As the story goes, it was a team of ‘visionaries’ – led by comic-loving entrepreneur Ken Chong – that in 2007 came across the former Singapore Methodist Girls’ School on Mount Sophia, and came up with the idea to turn it into Old School: a thriving creative arts complex or, to quote their tagline, ‘digs for new-school thinkers’.
The six buildings on the site were refurbished and opened up for a number of arts and culture organisations. Among the first tenants upon the opening in October 2007 were The Philharmonic Orchestra, who had been in search of a rehearsal space, and a new independent cinema dubbed Sinema, from the founders of local film production company Originasian Pictures.
Now, however, it seems that Old School as we know it will soon be gone. While it’s unclear what will happen to the complex (the Old School media office did not respond to our calls for this story), tenants report that evictions have begun and attempts to extend existing lease agreements have been unsuccessful, with word getting out that there are plans for some of the historic buildings to be demolished. Already, several organisations have moved out, such as the Feiyue store (now located at #02-04 EPL Building, 1100 Lower Delta Road; 6273 3080) and Chalk Restaurant (new location at 106 Sunset Way, Clementi). Other tenants are still looking for new spots.
There’s sadness for those leaving, says Gwen Lee of 2902 Gallery, which is named after the 2008 leap year date they opened. ‘There won’t be a cluster as unique as Old School, with everyone in the same location,’ she says. Adrian Koh of Milk Photographie – which set up at Old School in late 2008 but will now be moving into Vue Privée’s new base at 63 Spottiswoode Park – agrees: ‘I love the atmosphere that Old School brings and for a photography studio, it helps to freshen our creativity,’ he says. ‘I also love the fact that there are also other creatives around like Kult, Elixr Design Studio, [architectural practice] Sparch, Sinema and 2902 Gallery.’
Other tenants mention the complex’s unique atmosphere: ‘We were attracted by the community feel and the opportunity to do events, installations, exhibitions and parties,’ says Steve Lawler (aka Mojoko), director of Kult, who moved to Old School in 2008. ‘The atmosphere is unique because it is productive, but not intense like working in the CBD.’
Events from Kult, such as their annual Nixon Art Mosh party, exhibition openings at 2902 Gallery and late-night screenings at Sinema, have all been among the highlights at Old School over the past few years. ‘The vibe was just so right,’ says Nicholas Chee, Sinema’s managing director. ‘The screenings, the patrons, the late nights building the place up… too many memories!’
‘We all have different memories, but I think the silk-screen parties we used to have were the most fun for me,’ says Lawler. ‘Real lo-fi, good old-fashioned fun.’ Kult has yet to find a new location, though. ‘The space is rare to find in central Singapore,’ Lawler says, ‘and the ability to throw monster exhibitions and showcases is going to be hard to re-create.’ Still, he says: ‘We’re planning to stay in the Civic District – probably near Selegie Road and Bugis.’
Other organisations will be similarly affected by the move. After their final screenings at Old School this month, Sinema may not continue as a cinema if a replacement theatre space isn’t found. At the same time, however, Chee points out that creating the cinema space was largely serendipitous. ‘Our previous office lease in Little India was running out, and someone told us about Old School – when we came to the place to look around, we saw a magical space that could possibly become a theatre. The rest, as they say, is history!’
Above all, however, it’s the loss of community most people will miss above all. ‘What I really miss now is those people who have left,’ says Koh. Lawler agrees, saying he ‘will miss bumping into friends and neighbours, randomly stumbling into music festivals or art exhibitions. There are always shows and events which really help [people] stay clued in to the scene here.’
Still, all groups point to exciting projects for the future, such as the 3rd Singapore International Photography Festival, which will be directed by 2902 Gallery’s Lee. For a parting shot, Chee offers one of his favourite Old School memories: ‘When [Chariots of Fire producer] David Puttnam came to visit, he said that we’re an important part of the film industry’s history and asked me to keep at it, even if the odds are against us. That’s always given me the courage to plough on despite any hardships’.