‘Very non-Singaporean’: an abandoned mall emerges as an unlikely art haven

In Singapore, where graffiti is banned, young creatives have taken over an abandoned mall, spray painting colourful murals and holding art workshops to bring the space back to life.

Around half a century old, Peace Centre is scheduled to face the wrecking ball later this year, but fans say it has provided a rare space for self-expression.

Permission from authorities is required for any kind of street art in the Southeast Asian country.

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People walk past the entrance of the Peace Centre, an abandoned mall turned into an unexpected art enclave. Photo: AFP

In August last year, PlayPan, an initiative co-founded by entrepreneur Gary Hong, convinced developers to postpone the mall’s demolition.

The answer the initiative’s backers received was that they could go ahead and use the space for “a social experiment to bring [the] community together”, Hong said.

They were given the space to host performances and workshops for several months, allowing artists, students, charities and small businesses to set up shop for free or at heavily discounted rates.

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The Peace Centre has unexpectedly become an art haven. Photo: AFP

The eclectic mix of pop-up stores, art tours and musical performances has transformed the once lacklustre mall into an unexpected art haven.

At the end of January, however, the mall will close definitively, bringing an end to the art project.

Peace Centre was once a popular mall but lost its shine to glitzier shopping centres that mushroomed over recent years.

In the last two decades, it was mostly known for its printing shops and seedy karaoke lounges.

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The abandoned Peace Centre has been given a new life thanks to young creatives in Singapore. Photo: AFP

Since its revamp into an art space, young people have attended graffiti workshops, colouring closed shopfronts with spray cans while punters browsed through second-hand clothing stalls and exhibits.

“It’s not something you do on a normal weekend, less so inside an indoor area, in a mall,” said Darryl Poh, a 29-year-old sales trader who took part in a spray-painting workshop.

The bathroom walls and mirrors were splattered with graffiti, while a Rage Against the Machine song blared from one of the pop-up stores.

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Murals and graffiti on the walls inside the Peace Centre in Singapore. Photo: AFP

Craft cocktails were served on the ground floor and nearby, death metal CDs and trinkets were on sale.

Such spaces are uncommon in Singapore, a top financial hub in Asia.

“I think you just got to know where to look. The government can curate things, but people are still going to do their own thing,” said Ning Fei, 34, who was selling typewritten poems.

The outer walls were plastered with fliers advertising activities from ukulele classes to pebble painting, while a futuristic mural welcomed visitors arriving at the main entrance.

The energy here was really exciting. There were a lot of things you don’t typically see in Singapore malls … very non-Singaporean, very organic

Gabriel, photographer

Gabriel, a 43-year-old photographer who asked to be identified only by his first name, set up a booth to take portraits of passers-by for charity.

“The energy here was really exciting. There were a lot of things you don’t typically see in Singapore malls,” he said, describing the vibe as “very non-Singaporean, very organic”.

“I’m going to miss this community very much. I’m glad to have plugged in and participated in this swan song.”

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