Sweat trickled down my neck as I trekked up a flight of stairs in the middle of Chinatown that seemingly headed nowhere.
At the top was Pearl’s Hill Terrace, a building complex hidden behind tall swathes of foliage. Somewhere inside, a creative community called The Glass Hut had organised an event that I would be attending.
Passing through dim corridors filled with eccentric stores (think a taxidermy shop) and a moss-riddled courtyard full of grimy Greco-Roman and Chinese statues, a combination of intrigue, confusion, and hope hit me all at once.
Would the trek to this seemingly deserted complex be a waste of my time?
Or would the event leave me pleasantly surprised?
I arrived just in time for JackyVsTheWall: In The Nature of Things, featuring painter Jacky Mak. It took place in one of the indoor units facing a central courtyard. To say the least, what I saw blew my expectations out of the water. Large-scale paintings of breathtaking landscapes and majestic animals in an Impressionist-inspired style hung on every wall. Surrounded by canvases as far as the eye could see, I felt transported to an old-school, French art salon.
It was certainly a breath of fresh air from traditional institutions or white cube galleries, especially as music thumped in the background and the artist embarked on a live painting session.
Simply put, the event was full of nothing but good vibes. I saw visitors grinning as they mingled and fawned over the art; playing with someone’s cat that had been let loose, and overall having a jovial time — something that might be rare to see at an event associated with fine art. (You can check out our IG reel of the event here!)
Curious about what The Glass Hut does, its founders, and what they hoped to achieve, I returned a few weeks later to chat with co-founders Dione Keh and Cruise Chen as well as founding member Natalie Phay.
Building The Glass Hut
Back in August 2020, Founders Dione and Cruise first visited Pearl’s Hill Terrace to check out the music at Kult Yard. It was there that they met trumpeter Farhan Remy and accordionist Faizal Jon. Dione and Cruise were initially drawn to how Farhan and Faizal had managed to pursue music careers full-time, prior to the pandemic. This struck a chord with Cruise, whose career as an international travelling street musician had been brought to a halt by the pandemic. Equally sympathetic to the plight of creatives during the pandemic was Dione, who had been involved in running music festivals and nightclubs in Melbourne, where she had studied.
“We started coming down here more and then COVID hit so there wasn’t any live music,” Dione shared.
“We gathered here at various timings, and I thought that I had so many friends who would still like to enjoy a different space and make genuine connections.”
Driven by a desire to foster a creative community, the group started running small events. Also keen on creating opportunities for creatives to generate income, The Glass Hut hosted its first craft market in April 2021.
Over the next year or so, Dione slowly roped in more like-minded friends who were passionate about creativity, collaboration and having a good time, resulting in a team of creative and corporate professionals to support the venture. Today, an impressive network of five founders, eight core team members (including musician Nathan Hartono!), and a handful of volunteers supports The Glass Hut.
“There’s a lot of skill-sharing,” explained Natalie Phay, a core team member who handles the community’s public relations.
“Everyone has different strengths but they’re all essential,” added Dione.
Striving to take the community to the next level, Dione registered The Glass Hut as a business in November 2021. It has since launched craft markets, creative workshops, and arts events.
It’s All In The Name
You might be wondering: what’s up with the quirky name though?
The team originally had plans to obtain a grant to hack down the unit’s front-facing concrete wall and replace it with glass. This would have allowed visitors outside in the courtyard to watch musicians perform live music inside the space during the pandemic. But this idea was scrapped when the team realised how expensive the glass would be.
Diving deeper into the name of the space, Dione shared that the team also wanted to convey “the fragility of the livelihoods of creatives during the pandemic” and the notion of “breaking through the glass ceiling.” The name also evokes the whimsical connotations of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.
Filling Gaps In The Ecosystem
While pursuing a creative career in Singapore isn’t uncommon these days, many still struggle with how society at large perceives such jobs. Responding to this, Dione, who runs The Glass Hut alongside having a day job at a bank, says:
“One thing we also want to change is how Singaporeans view creatives. There’s this stigma that doing art and music in Singapore won’t work out so you should move overseas. Or that these aren’t ‘real jobs.’ We really want to change that (perception) as I’ve experienced it firsthand… and (pursuing a creative role) changed my life.”
On the act of giving creatives a platform to share their practices, Dione asserts,
“We believe there’s a lot of hidden talent (without) the resources, team, or space to support them. We want to fill that gap.”
When I asked further about the impact that The Glass Hut has made so far, Dione told me about how she and fellow members met a young woman who had dropped out of school and felt lost in life.
Inspired by the music from the community’s events, she began to take music lessons from Cruise. “She realised that (being a creative) is a possible path where you can prosper,” Dione continued.
There are plans down the line for more formal mentorship programmes as well, as the team expands and generates more income.
“We’re still quite new, but we’d like to meet with schools too,” added Dione.
Summing it up elegantly, Natalie said, “We want to show people that their passions are viable.”
Thriving at Pearl’s Hill Terrace
Thinking back to my initial impression of the complex as a mysterious and eccentric place, I asked the members how they got started here and what they thought about the unconventional location.
“When we first got the space, it didn’t even come with a door, floors, or walls!” Dione recalled.
“We hacked the floors by ourselves, added cement and epoxy, sawed the beams and found a door.”
Faizal led the renovations as he had prior experience in woodworking and had worked at a door repair company when he lost his job as a musician during the pandemic. Professionals were also brought in to help with the ceiling and soundproofing. As a true labour of love, the core members and volunteers worked on The Glass Hut space every day for three months, before launching a craft market for Valentine’s Day in February 2022.
“Everyone (here) is very art-centric so there’s a lot of opportunity for cross-collaboration,” Dione explained, touching on how the larger complex houses artist studios, music schools, pottery studios, Kult Yard, and even a taxidermy shop. Testifying to this is how The Glass Hut’s latest event with Japanese artist Sakiko Takama, Sakiko’s Secret Trip, came to fruition because the artist had her studio nearby and got along well with the group.
I also learnt that the complex used serve as police operational headquarters, which explained its school-like layout featuring buildings with courtyards in the centre. In its present iteration, the courtyards work well to offer space for people to hang out, socialise and easily strike up conversations with newfound friends.
Hopes for the Future
The Glass Hut is still definitely in its early stages, with Dione commenting, “we feel like a baby that’s developing more identity and character. We’re excited about growth!”
Its relative infancy certainly hasn’t stopped The Glass Hut from dreaming big.
“I hope we can create paycheques for everyone, as everyone is doing a great job,” Dione exclaimed. On top of inspiring visitors to explore their creative side, The Glass Hut hopes to work with artists to embark on a long-term project on advocating for empathy, and perhaps even one day run “something with camping (activities) like WonderFruit, with music, workshops, meditation, and yoga.”
By collaborating with a network of capable individuals with first-hand knowledge of creative and corporate industries, The Glass Hut has created art events that, in my experience, have been simply unforgettable.
If past events like JackyVsTheWall: In The Nature of Things and Sakiko’s Secret Trip — an amazingly trippy mixed-media exhibition that included nagashi somen; an intricate, brightly lit Japanese styled procession; and a performance by the artist slathering neon paint onto performers’ bodies — are anything to go by, we’re sure that The Glass Hut will prove itself to be a stellar creative force in Singapore’s artistic landscape.