SINGAPORE – In the heady days of international travel, I used to scour blogs and guidebooks for new ways to uncover well-known cities, delighting in under-the-radar neighbourhoods where local businesses thrive.
A food truck in London’s Brixton district gave me my first taste of Jamaican food; Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York, has some of the best thrift stores I have seen anywhere in the world.
Blair Plain, an area comprising Everton Park, Spottiswoode Park and Kampong Bahru Road, is central Singapore’s version of that.
It is an up-and-coming neighbourhood where laundromats and beauty salons share a five-foot-way with artisanal coffee joints, a mix of old and new that feels cool without being entirely ceded to the hipsters.
“It’s like Tiong Bahru 15 years ago,” says tour guide Toh Thiam Wei. The 39-year-old is also the founder of tour company Indie Singapore, which today launched the Wonder Wander Blair Plain tour as part of its Tales From Our Backyard series.
Visiting Blair Plain on one’s own is a perfectly good experience, but going on Mr Toh’s tour feels like hanging out with an in-the-know friend who knows all the colourful anecdotes.
For instance, he reveals that a steep stretch of Cantonment Road, which leads from Outram MRT station to Everton Park, was used in the 1960s and 1970s as part of the driving test route.
It earned the moniker of “immediate failure slope” because so many rolled backwards on it while trying to move off from a stationary position.
And when we visit the shops in Everton Park, owners such as Mr Alan Yoon, 47, who runs soya bean family business Beano, greet Mr Toh heartily and welcome us behind the counter to check out the production process.
Set up in 2004, Beano is one of the neighbourhood’s stalwarts, along with Ji Xiang Confectionery, whose ang ku kueh or red tortoise shell-shaped cakes are made by hand and attract long queues.
Then there are the newer players – plucky entrepreneurs attracted by the lower rent compared to areas such as Tiong Bahru or Haji Lane.
It is a challenging yet vibrant landscape, one that Mr Jonathan Ng, co-founder of bakery cafe The Better Half, has embraced. He launched the brand online in 2018 with his girlfriend and opened the cosy space last year.
He says: “We’ve attracted a regular crowd and even the elderly people living upstairs know us. There is a sense of community.”
Snacks and drinks from all these stops are included in the price of the tour, along with a floral vintage-style tiffin carrier that is handy for storing the treats.
Walking down a row of conservation shophouses, we duck into the air-conditioned comfort of Art Porters Gallery, which specialises in South-east Asian contemporary art, with a spotlight on young artists.
Exhibitions change every two months and currently features a graffiti artist from Thailand who goes by Alex Face. His paintings, said to explore themes of youth, ageing and spirituality, feature a girl in a bunny suit that is inspired by his daughter.
Just when we are done browsing, gallery co-founder Guillaume Levy-Lambert, 58, swings open a mirrored panel to reveal a second exhibition space. Stepping through the doorway, complete with a lettered neon sign overhead, feels like entering a secret bar.
The mood is light and the vibe unpretentious, so I venture a question I have always had about modern art.
“Why do people consider this art when it appears so simple?” I ask, gesturing at an ombre painting of light blue, white and grey. To my untrained eye, it looks like a Microsoft Word colour swatch.
I worry that my ignorance might offend, but Mr Levy-Lambert is genial – pointing out the technical mastery required to execute the seamless gradient and colours chosen for their soothing tones.
In fact, the painting had just been sold for $1,900 to a customer looking to hang it in her bedroom.
In an incongruous but delightfully Singaporean twist, the gallery also sells frozen otah under the brand Otah Boy, created by gallery co-founder Sean Soh, 40.
“When customers come to pick up their order, they often think they are in the wrong place,” says Mr Levy-Lambert with a chortle.
It is just one more surprise on a tour filled with many, tucked in yet another nook of the island waiting to be seen anew.
THE WANDER WONDER BLAIR PLAIN TOUR
FEE: $55 per person
DURATION: Two hours
COMPANY: Indie Singapore
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