Mine is certainly not a Bohemian lifestyle despite living in a so-called “Bohemian” village for over a decade. What is Bohemian, or for that matter, Bohemianism, anyway? Is it a lifestyle or is it an attitude or is it just a name given to a certain inhabitant of a place called Bohemia?
It was nothing but work and work for me at the desktop today. Of course, lunch and dinner, and even an occasional tea break are biological in nature – nothing non-conforming for sure.
Well, it is a great blessing that I am staying just a stone’s throw away from the Village (Holland Village, in case you wonder – or “Bohemian” Village). Her constant calling sees me often enough at my favourite hangout – Tango’s. It’s really a great place to relax with Winehouse or Fitzgerald accompanying you while you sip your Cabernet (I prefer Bordeaux for its subtle complexities though) and watch people go by. If I come by around 5 or 6pm, I usually see Thomas sitting alone carefreely enjoying his Vodka Lime. There are days when you hear nothing but Deep Purple and I’d be off in a jiffy – not to say that I hate hard rock but I can’t sponge up any relaxing juice from Ritchie’s or Ian’s faces. I listen to hard rock when I want inspiration or when I need to throw in the towel or when I want to summon the animal in me.
Without doubt, after so many years, this is still my favourite place in Holland V. I like the look and feel of the old table top which they recently scrapped. What a pity. Character certainly cannot be built in a day and yet when it has taken shape, there is the constant need to destroy it in the name of “upgrade”.
Notwithstanding, the venue still has a certain 70’s and 80’s mood about it which puts me in a relaxing mode after my first two drinks. Don’t we all sometimes wish we can shake off all our burdens and live a carefree Bohemian lifestyle? Yes, and this spot in Holland V makes me feel as though I am living my wish.
What is Bohemian, anyway?
Thomas is a semi-retired lawyer and a third generation Portuguese. He currently runs his own consulting firm and is an excellent conversational partner. He likes to think that he discusses his positions based on “facts” and observations – well, after all, he is a lawyer. Many a time, the topic wasn’t ideal for relaxation (such as politics or business) but it was better than nothing – and usually it would meandered into something silly, hilarious and then possibly relaxing, so whatever it was, it was worth clinging on to.
David, the restaurant manager, approached us, “You guys want to refill?” Thomas put up his two fingers to indicate a yes and a double. I nodded and said, “Same.” I was having a Heineken instead of my usual red, which was a one-for-one until 9pm at Tango’s (the other pubs follow suit).
“Hey, how long have you been living in Holland Village area?”, I asked.
“Wow, long time. 30 years, man (you know he has been through the “hippie” era)” Thomas replied.
I continued, “Any changes you see?”
“Not really, you know. It’s still the same structures but of course the shops have changed. And now, more people, because of the MRT. I remember Palms Wine Bar along Holland Avenue and Batter Batter in Jalan Merah Saga in the 80’s”, he recalled.
I retrieved a folder from my memory bank and said, “I visited Holland V many years ago before I moved here and I remembered entering a beautiful restaurant. It has stained glass and I saw sunlight streaming through the glasses into its Bohemian atmosphere. It was really nice. I miss that sort of ambience here.”
Thomas recalled, “Yes, I know that restaurant… ahh yes! I think it was Balmoral and it was owned by the Sloane Court people. It stood at where Fosters is now, I think. They repositioned the road but I think it is still the same spot.”
“Really? You remember? This was so characteristic of Holland Village’s “Bohemian” personality then. Do you think the shops and restaurants ambience is still as arty and spontaneous as it used to be – yunno, Bohemian-like?”, I wondered.
Thomas offered, “I think it depends on what you mean by Bohemian. There might be some confusion there because I get the feeling from radio shows and the local media that people think Bohemian signifies upper-class and therefore, Bohemianism is a kind of “classy” lifestyle. This is a somewhat of a misconception.”
“I know the term has a variety of meanings which may not necessarily be connected but do you have any idea what they are?”, came my eager reply.
Thomas enlightened, “I don’t profess to know everything but I do believe that Bohemia is a place in Eastern Europe, somewhere in Czech.. used to be prosperous and some sort of melting pot of cultures and religion. The people from there were called Bohemians. I guess you could say Holland Village is Bohemian if you go by that definition.. yunno, melting pot of cultures, but I don’t think there is anything special in this definition, though. This definition falls short of being creative, interesting and even occasionally outrageous, which Holland V is supposedly perceived as.”
“I thought the Bohemians travelled out of Czech and came to France and that was where Bohemianism started – yunno, the carefree, gypsy lifestyle with nothing in mind but simply the pursuit of art and craft.”, I interjected.
Thomas, pleased that his knowledge had found its rightful repository, replied,”Yes, that is true. They were travellers. They came to France and they were often called Bohemians, which is a French reference to gypsies. I believe this was in the early 19th Century. In fact when you talk about Bohemian, you cannot fail but to also talk about Bohemian fashion and Bohemian culture. I guess you could refer to these lifestyle elements as Bohemianism. The gypsy fashion and the carefree, artistic culture, yunno. Of course, these two elements have evolved into massive movements over the decades and have also penetrated mainstream fashion and culture. So, if you go by this definition, Holland Village may have some of these Bohemian characteristics. The question is to what extent and how obvious. Look at Harajuku. It is clearly Bohemian from the fashion aspect. But is it a melting pot? Is it a carefree lifestyle manifested or just some spontaneous activity and everyone goes home to work rigorously on the computer after that?”
I pressed further, “So what does Bohemian mean these days? Is a gypsy lifestyle still the essential qualifying criteria?”
