Incubating creativity in Singapore's shophouses

Fang Low is fostering a sense of togetherness in these heritage buildings with both commercial and residential spaces, while simultaneously supporting the local art scene.
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Many metropolises around the globe today have slipped into a pattern of sameness. Steel-and-glass skyscrapers crowd the skyline and chains like Starbucks and McDonald's sprout across towns. Packed into prosaic shoe-box apartments, city folk often encounter social isolation and loneliness. 

‘We're all losing our sense of place,’ says Fang Low, the co-founder and CEO of Figment, a boutique hospitality rental company based in Singapore. ‘You can live anywhere in the world and get the same experience.’ 

With Figment, Fang's on a mission to fend off this trend in his hometown by harnessing Singapore's shophouses – buildings that serve both a commercial and a residential purpose – to develop communities within the creative sector. In the same way that Chelsea townhouses are a part of London's architectural vernacular, these eye-catching buildings are a rich marker of Singapore's landscape. 

Shophouse living

Built between 1840 and 1960, the archetypal shophouse is a two- or three-storey structure with space for commercial activities at ground level and living quarters above. Only around 6,500 remain today, as many were razed in favor of soaring towers. 

Fang sees shophouse living as a counterpoint to the high-rise urban sprawl. Having grown up in one, he fondly remembers the joys of nestling within the community. ‘Together with my neighbors, I'd have [roti] prata [Indian flatbread] for breakfast, play badminton in car parks and take a peek at celebrities living next door – we've since lost a certain way of living,’ he reminisces.

The camaraderie that Fang hopes to foster among Figment's members stems from an age-old local philosophy: the kampung spirit – a sense of community. In the past, locals dwelled in kampungs (‘villages’ in the Malay language), where neighborly ties bound the community as one and everyone would look out for each other. And Figment's growth seems to show that people do want to be connected to thriving neighborhoods. 

Launched three years ago, Figment now oversees 24 unique properties across the country. The company owns a handful of them, but it acquires new buildings through master lease agreements (like retail stores in malls) or management contracts (like hospitality companies). Fang's team use their expertise and eye for design to co-create studios with local artists, such as multi-disciplinary design duo Studio Juju and homeware brand Scene Shang. The focus isn't just about fashioning great interiors, but also honoring the area's cultural heritage.

Home is where the art is

Figment's most recent initiative is with visual artists. In January, the brand invited four Singapore-based artists (Nature Shankar, Leow Wei Li, Yen Phang and Khairullah Rahim) to stage solo shows in four conservation shophouses for the next five years. Original artworks are exhibited on the ground floor, while sketches and studies are showcased in the rooms and along the corridors. In contrast to a sterile gallery space, the artists can hold intimate viewings and engage with visitors within the comfort of a home. 

And that's not all: Figment will purchase any unsold artwork over the five-year period, with 10% of rental proceeds going toward the total value of the work. ‘This is our community patronage model,’ Fang explains. ‘It's more a community-building initiative than a money-making endeavor.’

Fang's real estate background has given him a strong foundation, inspiring him to funnel capital from the property trade into the local arts ecosystem. He has a master's degree in real estate from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and his father, a keen investor in pre-war shophouses, brought him along to property viewings from a young age. ‘Singapore has a robust real estate industry, and luxury developers are already thinking about art,’ he shares. ‘We've just got to keep finding windows of opportunity where their support for local art could transmute into higher rental yields.’

Figment's community patronage project is significant to Fang, as art has always held a special place in his life. He was raised in a home adorned with antiques and artifacts – his globetrotting father would snag all sorts of works, from German expressionist paintings to Chinese porcelain – kindling his appreciation for creative pieces. While living in New York, Fang spent a stint in the Asian art department of Christie's auction house and was also a gallery assistant at The Museum of Modern Art. The chasm between NYC's dynamic art scene and Singapore's own sparked a desire to invigorate his hometown's creative community.

And Fang is just getting started. Figment's creator residency program is currently in the works. It will offer a complimentary three-month stay for 10 artists – from craftsmen to cultural researchers – at the brand-new Figment Artist Village, located at an undisclosed coastal retreat in Indonesia. 

This initiative takes inspiration from Singapore's first art colony, The Artists Village. During the eighties and nineties, it was a greenhouse for creatives to engage in discussions and incubate their ideas. Figment's upcoming venture puts another spin on the kampung spirit, particularly among local creators. 

‘We don't have a traditional arts background to hold us back,’ Fang shares. ‘If we want to find new ways of support, we've got to keep experimenting.’

On the surface, Figment appears to be focused on revitalizing shophouse spaces. But, upon closer inspection, it's stretching the imagination for how today's creative communities can flourish.

This article was first published in Courier issue 45, February/March 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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