Singapore is known for being a cutting-edge city, where businesses and government organisations are always ahead of the curve to meet ever growing, ever changing needs. This is especially true with the city’s approach to urban planning. With a land mass just slightly smaller than New York City, Singapore made do by relentlessly building upwards, flaunting the city’s status with a diverse and iconic skyline. Unsurprisingly, buildings that have struggled to keep up with the look of a hyper-futuristic garden city are often condemned to a cyclical fate and torn down.
Looking at history books, you’d struggle to find any similarity between Singapore today and its dusty past. Two-storey shophouses have been swiftly replaced by herculean structures of glass and steel twisting their way up to the clouds. This rapid development means that any redundant space is quickly rebuilt, repurposed or reconstructed.
Take the oldest housing estate in Singapore, Tiong Bahru, which went through an overhaul into refurbished apartments, trendy cafes and boutiques. Then there’s iconic city centre haunts like CHIJMES, the Catholic convent turned food and drink haven and wedding chapel of Crazy Rich Asians fame. Or the once derelict Capitol Theatre which made a comeback as a luxe mall and performance venue after 17 years of disuse.
It’s surprising then that there are still some rare buildings and legacy malls from the city’s past that have managed to survive as relics in a country obsessed with renovation.
Sim Lim Square is one of them. With six floors of independent electronic stores, it is touted as a go-to for all technological needs. When it opened in the 80s, you could find pirated movies, imitation electronic devices and illegal media boxes. Today, it is a one-stop source for everything from gaming consoles to bitcoin mining rigs to selfie sticks. This apparent choice and convenience comes up against countless accusations against errant mall tenants for faulty products, unregulated prices and terrible customer service.
With an image as something of a run-down tourist trap, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that Sim Lim’s days are numbered. In fact, the building’s tenants collectively agreed to sell the building for a cool price of S$1.25 billion ($919 million) earlier in 2019, but it seems no developers took the bait. And that’s what makes the mall’s latest offering all the more intriguing.
Tucked in the basement down a grimey hallway, you will find the inconspicuous round door to Pinball Wizard, a concept bar and club that represents the latest addition of machines that Sim Lim has to offer: pinball games.
“Fueled by the offbeat charm of Sim Lim Square, we wanted to create a hidden intimate space that is unexpected but stylish with lots of character,” said Joshua Pillai, Managing Director of A Phat Cat Collective, the brains behind Pinball Wizard.
Before console and computer games existed, arcades were the preferred past time, and these mechanical ball-flipping games of luck and skill were immensely popular. And while one might consider them relatively innocuous, pinball games were once seen as a menace to society, banned in New York and other American cities from the early 1940s to the mid 1970s for their addictiveness and potential connection to gambling.
Pinball Wizard transports us back to a time where we might’ve played hooky from school just to beat a high score. There’s a heavy sense of nostalgia with pop culture themed games the likes of Jurassic Park, The Simpsons and Star Wars. Even better are the unlimited plays at no cost, assuming you’re there for drinks too of course. The bar offers the perfect accompaniment to the throwback tracks spanning the 90s to the 2000s spun on the turntable decks.
The pièce de résistance though, is the bar’s undeniable retro charm. Reminiscent of an arcade from the 80s, the walls are filled with all the trappings of the perfect underground after-school (or after-work) hangout, with a wall of vinyl, lava lamps, ping pong table and of course, the namesake pinball machines.
This latest invitation to play comes as a pleasant surprise for those who frequent the area.
"I found out about Pinball Wizard online after looking at a review of places to go in Singapore and I realised it's just downstairs!," Fadli of Zeppelin & Co, a hip audio store and cafe that’s been in the building for three years, told VICE.
"I think the impression of Sim Lim Square being a shady place has passed. We want to move forward by creating a nice, comfortable place for people to work and relax. [Our shop is] more of a lifestyle place for people to enjoy, similar to the pinball place for people to come together and just have fun,” Fadli added.
It seems that with the threat of the building being torn down, a strong spirit of rejuvenation has surfaced amongst tenants. There are still new stores moving in, and Pinball Wizard is a welcome addition. Amerik of Gadget Mix, a newly-opened gadget shop said, “It's cool that some people who happen to walk past can explore and realise, 'Hey Sim Lim has a club!'"
The retro-future interior drenched in technicolour lights is a timeless escape, an imaginary land where the old never has to be replaced with the new, and both can happily reside. By filling a once empty space with a full spectrum of entertainment, Pinball Wizard is certainly a clever nod to going into the future by looking back on the past. With that, the Rochor area around Sim Lim is beginning to see new signs of life.
This article was written as part of a partnership between VICE and Phat Cat Collective.