SINGAPORE — Every year, a small team of eight takes turns planting onions and chillies into the ground around the Bras Basah- Bugis precinct to “ward off” rain during the annual Singapore Night Festival (SNF), which typically takes place in July or August.
In nine years, the Singapore Night Festival’s visitorship has grown more than 800%. Video: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY
This core team have also, over the years, doubled up as cleaners and movers during the lead up to the events. They oversee every detail in producing the massive outdoor event.
In nine years, the Singapore Night Festival’s visitorship has grown more than 800 per cent. Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, it is one of the biggest events on the Singapore calendar, attracting over 550,000 visitors at its 2016 edition.
A sneak peek at the Night Lights installations for its 2017 edition. Video: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY
Sharing her memories from past years, festival director Angelita Teo, 45, recalled: “(In 2012), at a rehearsal, (one of) the artists wanted to try (releasing) confetti that was unplanned for, it was only meant for the performance night, so we didn’t provision for cleaners to be there. The whole team ended up sweeping the floor in the middle of the night. It was past mid-night, the confetti were everywhere; they were stuck on trees, shrubs and plants.”
Teo, who has been involved with the SNF since its inaugural edition in 2008, became its festival director in 2012. The idea of a night festival was first mooted to enliven the Bras Basah-Bugis precinct and to create opportunities for the National Museum of Singapore and the surrounding museums, like the Peranakan Museum and Singapore Art Museum, to engage with new audiences.
While the area had once been vibrant during the 1970s and 1980s where people often frequented for sports activities, street food and outdoor entertainment, the precinct later became a place where people mainly went during the day, Teo said. “In the ‘90s, when we started to gentrify this space and we had the Singapore Management University moving in. It became a practical space that people only came in the day, to either work or study.”
In its first year, the festival, together with partners from six organisations, drew some 60,000 people and had just one zone for the carnival. It now has 70 partners and expanded to five zones, drawing more than 500,000 visitors over the last four years.
Over the past decade, the team has also experimented and made several changes to the SNF, including a rebranding from the Night Festival to Singapore Night Festival in 2013 as a mark of recognition that the event had been garnering international attention and had become “nationally important”.
Among the big hits for SNF include Night Lights, a nine-evening outdoor showcase of light installations that was introduced in 2011. And the decision to close Armenian Street and addition of the Festival Village at Cathay Green — a space for festivalgoers to eat and drink — both introduced in 2012 and 2014 respectively proved to be a good move.
Not all tweaks to the festival, however, were successful. In an effort to expand the festival to neighbouring precincts like Raffles City and Plaza Singapura turned out to be imprudent. According to Teo, festivalgoers found the experience diluted and it was “logistically expensive”.
“The reality is, making the festival better means not just always bringing in amazing, new, ‘wow’ programming… A lot of times, we realised with the festivalgoers, it is about tradition (of attending the festival with friends and family). We have been listening and we realised what brings people together is having an atmosphere of fun and good food,” explained Teo.
The SNF has also created opportunities for artistes as well as a platform for collaboration between local and international artists.
“A lot of the groups that we have worked with, they come back over and over again. Our insistence is that you have to present something different every year. It cannot be what you have done before, because then it doesn’t show the process of growth and creativity, which is what the festival stands for,” said Teo.
Among the local artists returning to this year’s festival is Johari Kazura, 42, co-founder of Starlight Alchemy.
The group has performed as fire-juggling and LED-dancing buskers in 2013 and 2014, created a full-fledged performance with aerial and large custom-made fire props in 2015, and constructed a geometric and reflective outdoor installation this year.
“The growth (as artists) would have been difficult without the SNF. We are sharing the same stage with these other great artists and performance groups and installation artists,” Johari said.
“We always break new ground creatively at the SNF. There is enough material that we can take out to the world. We took our Fire Helix to Burning Man, a festival in the US, to showcase it over there. We always manage to take our best ideas from here and move it out into the world,” he added.
Teo too, believes that artistic talent in Singapore has come a long way. She is confident that it is possible to have a full festival programme with local artists, not just for SNF but other festivals in Singapore as well.
“I don’t think if you asked me this four, five years ago, I would say that,” said Teo.
Ardent SNF fan Tan Geng Hui, 40, has been attending the SNF every year since it began. He said the festival offers a “holistic experience” that includes local, international acts and a food carnival. But like many, Tan would like more space as it can get congested and crowded, which can put a damper on the enjoyment of performances.
“The crowd experience has been very tight, and it’s very difficult to move around the area due to the land space constraints. It’s a good issue to have — that means you have the numbers coming down to support the SNF. (But) on the other hand, it poses a bit of a challenge for visitors, in terms of the visitor experience,” Tan said.
Shepherding crowds in such large numbers also poses traffic and security issues.
Vatsala Veerasamy, 31, a festival programmer with the Festivals & Precinct Development at National Heritage Board, recounted a particular rather “frightening” incident in 2014 where human traffic was so heavy that it “reached a standstill”.
The team had not anticipated the large turnout for a new addition — a pro-wrestling event — to the SNF’s programming. The set-up on Armenian Street left only one lane passable to human traffic. The crew had to quickly think on their feet and “with the help of our festival assistants and the hired security, we managed to rectify the situation by directing festivalgoers to an alternative route”, said Vatsala.
Teo admits that crowd control has always been the biggest issue for the festival. Over the last three years, the team has been “trying very hard to re-look” how to improve the flow of visitors. Among the measures taken include scheduling performances to take place only on the second weekend of the festival this year. This is so that visitors can better enjoy the Night Lights installations ahead of the performances.
Safety of the festivalgoers is also key. Over the years, the team has worked closely with the authorities and “learned the ‘do’s and ‘don’ts” of organising a large scale event like the SNF.
Security has also increased over the years, when once water barricades were used, they have now made way for cement barricades.
The SNF team did not want to reveal other security measures deployed. Teo would only say the “requirement for auxiliary police has gone up tremendously”, along with “many” festival assistants to guide visitors around dark areas.
She added that where necessary, such as at some performance spaces, 100 per cent bag checks will be implemented for the first time.
Moving forward, the festival will continue to evolve, Teo said, but will be mindful of avoiding any “sudden change”.
Teo said the team has spent the last few years thinking through strategies to elevate the SNF, but added that it is “a little too premature” to reveal their efforts and plans.
“We will hold on to the belief that the festival is meant for all Singaporeans and to keep it authentically Singaporean as well.”
The Singapore Night Festival runs from Aug 18 to 26, from 7.30pm to 12am, at various venues. For more information, visit www.nightfestival.sg