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

Dancers at the Haw Par Villa rave

Dancer Aloysius, 23, spends his days in Singapore performing his required military service.

So "Loy," as he calls himself, goes wild at night on the weekends. He is shedding a skin in order to find relief under the heat and the lights.

We first connected in November at a rave at Haw Par Villa, a western city theme park with a hell-themed atmosphere and numerous statues of Chinese mythological characters, including topless mermaids, fierce demon warriors, and wise old sages like Confucius.

It was dusk, and Loy and his friends were startled by a pounding bass that was drifting up from a room below.

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

Swirl-like projections crawled over a loop of a Chinese palace drama behind the DJ. A moving mass that was in front of the decks lifted wet faces to the screen.

It felt like entering a greenhouse to walk into that crowd. Everyone on the dance floor was sweltering in the heat, and the sea of bum bags, bucket hats, and sunglasses served as a reminder of why most Singaporeans prefer to stay indoors where it's cool.

But the atmosphere was lively.

Now everyone is partying in retaliation, Loy said. The Covid policies in place were absolutely insane. ".

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

Singapore enforced a "no parties, no nightclubs" rule for two years; live music venues were only allowed to reopen in April 2022.

Alcoholic beverages couldn't be served in bars after 22:30, and group hangouts were limited to six people. In search of lawbreakers, "Red Shirt" officials patrolled the streets. Every other seat in a hawker center or movie theater was taped off due to social distance.

The party scene has now re-emerged, and the underground scene in particular has experienced a boom. Lockdown has given rise to new collectives and specialized groups.

Twelve collectives will converge on Singapore's Golden Mile tower the following weekend to perform a final set for the brutalist structure from the 1980s. Mum-and-pop shops, karaoke bars, seedy movie theaters, and most recently, the city's Thai community, have all called it home over the years.

But as is customary in Singapore, a developer sale means it will be demolished in March. A rave in the city would fit in perfectly with a final party at the tower, in many ways.

Party organizers claim that finding a space is frequently the most difficult problem in Singapore due to the city's exorbitant rents and zoning laws.

The settings are thus always transient. Arthouse theaters and basements have both hosted raves. A Japanese izakaya on the river quays is the ideal location for a regular techno event. In a replica set from Wong Kar-wai's movie In The Mood for Love, one Afrobeat band performed.

Singapore's counter-culture congregates at the rave scene. For many, it even represents a rebellion against the city's commercial hub, a dark dance floor serving as the ideal antidote to skyscrapers and sterile shopping centers.

Lanterns and peach drapes hang over the dance crowd at the Haw Par rave
The dance-all-night energy at a rave is greatly influenced by the visuals.

For years, music journalist Kevin Ho has chronicled the local music scene on his website Life in Arpeggio.

The perception of Singapore, according to him, is "of a wealthy country with many rules, and that the party culture would be all about the commercial world.".

The "crossroads of Asia" that Singapore truly is, he claims, manifests itself on the dance floor.

You can observe the melting pot of nationalities, races, and socioeconomic classes there; as DJ Dean Chew put it, "from crypto bros to migrant workers.".

According to Chew, who has been a part of the rave scene for 15 years with his Darker than Wax collective and is currently the proprietor of the music bar Offtrack, at first it may appear to be a "clash in culture.".

However, a dance floor is an excellent unifier. "Everyone just starts dancing and having a good time with the music. And you start to notice these outstanding compositions. ".

Many people flock to the scene because they get a taste of freedom. In the line for the restroom at Haw Par Villa, I came across two fresh-faced young women. The first was sporting a red Make Panda Mate Again cap, while the second was dressed in cargo pants and a crop top.

Both had attended university in Melbourne, Australia, and had then returned to Singapore during the pandemic, where they had their first encounters with rave culture.

Dancers at the Haw Par Villa rave
Ravers claim that compared to a nightclub, raves are more laid back and welcoming.

They used to go out to the massive, multi-level clubs in Singapore where commercial dance music is played loudly. A ferris wheel inside a club, floor cheerleaders, champagne bottles lit up with strobes, and other hilarious gimmicks are frequently found in these venues.

However, they claim that the music is terrible and the alcohol is expensive. One of the women, Eugenia, explains, "It's more a status thing, like it's not really satisfying. She claims that those places are more about being seen than dancing, so she does not deign to dance there.

However, I actually come here to enjoy the music. I want to dance, like, really!".

Later that evening, I saw Loy and his companions once more in the crush. They were dancing wildly as they were bathed in red light, a shine of perspiration on their faces.

He had previously remarked on how much more open and liberated the rave scene felt in comparison to other clubs in the area.

Cost is just one example. In Singapore, clubs can charge up to SGD$60 (£37; $45) at the door, making raves typically one-third the price.

"There's still like this capitalism thing with the clubs and the beach clubs, where if you spend more money you can get a better spot. Like at a club, you can access a higher level if you pay more, according to Loy.

"However, at a rave, everyone is on an equal footing. Everyone is there primarily to dance, which is my favorite aspect of it. ".

Additionally, rave culture honors an individuality that is frequently suppressed in other aspects of Singapore's traditional society.

The underground scene, according to gay man Loy, still provides that secure environment.

The queer scene is becoming more active, and everything is happening, he claims, so we are definitely opening up more recently.

"However, there will still be barriers because Singapore is a conservative country. While I'm still alive, I think it will be conservative. ".

Aloysius Tan dancing at the Haw Par Villa rave on 5/11
In the crowd, Loy.

While same-sex couples can freely hold hands and stroll down the street in Singapore, the country still forbids same-sex marriage and restricts the portrayal of gay relationships in the media.

For years longer than their straight counterparts, gay people are prohibited from purchasing homes. Additionally, a law that made sex between men illegal was only repealed in the nation last year.

Even the word "rave" has contradictory connotations when applied to a city like Singapore, claims Ho.

"I believe that most people's perceptions of raves are those of illicit, drug-imbued events held in a warehouse or other secluded area. ".

However, Singapore, where surveillance cameras are installed on many street corners and etiquette warnings are prominently displayed on public transportation, has a low crime rate.

The majority of people support the city-state's policy of outright banning recreational drugs and punishing drug traffickers with the death penalty. It executed a man who transported a tablespoon of heroin from Malaysia last year despite his requests for mercy due to his intellectual disability.

Because of Singapore's extreme, excessive stance on drugs, Kevin claims that you won't find what you would in a rave anywhere else in the world.

The city's rave scene is still developing. Non-licensed raves don't really exist because every dance floor requires government approval, and organizers complain that there is a ton of paperwork.

The Haw Par Villa rave's organizers needed to obtain approval from more than a dozen government agencies.

Operating here is very challenging. It's one of the probably hardest places to produce creative work, claims DJ Chew.

However, if you can, something powerful and beautiful emerges from it, much like a flower emerging from a crack in the concrete.

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