Clean, safe, efficient, rich, modern. A financial powerhouse where chewing gum is banned. This is how foreigners would describe Singapore.
Most foreigners I’ve spoken to on language exchange app HelloTalk – on which I practise my French – have an impression of Singapore being a “good country”. One guy from Algeria was even surprised that there is unemployment in Singapore. If there’s one thing Singapore is good at, it’s marketing. The Singapore Tourism Board has done a good job with branding the city-state as a multicultural food and shopping paradise, albeit with the reputation of being a city that loves slapping people with fines for the smallest of offences, such as drinking water on the train.
The country sounds good on paper. It’s got everything a first-world nation is supposed to have: a mostly functioning public transport system with a great infrastructure, fairly fast internet speeds, countless cafes for bourgeoisie brunches, air-conditioned shopping malls attached to almost every MRT station, and a Central Business District surrounded by skyscrapers, packed with high flyers in power suits eating at overpriced salad bars. Everything is commercially oriented, designed to encourage consumerism. The more money we spend, the better it is for the country’s economy. However, the yuppie lifestyle is not for me.
Sterile, soulless, boring, stressful. These are a few words I often use to describe the country I was born and bred in. To be fair, there is more than meets the eye. Surely, there must be a sweat-flecked recording studio where promoters put on indie shows. Amongst the high-rise buildings and gleaming skyscrapers, there must be a dark, intimate club where fans of house and techno go to lose themselves in. I’ve spent the better part of a decade digging deep in the underground, going from punk, hardcore, and indie gigs to indie discos to electro nights to house and techno raves here and overseas. I was not only hooked on the music, but also on the feeling of carefree rebellion and acceptance from like-minded individuals, and I travel in hedonistic pursuit of all that.
Can the spirit of anarchy be replicated in a club? Yes, it can. If there’s a message the underground wants to convey, it’s a big ‘fuck you’ to the establishment, and Headquarters by The Council on 66 Boat Quay seems to echo that.
Aptly and affectionately known as HQ, this non-descript club is where a small but tight-knit community of discerning house and techno fans in Singapore gather from Wednesdays to Saturdays. Some arrive later in the night from Kilo, Cato, or kyo––a few other spots that also champion house, tech house, and techno music. While these genres aren’t new here, there hasn’t been a club solely dedicated to them until recently, at least not that I’ve seen in my relatively short 10 years of partying. Even though it’s only been open for 7 months, HQ has unofficially become the headquarter of the local techno scene.
Pay your entry fee, walk up the flight of stairs, and the door opens to reveal an industrial style interior lit only by red lasers. Every inch of the club’s surface – even the toilet door – is marked with scribbles by DJs and punters.
It’s evident that a lot of thought went into providing the full experience of what a true underground club should be like. Behind a cage-like booth with speakers suspended by heavy-duty chains, DJs from Singapore and abroad play deep, dark, driving 4/4 beats that’s befitting of such a raw, intimate venue.
There are no plush sofas or tables for reservation; just a couple of couches tucked in corners next to an old school Donkey Kong arcade machine. Of all the clubs I’ve been to in the country, this is the only one that holds a candle to the few I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing in London, Berlin, Barcelona, and Antwerp, all of which are equally no-frills with a DIY vibe.
Despite what the tourism ads tell you, Singapore’s nightlife is far from vibrant. Clarke Quay is a tourist trap that I’d advise travellers to avoid. The city-state has sadly been dubbed the land that techno forgot. Even Tbilisi, the capital of the former Soviet country of Georgia is rising as a rave destination, thanks to the opening of BASSIANI, a techno club built in a former swimming pool. There are a couple of similarities between Singapore and Tbilisi, namely the zero-drug tolerance policy and prohibition of homosexuality. Fortunately for the LGBT scene here, gay bars and clubs are allowed to operate. In an article for Electronic Beats, the co-owners of BASSIANI wrote that techno has become a music for protest in their city, and it seems like something similar is happening here. Most clubs close at 4am, but if a club or the occasional pop-up underground rave is lucky enough to get a permit to extend its hours, then the party goes on ’til day breaks. After-hours parties have to be kept on the down low for obvious reasons. Clubs get raided from time to time and parties get shut down.
With alcohol being the only legal high, fights break out on the dancefloor in almost every club when people get way too drunk and aggressive. People throwing up or passed out on the pavements outside clubs are a common sight. For those who prefer to stay sober, HQ has an endless supply of Club-Mate, a caffeinated Yerba mate tea-based soda. The drink has also become synonymous with hacker culture and club culture in Berlin, the techno capital of Europe. A half-litre bottle contains 100mg of caffeine. Fueled by the mighty Mate, who even needs drugs to keep awake?
As the night wears on, the dance floor heats up as the music takes the crowd higher. Deep in the throes of thumping techno, things get inevitably messy, sticky, even increasingly debauched. Shoes get glued to the floor, wet from spilt drinks, but who cares? In a shared moment of euphoria, nothing else but the music matters. Ravers cheer the DJ on with fist pumps and screams of encouragement, creating a feedback loop of positive energy that’s almost orgasmic.
At HQ, nobody cares how you dress, which gender you’re attracted to or what you do for a living. Everybody’s there to dance. You could enter the club alone and exit with new friends. Go there often enough and everyone, even the bouncer, feels like family. There is a sense of camaraderie here you can’t find in bigger clubs. For its regulars, the club is a second home, a sanctuary where they can escape from the drudgery of the daily grind.
What makes these places special – no matter where in the world you find them – is the open, welcoming, friendly crowd they attract. In a typically reserved fast-paced Asian society where people can often be cold, it takes a hell lot of effort to find your tribe. And it’s on dark dance floors and in strobe-lit spaces that play loud music where I found mine.
Lead image by Colossal Photos