Singapore's rave scene offers freedom in a straight-laced city

Dancers at the Haw Par Villa rave

A 23-year-old dancer named Aloysius spends his days in Singapore serving his required military service.

Therefore, "Loy," as he refers to himself, goes crazy at night on the weekends. He is shedding a skin while searching for relief under the lights and in the heat.

We first connected in November at a rave at Haw Par Villa, a western city amusement park with a hell-themed theme and statues of Chinese mythological characters like topless mermaids, battle-ready demons, and wise old men like Confucius.

Loy and his friends were startled by a pounding bass that was drifting up from a space below as it was getting dark.

Crowds were dancing in the "Culture Courtyard" to a grimy funk track that transitioned into revved-up disco and then deep house.

Swirls crawled over a loop of a Chinese palace drama projected behind the DJ. A moving mass lifted wet faces to the screen in front of the decks.

It was like stepping into a greenhouse to enter that crowd. A reminder of why most Singaporeans prefer air conditioning was the sea of bum bags, bucket hats, and sunglasses that surrounded everyone on the dance floor in the intense heat.

However, the area was lively.

Everyone is having retaliation parties now, Loy said. "These Covid policies were just completely absurd. ".

A crowd of dancers at a rave in Singapore on 5/11
the crowd that evening at Haw Par Villa.

Singapore implemented a "no parties, no nightclubs" policy for two years, reopening live music venues in April 2022.

After 22:30, bars could no longer serve alcohol, and groups could only consist of six people. Police officers wearing "Red Shirts" searched the streets for contraventions. In a hawker center or movie theater, every other seat was taped off due to social distance.

Since then, the party scene has roared back to life, and the underground scene has seen a boom in particular. New collectives and specialized groups have grown out of lockdown.

Twelve collectives will congregate at the Golden Mile tower in the heart of Singapore the following weekend to perform a farewell set for the brutalist structure from the 1980s. Over the years, it has been the location of mom-and-pop stores, karaoke bars, and seedy movie theaters. Most recently, it served as the center of the city's Thai community.

However, in typical Singaporean fashion, a developer sale means it will be demolished in March. In many ways, the tower's final celebration is the ideal location for a city rave.

Finding a space is frequently the hardest problem, according to party promoters, due to Singapore's exorbitant rents and zoning laws.

Therefore, the settings are always transient. Basements and independent film theaters have both hosted raves. There is a Japanese izakaya on the river quays where a regular techno event takes place. In a recreation of the movie set from Wong Kar-wai's In The Mood for Love, one Afrobeat band performed.

Singapore's alternative scene congregates in the rave scene. A dark dance floor that serves as the ideal counterpoint to skyscrapers and sterile malls is even seen by some as a form of rebellion against the city's commercial core.

Lanterns and peach drapes hang over the dance crowd at the Haw Par rave
At a rave, the dance all night vibe is greatly influenced by the visuals.

On his website Life in Arpeggio, music journalist Kevin Ho has chronicled the city's music scene for years.

According to him, people have an impression of Singapore as "a wealthy nation with many regulations, and that the party scene would revolve entirely around the business world.".

However, he contends that on the dance floor, Singapore's true self as a "crossroads of Asia" emerges.

There, as described by DJ Dean Chew, "you see the melting pot of nationalities, ethnicities, and classes"—a diversity that includes everything from migrant workers to cryptobros.

According to Chew, owner of the music bar Offtrack and a 15-year veteran of the rave scene with his Darker than Wax collective, at first it may appear to be a "clash in culture.".

However, a dance floor is a fantastic connector. "Everyone just starts getting loose and partying to the music. Then you start to notice these beautiful compositions. ".

Many people are drawn to the scene by that first taste of freedom. In the line for the restroom at Haw Par Villa, I came across two young women who were just getting started. While the other wore cargo pants and a crop top, the first was sporting a red Make Panda Mate Again cap.

After attending university in Melbourne, Australia, where they first encountered rave culture, both had returned to Singapore during the pandemic.

Dancers at the Haw Par Villa rave
According to ravegoers, they are friendlier and more laid back than a nightclub.

They used to frequent Singapore's megaclubs, which feature enormous multi-level venues that play commercial dance music. These places frequently have floor cheerleaders, champagne bottles that flash in the dark, and other hilarious gimmicks like a ferris wheel inside a club.

However, they claim that the alcohol is expensive and the music is terrible. One of the women, Eugenia, adds, "It's more of a status thing, like it's not really satisfying.". She refuses to dance there because, in her opinion, those places are more about being noticed.

But the real reason I come here is to listen to the music. I want to dance like crazy!

Later on in the evening, I once more saw Loy and his pals in the crush. They were dancing wildly as they were bathed in red light, their faces shiny with perspiration.

He had earlier described how the rave scene felt more liberated and open than other clubs in the city.

Cost is one thing to consider. Raves in Singapore typically cost a third of what clubs do, which can cost up to SGD$60 (£37; $45) at the door.

"There's still like this capitalism thing with the clubs and the beach clubs where you can get a better spot if you pay more money. Like in a club, you can move up levels by paying more, Loy said.

But at a rave, everyone is playing fairly. Everyone is really just there to dance, which is my favorite part of it. ".

In Singapore's conservative society, individuality is frequently restricted, but rave culture celebrates it.

Gay activist Loy claims that this safe haven is still available in the underground scene.

The queer scene is becoming more active, we're opening up more, and everything is happening, he claims.

"But you will still experience barriers; after all, Singapore is a conservative country. As long as I'm alive, I believe it will be conservative. ".

Aloysius Tan dancing at the Haw Par Villa rave on 5/11
Loy among the people.

In Singapore, same-sex couples may feel comfortable holding hands as they stroll down the street, but the city continues to forbid same-sex marriage and restricts the portrayal of gay relationships in the media.

For many more years than their straight counterparts, gay people are denied access to the housing market. And only last year did the nation repeal a law that made sex between men illegal.

Even the word "rave," according to Ho, "has contradictory connotations with a place like Singapore.".

"I believe that the majority of people associate raves with illegal, drug-filled events held in a warehouse or other secluded area. ".

However, Singapore, where surveillance cameras are placed at every street corner and etiquette fine notices are painted on public transportation, has little crime.

The majority of people in the city-state support the strict prohibition of recreational drugs and the application of the death penalty for drug trafficking. Despite requests for mercy due to his intellectual disability, a man who trafficked a tablespoon of heroin from Malaysia was executed last year.

"Due to our extreme, excessive stance on drugs, you won't find what you would find in a rave anywhere else across the world," claims Kevin.

The rave scene in the city is still developing. There aren't really any unlicensed raves because every dance floor needs government approval, and organizers complain that there is a ton of paperwork.

More than a dozen government departments had to approve applications before the Haw Par Villa rave could take place.

It's really challenging to work here. It's probably one of the hardest places to work creatively, claims DJ Chew.

"But if you can, something like a flower pushing up from a crack in the concrete emerges from it, something beautiful and powerful.

. "

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