Perched on a flamingo-pink stool, I found myself swaying along to “我问天” by Weng Li-you as the entire bar burst into song, accompanied by the sound of clinking glasses and sporadic interjections of “Woo!”. This was L Bistro, a quaint karaoke bar nestled within Jurong East’s industrial district. Prior to my visit, I had occasionally walked past its closed doors while visiting my mother at work: in the daytime, its doors remained locked and its neon signs remained off, the green glow of the exit sign as the only source of illumination in the room. It fascinated me, but intimidated me at the same time. With it being located a few floors below multiple office units, I’d assumed that it would mostly be patronised either by working-class adults looking to blow off steam after work, or those that would ordinarily be labelled as ‘Ah Beng’—two demographics that I, as a Filipino woman in her early twenties, did not necessarily find much in common with. However, my fascination ultimately won out, and I sought to observe the differences between this environment and other nightlife establishments I had previously visited. As Jayne et al. (2014) describes, “Far from being homogenized, drinking is a varied activity constructed through diverse practices and experiences”. With this cocktail of nerves and intrigue, I visited L Bistro from 8pm to 12am on a Wednesday night, accompanied by my friends Jun Xiang and Kenneth (names changed to protect identity) to serve as my bridge into this unfamiliar world.
I arrived at 7:53pm, the first to arrive among my friends. As I went up the escalator to the second floor, I felt a small wave of nerves wash over me at the thought of navigating this new space alone while surrounded by unfamiliar people, even if only for a few minutes. However, as I turned the corner and walked towards the bar, I realised that my nerves were unfounded—apparently, I was the first patron to arrive at all.
On the glass doors hung a sign that cheerily exclaimed “We are OPEN!”, but the room remained completely empty, save for two waitstaff sitting near the back of the room. This gave me pause. Although it was pretty early in the night, I imagined that similar establishments would have at least some patrons at this hour; even the surrounding bars on the same floor already had people occupying their space. It then hit me that I was imposing my own expectations of ‘normalcy’ onto this space before I had even entered the room—the very thing that we, as anthropologists, are meant to avoid. I resolved myself to, as far as possible, view my surroundings with an open mind and a blank slate. The muffled yet unmistakable sound of karaoke made its way through the closed doors, and I did the same.
As I pushed through the doors, one of them got up from his seat and made his way to the entrance, greeting me with a wide grin. His fellow staff paid me no mind as he clutched a microphone, engrossed in his rendition of a Chinese song that I did not recognise.
“Hi! I’m waiting for two more people, can I just get a table first?”
“Yeah can!” He gestured around the empty bar. “Free seating lah, can pick anywhere you want,” he chuckled.
I laughed as well. “Okay, thank you so much!”
I opted for a seat in the corner to allow myself the best chance at observing as much of the space as possible, and soaked in my surroundings. There wasn’t very much in the way of lighting, similar to when the bar was closed, except this time the neon signs were switched on: slogans like “Cheers!” and “Drink up!”, as well as the bar’s logo itself, a cursive letter L with the bar’s name emblazoned below it. The space was rather small, with twenty or so tables evenly spaced out. The tables themselves were quite tall, and appeared to be imitation marble with gold accents. They were accompanied by tall, mismatched stools—some were plain black metal with a small backrest, and some were bright, flamingo-pink without a backrest. A QR code for the menu was stuck on the corner of each table, with the physical menus being laminated, likely to prevent mishaps such as spilled drinks. Pun-filled posters with slogans like “my relationship with whiskey is on the rocks” lined the walls and floor-length windows, along with wall decals depicting doodles of alcohol bottles. There were TV screens on either side playing karaoke sing-along videos, with the actual karaoke machine hidden out of my view. The setting was casual and not uptight, likely intended to encourage patrons to relax and enjoy themselves. It helped relax me as well, or at least, as relaxed as I could be in an unfamiliar environment.
I ordered the food and drinks first (after consulting my friends on what to order via Telegram message: fried finger food and a ‘beer tower’). As I waited for my companions to arrive, I stayed glued to my phone, scrolling through my social media. After ten awkward minutes, Jun Xiang finally made it through the doors, with the staff greeting him in a similar fashion. It was his arrival that made me realise I was slightly overdressed—I wore jeans, a crop top, platform boots, and a simple necklace, and had applied makeup. In contrast, Jun Xiang was dressed casually in Bermuda shorts, slippers, and a graphic T-shirt. I worried that I would appear out of touch with the environment I was in, alienating myself further, but he assured me that “No one cares lah, people wear whatever they want.”
As the night passed, more patrons trickled in (as did Kenneth, who apologised for being late). It was still not as many people as I was used to seeing in other similar establishments I had visited, but my friends chalked this up to it being a weeknight, and jokingly chastised me for asking to meet so early in the night. Each group tended to stick to their own tables and seemed to choose seats far away from other patrons, so I expected there to be minimal intermingling. However, this would change through the night. As people would get up from their table to pass the microphones around, they would compliment and encourage each other’s singing prowess, and towards the end of the night, everyone would be singing along to songs that they recognised—this was a heartwarming sight, with a sense of camaraderie and shared fun within a space that initially remained awkward and segregated.
Being in a bar, it would be expected that every table would have some form of alcohol, and this place was no exception. As I made my way through the space to select a song from the karaoke machine, I would hear passing bits of friends goading each other to drink more, or groups playing drinking games—my table was no different. As Jun Xiang finished his drink and left his empty glass on the table, Kenneth made no hesitation to refill his glass: “What is this…empty cup? How can?” He grinned as he passed the filled glass back to Jun Xiang, who groaned before taking another swig. In all honesty, it made me slightly uncomfortable to witness this peer pressure play out. After all, this was exactly what I was taught to speak out against in secondary school. However, there was some lingering doubt in my mind. Wasn’t the whole point of this assignment to look past my own cultural lens?
It was then that I recalled the concept of methodological relativism—specifically, Methodological Relativism I, as described by Omohundro (2008). While the idea is to avoid ethnocentrism, this does not preclude moral judgment. Armed with this, I chided Kenneth (albeit in a joking, lighthearted tone).
“Don’t pressure pressure leh…”
“Okay lah I won’t,” Kenneth whined, but stuck to his statement for the rest of the night.
At the end of the night, as me, Jun Xiang, and Kenneth waited for our taxi to arrive, I reflected upon my visit to L Bistro. This setting that was once unfamiliar and intimidating was now a space that housed memories of fun and camaraderie. At the same time, the visit forced me to confront situations that made me somewhat uncomfortable: the debate of ethical versus moral relativism, the fear of navigating an unknown space, and generally feeling like the Other in a room full of people who appeared to have their own set of shared norms. I came out of it still feeling a small cultural divide—after all, one night was not going to completely absorb me into this subculture. Nonetheless, I now hold a wider worldview and a greater understanding of this small piece of Singaporean nightlife culture, and the practices that arise out of it.