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February 11, 2018

Creative capital

Montreal is a feast for the senses with colourful cuisines, superb street performers and captivating circus acts

Lloyd Koh

In Montreal, art and life are inextricably linked. Street musicians are visible during the daily commute in the Canadian city and the cosmopolitan cuisine draws inspiration from around the globe. Here is a culture dedicated not to efficiency, but to the celebration of creativity.

When I see a 30-man line while walking about the laid-back, multicultural Mile End, my Singaporean queue-joining instincts take over. Ahead of me is Kem CoBa (60 Avenue Fairmount O), a delightfully pink ice cream parlour well-loved by locals.

The place offers the best of French and Vietnamese flavours in vibrant sorbets and delectable soft serves. Among the panoply of flavours, pandan leaf and soursop immediately catch my eye - and they do not disappoint. Who would think that on the other side of the world, one can find flavours so reminiscent of home?

To walk through the quarters of Montreal is to sample a buffet of artistry and a microcosm of the world's cultures, as I discover in my four days here.

Further down from Kem CoBa is Drogheria Fine (68 Avenue Fairmount O), an Italian takeout offering the best takeaway gnocchi I have tried.

Across the street to the left is the famous Wilensky's Light Lunch Inc (34 Avenue Fairmount O), an institution that has been serving sandwiches since 1932. A must-try at this quaint eatery is Wilensky's Special - beef salami and beef baloney grilled to perfection on a roll and served with a hint of mustard.

In the hip Mile End district, the flavours of the world certainly express themselves through food. But a walk around the city will show that cultural vibrancy unfolding across other dimensions as well.

Montreal lives up to its reputation as a circus city. With programmes catering to students of all ages, the National Circus School has democratised performing arts for the masses, while the worldwide success of French-Canadian troupe Cirque du Soleil inspires many circus artistes and gives locals plenty to be proud of.

Ms Gabriel Pinkstone, vice-president of show quality from Cirque du Soleil, says there is never a dull moment in the city.

"People are proud of the culture in Montreal. It's not a kind of extra thing, it's not just something for the arty-farty people, it's actually a fundamental part of Montreal's self-definition," she adds.

I watch Cirque du Soleil's 41st original production, Volta, under the iconic Big Top at the Old Port of Montreal.

It tells the story of WAZ, a popular game show host seeking to reconnect with his inner self after becoming disillusioned by a life of fame and fortune.

His story sets the stage for an incredible display of acrobatics, including BMX bike riders flying through the air and, my personal favourite, an act with a female acrobat flying across the stage in a mesmerising aerial dance, suspended by her hair.

For many Montrealers, however, the street is their theatre of choice.

The Montreal Cirque festival (montrealcompletementcirque.com/en) takes the celebration to the streets. From July 5 to 15 this year, the city's roads, sidewalks and parks turn into venues for a dazzling display of acrobatics and performances by circus collectives and companies.

Old Montreal, the city's 17th-century birthplace, is chock-full of street performers who come to ply their trade.

Here, there is an open acceptance of the extraordinary. Locals speak of a special "French-Canadian factor" - an approach to creativity that fuses European tradition with North-American joie de vivre.

At the historic Place Jacques-Cartier, a hot spot for buskers and artists, a performer who goes by the name of Mick plays tunes on a red guitar for a large crowd encircling him.

At one point, he pulls out a group to dance with him - a cast of citizens representing nationalities from all over the world. Together, they move to soulful pop song The Lion Sleeps Tonight by The Tokens and more than 300 spectators chant "Awimbawe" in unison to the music.

After the joyous performance, Mick addresses his audience: "This is what I do to make my living. I think I did something good for you.

"We'll just have a good time and that's fantastic," he adds.

The same philosophy rings true for many of the street performers I meet.

Bolivian brothers Ramiro and Oscar Ledezma, whom I find busking at Place d'Armes near Notre-Dame Basilica, fill the square with the uplifting melodies of South American classics.

With a harp, pan flutes and guitars, the duo sing tunes such as Besame Mucho and Guantanamera, a contented look on their faces, seemingly without a care in the world.

When I speak to them, they state their conviction about busking, with Ramiro saying: "If we have to stay in a place and have a job, we cannot move. We don't like that. We want to be free."

• The writer, an undergraduate at Yale-NUS College and a former Singapore Press Holdings Content Lab writer, enjoys making films in his free time. He was hosted by Sliding Doors Entertainment, which brings Cirque du Soleil acts to Singapore.

GETTING THERE

There are multiple Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair. com) flights to Frankfurt, where travellers can connect to an Air Canada (www.aircanada.com) flight directly to Montreal.

 

Depending on the layover, travellers can expect a journey of about 23 hours.

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