moment, there’s a city somewhere in the world that’s being celebrated as the Cool Place to Be. Sometimes it’s a global capital—Paris in the ’20s; postwar New York City; Swinging London in the ’60s–and occasionally it’s a smaller, less-likely candidate. (Remember Athens, Georgia, in the ’80s?) Twenty years from now, people might well look back at 2015 and point to a small Southeast Asian country, Singapore, as a place where all the necessary elements—aesthetic, cultural, economic—came together, shaping an environment where this kind of creativity could flourish.

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Long known as a robust financial hub, Singapore has, since its founding half a century ago, prospered while focusing on its principal economic engine: trade. After all, situated at the confluence of major, long-established shipping routes, and blessed with natural deepwater ports, the country is ideally positioned as an exporting and importing power. In recent years, though, as fashion, design, food, and the arts have exploded in Singapore, neighborhoods both old and new have gained currency as lively destinations for sophisticated tourists and locals alike.

Call it a Singapore Renaissance.

In the arts, for example, the signs are everywhere. Pinacothèque de Paris, the largest private art museum in Paris, is slated to open its first venue outside of Europe in Singapore’s Fort Canning Park in the fall; the brand-new, 200,000-square-foot National Gallery Singapore will open this year, as well; and the restored, colonial-era Gillman Barracks complex of top international galleries continues to draw crowds three years after its 2012 unveiling.

For those in search of a less-traditional art experience, Artspace @ Helutrans—a mile southwest of the skyscraper-filled Downtown Core—features progressive galleries and innovative spaces for art-related events and auctions, all inside the industrial-looking warehouse units of one of Asia’s leading art-handling and storage companies.

In the meantime, a number of districts, large and small, around the island are undergoing their own creative evolutions. The rapidly transforming neighborhood of Jalan Besar, for instance—located just north of the gleaming towers and manicured gardens of the financial, recreation, and entertainment district of Marina Bay—is in many ways a kind of hip exemplar of what the reenergized Singapore looks like. Here, old-school industrial businesses (hardware stores, machinery shops) and thoroughly modern cafés—establishments that would not feel out of place in, say, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or San Francisco’s SoMA district—operate side by side and, occasionally, atop one another.

Originally a swampland of betel nut and fruit trees, in the 19th century the area was filled with factories, churches, and religious shrines, and, for years, slaughterhouses. Today, young people flocking to the neighborhood—as residents, small-business owners, day-trippers, and tourists—encounter vestiges of Jalan Besar’s past in the quiet drama of the area’s Art Deco and “Chinese baroque” architecture, with some buildings retaining the soft pastels (pink, green, blue) that lend the neighborhood its literal and figurative color.

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Whether a visitor is looking for a whispered-about hole-in-the-wall eatery, unconventional furniture and housewares built by local artisans, or a quiet place to kick back while enjoying a craft beer, Jalan Besar feels like something of an undiscovered country. And a new subway station slated to open in Jalan Besar in 2017 will likely turbocharge foot traffic to the fast-evolving area.

Another neighborhood popular with visitors and young Singaporeans is Tiong Bahru, very much alive with its own share of chic bars, coffee shops, vinyl-record stores, bakeries, and art galleries. A short 15-minute drive east—but stylistically a world away—from major attractions like Gardens by the Bay and the city’s visionary ArtScience Museum, Tiong Bahru is arguably the oldest “hip” neighborhood in all of Singapore. Built in the 1930s under the auspices of the British colonial authorities, the small, dynamic neighborhood has retained much of its original look and feel, largely resisting modernization because it was designated a “conservation area”—meaning wholesale changes to Tiong Bahru’s unique, mid-20th-century architecture are essentially forbidden. It is also still a decidedly local neighborhood: People who live and work in Singapore head to the area to shop for fresh produce (the famous, bustling Tiong Bahru Market is a must-see) and to eat local dishes at the Tiong Bahru Food Centre, an inexpensive, open-air “hawker center.” A few hours spent in Tiong Bahru lends any visit to Singapore an air of authenticity, and adds a memorable counterpoint to the newer boutiques, cafés, and galleries found throughout the country.

But all of the trendy neighborhoods and shopping experiences would mean little without innovators, artists, and entrepreneurs to fuel the creative Zeitgeist. And on that score, today’s Singapore is positively thriving. Consider Carolyn Kan, a celebrated silversmith and founder of the jewelry atelier Carrie K. Kan is emblematic of the new breed of entrepreneur among Singapore’s growing creative class. A former managing director of the Singapore branch of the M&C Saatchi ad agency, Ms. Kan left the corporate world behind in the mid-2000s, seeking something more. During a long visit to Florence, Italy, she discovered her love of, and innate talent for, jewelry design. She launched Carrie K in 2009 and has enjoyed tremendous buzz—and tremendous success—ever since.

“I set up Carrie K. off my kitchen table,” she says. “I had no connection to the fashion industry, so I started from scratch.” Today, her quirky, impeccably crafted creations are prized by trendy and traditional jewelry lovers, alike. “Over the past few years, Singapore’s design industry has grown considerably in terms of the caliber and pool of talent,” says Kan. “The growing trend here of customers seeking out unique, independent designers creating high-quality work has helped fuel that growth.”

Kan’s showplace for her wares is located on the tree-lined Bukit Timah Road—one of the oldest and longest thoroughfares in all of Singapore. But whether visitors are seeking the warm sophistication to be found in ateliers and restaurants all along Bukit Timah, or the welcome surprises around every corner on the lively, winding streets of neighborhoods like Tiong Bahru and Jalan Besar, one thing is certain: The Singapore Renaissance is for real.

This article was authored by FastCo Works, Fast Company’s Content Studio.

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