Art and Culture of Singapore
Singapore may be young but it has a rich arts heritage that stems from the various ethnic and racial groups that make up the population. Mixed together with the colonial history and the large number of westerners living in Singapore, the island’s culture has taken on a contemporary style of its own that is constantly evolving.
A plethora of galleries and museums also portray cultural expressions reflecting the arts and art forms of China, Malaysia and India. The island state is also home to a myriad of arts activities, art festivals, events and cultural events.
To truly experience Singapore’s diverse culture, visitors should find time to visit the different ethnic quarters such as Chinatown; Kampong Glam; Little India; Joo Chiat; and Katong.
Due to such a unique combination of ethnic groups, the language spoken in Singapore, has evolved and changed over the years. The young generation, in particular, now speak a language that has become known as “Singlish”. This is a combination of British and American English, plus Chinese, Indian and Malay words.
Over the last ten years, there has been an emergence of several visual and performing arts groups in Singapore with local and international companies offering both traditional as well as modern performances. There are several well established arts groups, which include the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Singapore Chinese Orchestra, Singapore Dance Theatre, Singapore Lyric Opera, Singapore Repertory Theatre and Theatre Works.
The annual Singapore Arts Festival has become extremely popular and allows international and local artists to perform in a wide variety of events including music, dance and theatre.
Below are some of the most popular traditional performing arts in Singapore:
Chinese Lion Dance
The Chinese in Singapore believe that the lion brings forth good fortune. The lion dance is usually performed on occasions such as the opening of buildings and during the Chinese New Year festival.
This is form of Malay opera that usually depicts Malay myths or tales of love and treachery.
This old classical dance originates from India and is a combination of music, expression and rhythm accompanied by graceful and statuesque poses.
Wayang Chinese Opera
This is a traditional Chinese art form involving various performing art types such as singing, acrobatics, martial arts and singing.
The visual arts scene has been active in Singapore since the colonial days when well known European artists visited the area to record and paint the development of the country. In 1976, the establishment of the Art Gallery in the National Museum gave a major boost to the Singaporean visual arts by giving local artists the opportunity to exhibit their work.
Within the last few decades, the visual arts scene in Singapore has experienced remarkable growth and advancement and in 1995 the Singaporean Art Museum was founded exclusively for visual arts. Now there are many art galleries within Singapore showcasing emerging local talent.
The usual themes of Singaporean visual arts are abstracts, human figures, landscapes, portraits, still life, urban scenes and village scenes. Some of the best known artists are Tan Swie Hian, Liu Kang, Georgette Chen, Francis Ng and Heman Chong.
Singapore’s architecture exhibits a range of influence and style from different places and periods: from traditional colonial style buildings; to small Malay shop houses; Chinese bungalows; and high-rise glass-covered sky scrapers.
Being a former British colony, many of the early buildings were built by colonial architects adopting classical colonial designs and include gothic style churches and Palladian and renaissance style government buildings. Some of the examples of traditional architecture are the Singapore Art Museum, Raffles Hotel, the Old Parliament House, the Churches of St. Peter and Paul, and Singapore National Museum.
Malay shop houses are common throughout the island. These are usually two-storey terraced buildings that open onto a covered walkway providing pedestrians shade from the sun and rain. The front of these buildings are usually painted in different colours and many are decorated with European style mouldings, carved Malay panels, mythological Chinese motifs or Pernakan pastel coloured glazed tiles.
Armenian street, although short, has several significant buildings along it. Most notable is the Armenian Church, built by George Drumgoole Coleman in 1835, making it the oldest church in Singapore.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, Singapore’s architecture changed due to the arrival of reinforced concrete and the Art Deco style. This coincided with the great urban renewal and building boom and it resulted in many large apartment blocks and housing complexes being built.
From the late 1990s, the Singapore government consciously launched a drive to develop “iconic” landmarks in the city as a means to strengthening the Singapore brand identity and to attract foreign tourists and investment. These buildings include the Supreme Court of Singapore, the National Library, the Marina Bay Sands, and the Esplanade, often known as “The Durian” due its resemblance to the fruit.
Dragon Boat Racing
This is a sport that has its roots in ancient China and was brought to Singapore by Chinese migrants. The annual Dragon Boat Racing festival features beautifully decorated traditional boats and it showcases a range of ancient rites, including the showering of the dragon head before each race.
Prominent annual arts festivals:
For over 17 years, the Singapore International Film Festival has been held in April and May in the city’s Chinatown and it traditionally features films from over 40 countries, with a special focus on films from Asia and the developing world.
The week-long Singapore International Comedy Festival is held in March and April attracts international acts and upcoming stars.
The Singapore Arts Festival attracts a wealth of international and local talent and is staged for three weeks between May through to June.
The Starlight Cinema features a month-long series of outdoor screenings of mainstream films on Fort Canning Green in June and July.
The biennial Singapore Writers’ Festival celebrates literature in Singapore’s four main languages: English; Chinese; Malay; and Tamil. The event attracts international writers, and lectures, forums and workshops are held in August in several venues across the city.
The WOMAD (World of Music Arts and Dance) organizes a three-day spectacular, international ethnic arts showcase on Fort Canning Hill, in Fort Canning Park, usually on the first weekend of September.
The National University of Singapore’s Centre for the Arts stages its annual Dance Reflections festival of Asian and Western dance in September.
The annual Asian Film Symposium showcases the best Asian cinema over five days in mid-September and the festival includes screenings, workshops and seminars.
The annual Singapore River Buskers’ Festival is held in mid-November and brings together a variety of street performers, including musical buskers, magicians, sword-swallowers and stilt-walkers. The weeklong festival gets underway after sunset and it is staged in various locations, including along the riverbank, on Orchard Road, and even at the airport.