On the surface, Singapore is hyper-modern: fast-moving, tech-savvy, cosmopolitan. What counts as culture can feel distant, especially high-brow contemporary art conventions or the ultra-clean Chinatown district (long since co-opted by the state for tourism). But like grass growing in the cracks of the pavement, there are pockets where culture can organically grow. Situated in the Golden Mile area—unofficially known as the Little Bangkok of Singapore—one such place has sprung up for independent cinema in Singapore.
The Projector is on the 5th story of Golden Mile Tower, but it can be seen from the street. It takes up two smaller halls of what once was a three-screen cinema complex. Floor-to-ceiling windows let natural light illuminate neat rows of tables and chairs. When I visited, they were experimenting with using their foyer as a coworking space. Their concessions stand has wine and craft beer. Walking through the building carpark was their al fresco bar. I wanted to sit down with a gin and tonic, but a guy with a guitar walked up to us and said, “Sorry, the space is reserved. I am proposing to my girlfriend.” There is more to The Projector than your regular cinema.
There was once a Golden Age of Cinema in Singapore. Shaw Brothers and Cathay Organisation were the Stirling steam engines of domestic film production, producing Malay- and Chinese-language films well into the ‘60s. Today, like most developing economies in Southeast Asia, Hollywood blockbusters are dominating viewership because of the big box cineplex model: attract the crowds, generate spillover sales, and maximise turnover in shopping malls. With only the occasional independent film being produced, it’s difficult to say a Singaporean film industry exists. Sinema Old School, the last home for indie cinema, closed down in 2011.
That’s not to say The Projector doesn’t have concerns with margins and sales. It does, however, offer an alternative—with people and conservation in mind. The Projector was conceived and is managed by sisters Karen and Sharon Tan and Blaise Trigg-Smith of Pocket Projects, an urban design consultancy. Pocket Projects have been involved in designing spaces like The Row in KL, and the Lorong 24A Series in Singapore. They were introduced to the disused halls years ago through a mutual friend. Though they didn’t have a background in film, they knew this space could be turned into something special.
“We remember the independent cinemas while we used to live in London—The Prince Charles Cinema, The Ritzy, and Everyman Cinemas. They had a really cozy vibe, with sofas and blankets for patrons to use,” Sharon Tan says with a smile.
So they designed The Projector with social interaction in mind. “We wanted to offer an alternative,” she said. “Yes, we run our programming differently, but we also wanted a freer and open social aspect of the cinema. If you see cinemas here, there is no comfortable place to just hang out after the film.”
However, Sharon remembers how uncertain they were of their ideas. “When we started, we weren’t sure who would turn up.” Sometimes the most-requested films generated little to no ticket sales. The big film distributors were initially skeptical about working with them. However, they eventually saw that The Projector could screen Oscar-worthy films after their typical run at the cineplexes.
Now in their third year of operation, Sharon tells us how their physical growth was just as organic. “The floor you see now wasn’t even these grey tiles. There was no furniture you see here today. The concession counter is new. The box office was installed a month ago!”
She tells me of the wide range of programming that they’ve done. One of their halls, redrum, is equipped with a stage and has hosted film festivals, standup comedy, spoken word nights, and music gigs. The most memorable one? A pole dancing competition. They even had a Frozen sing-a-long. “There were kids all dressed up as Elsa, running about in the foyer,” they told me.
Sharon now boasts that embassies like to come to them—one of them expected a modest attendance of 60 at their film festival, The Projector pulled in 450 people. They do launches for local filmmakers too—Kirsten Tan, of recent Pop Aye fame, had a Q&A session for her award-winning short Dahdi. Sharon also brought me to the backroom, where directors and filmmakers left their mark on the walls. Earlier in January, The Apprentice was well attended. They even held a screening of Eric Khoo’s Mee Pok Man, one of the pioneering films of modern Singaporean cinema.
I asked Karen if the project had allowed them more time for themselves. She laughed. “No, we’re so busy. But it’s a worthwhile project. It gets you out of bed in the morning.”
We’re creating a community,” she adds. “It’s great to see people who support us coming back, and have an interest in keeping us going.”
They told me a story that happened when they were still crowdfunding to restore the cinema. “We were allowing backers to adopt seats, and we had a strange request from an adopter to name one seat after her husband. It turns out that they had their first date there years ago. Even though someone had already adopted it, we eventually sorted it out for her.”
That negotiation between the future and the past is symbolic of Pocket Project’s approach to the cinema. It’s about imbuing the space with social meaning and identity, based on what was already there, adding on layers and memories rather than starting with a clean slate. That is something that big box cinemas can’t offer in Singapore—or anywhere else. Hopefully, this will pave the way for a more discerning audience in Singapore and plant the seeds for a second Golden Age of Cinema.
6001 Beach Road
#05-00 Golden Mile Tower