Thomas whipped out his iPad and began scrolling, attempting to find some clues, “Hmm, I didn’t know this. Bohemian can be a reference to any group of people with five different sets of attitudes and lifestyles:
(i) Nouveau: well-off bohemians who attempt to match traditional Bohemianism with contemporary culture (ii) Gypsy: drifters, neo-hippies, and others with nostalgia for previous, romanticized eras (iii) Beat: also drifters, but non-materialist and art-focused (iv) Zen: “post-beat,” focus on spirituality rather than art (v) Dandy: no money, but try to appear as if they have it by buying and displaying expensive or rare items – such as brands of alcohol.”
“That was very clarifying! So, which group do you belong to? Do you love the arts?”, I enthused.
Thomas, closing his iPad, and with a sneer on his face, blasted, “ART? Who has the bloody time to appreciate art?! Also, look at what I am wearing and what I am drinking. I am not a Bohemian for sure!”
“Okay, so you are a conformist. But do we have a problem here by saying that Holland Village is Bohemian?” I asked.
Thomas again, “Not really. Bohemian, as mentioned, also refers to drifters, vagabonds and adventurers who lead carefree lives, which I am sure many of whom have made their presence here. It also means that there ought to be an environment attuned to a more sophisticated level of appreciation for the arts. But Wikipedia also says that it’s a reference to “literary gypsies” – I supposed wondering artists. I think there are some of these elements here in Holland Village, which are transported here by expatriates and tourists from every part of Europe and America.”
Thomas stopped for a while and his eyes went to the end of Lorong Mambong, “Hmm.. the cobblers used to be here. They were artists living at street corners… (he frowned and thought deeply) and there was a naked couple – who wanted to make a statement about free expression or perhaps free love. They stood right here (pointing to the ground where we sat). I don’t really know what statement it was but perhaps they were smoking pot. But they were not part of Holland Village. They were visitors from Sweden, I think. But they certainly felt drawn to Holland Village to perform their 15-minute walk amidst cheering revellers along Lorong Mambong and not elsewhere. Why here and not Boat Quay or Dempsey? Can you picture how out-of-place they would be in those places? But they certainly felt at home enough to take off their clothes in Holland V! Why?”
I added,”So if we define Bohemian as a way of life, Holland V is not really portraying it at least in an obvious way – at least not all the time. But the existence of Bohemian goods is clearly in most of our shops here – painting, crafts like hand-made jewellery, linen and carpets, artefacts, antiques and the likes. And if we define Bohemian as a melting pot of cultures, as in the real Bohemia, with a thriving economy, we can claim that Holland V is somewhat Bohemian, can’t we?”
Thomas quickly interrupted, “Okay, maybe the art galleries, frame-makers and the hand-woven linen and handicraft shops, antiques, and I supposed the flea market as well. But there are certainly no street peddlars, which is a key charateristic of a Bohemian environment in the old days – of course, other than the flea market. In any case, we can’t simply claim that Holland V is Bohemian on account of these things. That would mean the entire Singapore is Bohemian – and other modern thriving, globalised cities too. We have to identify some specifics in order to make that claim.”
I was impatient to make a pronouncement on Holland V, so I quickly said, “Alright, you are correct. So, can we pin down three key essentials before we can call a place Bohemian?’,
After taking a big breath and shaking his head, he proposed, with measure in his words, “Spirit of freedom.. manifested in non-conforming lifestyle of its people.. which continuously produces creative output. This portrays the Bohemian environment.”
I immediately agreed, “Very good. I like it. Is there a spirit of freedom in Holland V? The spirit is there but some flesh may be fearful because of strict laws. The naked couple you mentioned proves this. There are certainly adventurers and travellers and people with unconventional lifestyles visiting the Village but perhaps no vagabonds. Creative output? Yes, even though they are not peddled on the streets (which is not allowed here), we are surrounded by Bohemian goods in our shops – hand-made jewellery, linen, scarfs, sculpture, antiques, etc from almost every part of the world. Did I miss the point?”
“Not really, my friend. There are elements not obvious to the ordinary folks. But this is the nature of man and you will be able to find Bohemianism everywhere. We are all born Bohemian. We were travellers – from Africa to Asia and Europe – amidst dinosaurs. We were carefree – hunting only when we were hungry and we certainly did create our own music while wondering barefooted.”
“So, we can claim that Holland Village is a Bohemian enclave not because of her neighbourhood but because (i) many of her visitors are staunch believers of freedom of expression, (ii) adopts a non-traditional and non-conforming lifestyle and (iii) now and then display their Bohemian attitude on the streets of Lorong Mambong?” I summed up.
Thomas reluctantly agreed, “I guess that is as far as we can go for now. But it won’t be truly Bohemian if you do not have that freedom to create – even to create your own non-conforming lifestyle.”
“So, I guess Bohemianism has nothing to do with nationalities. You could lead a Bohemian lifestyle anywhere in the world and it is personal. But if you portray yourself as carefree and liberal, and your conversations revolve round mostly artistic pursuits, and you dress to show that, then you could be perceived as one living a Bohemian lifestyle. But because this term is so much integrated with western culture, can any place in the East be regarded as Bohemian? There appears to be something lacking.”, I pondered.
Thomas said, “I think it all depends on how you interpret Bohemian. And I don’t think nationality has anything to do with it. It’s not a mainstream western culture. It is a distinct culture and an attitude, which any society could embrace or reject. It can be used to describe Shanghainese artists as well as Indonesia carvers.”
I concluded, “Thomas, now we know by what measure Holland Village is Bohemian! Excellent! Thank you so much.”
1. [Bohemia was one of the more important economic regions in Eastern Europe and it was a melting pot of religions whose people brought their respective expertise to the area: see http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/Bohemia_30YW.htm]
2. [Bohemianism as a lifestyle: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bohemianism]
3. [Bohemianism in America: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bohemian_Grove]
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