Arts KC Arts Centre Singapore

Preview: Once Upon A Time On The Orient Express

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Even if you’re not a train otaku, you’ve probably at least heard of the Orient Express, one of the world’s most famous passenger trains in history. A legendary train that served as one of the main bridges between East and West during the second half of the 19th century, get ready to experience the train in person this December, as Once Upon A Time On The Orient Express arrives at the West Lawn, Gardens by the Bay.

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Spearheaded by the Arab World Institute (IMA), Once Upon A Time On The Orient Express marks the first time the exhibition travels outside of Paris, as it brings together travel, culture and gastronomy, all in one place. Set up at Gardens by the Bay, the family-friendly exhibition brings in about 300 extraordinary objects and documents relating to the Orient Express that traces the legacy of the train, including a locomotive built in France 158 years ago and a 1930s sleeper car, weighing close to 200 tonnes, making these one of the heaviest to be shipped across the world. Think of it as an interactive museum come to life, as guests explore the tracks and landscapes that generations before had once travelled on, all in one 2000 metre square space.

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“The Singapore Tourism Board is delighted that Singapore will be the first destination to showcase the Orient Express outside of France. “Once Upon A Time on the Orient Express” at Gardens by the Bay, in partnership with Arab World Institute, reflects the spirit of collaboration to create unique and immersive experiences for locals and visitors,” said Mr Keith Tan, Chief Executive, Singapore Tourism Board. “The launch of this pop-up attraction during these times is a testament to Singapore’s global appeal and also reflects confidence in us as a safe and trusted destination.”

For the first time ever, two of the original train carriages and locomotive, along with over 300 artefacts will leave France destined for Singapore to sit within the exhibition space within Gardens by the Bay. The mythical carriages of the Orient Express include the fourgon car and a Pullman car built in 1929 with interiors decorated by René Prou, featuring superb lemon burr marquetry inlaid with pewter floral motifs. Visitors can temporarily bask in the experience of travellers who have used the train for decades, accompanied by the cinematographic dimension of the myth, which owes much to literature and cinema.

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The exhibition will be housed in a reconstructed train platform, with showrooms displaying objects that encapsulates the history of the Orient Express. Look out for posters, menus, crockery, cutlery, suitcases, stained glass windows and furniture, while stories of travel will be presented through large displays of trunks addressing social, cultural and technical themes linked to the adventures of the Orient Express. Visitors will get a chance to look back on the art of living on-board, and imagine scenic stopovers in the route that cut through London, Paris, Venice, Istanbul, Aleppo, Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Luxor and Aswan. A selection of documentaries, newsreels and film clips will also be presented, to remind guests of the rich literary and cinematographic heritage inspired by the Orient Express.

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The Orient Express was known for its lavish decorations, and travellers were spoiled like movie stars and royalties. With its theatrical characteristics, this train has been a universal attraction since its creation in 1883. A masterpiece in itself, the train is constructed with Cordoba embossed leather ceilings, Lalique crystal bas reliefs Gobelins tapestries, velvet curtains from Genoa, silverware, precious tablecloths and crystal fine glasses. Since its inauguration, the Orient Express charted forth to the rhythm of European history and geographic, evolving alongside with cross border relationships and world history. Visitors can temporarily bask in the experience of travellers who have used the train for decades, accompanied by the cinematographic dimension of the myth, which owes much to literature and cinema.

Since its inauguration, the Orient Express charted forth to the rhythm of European history and geographic, evolving alongside with cross border relationships and world history. The pop-up attraction is a reminder that this train was in its own way a testament to the relationship between the East and West. It is not only a witness of the modernisation of the Middle East and the advent of the railroad in view of the domination of maritime links, but also the symbol of Europe that was formed before its time. For three quarters of a century from 1883 to 1956, the Orient Express created and enchanted history. It was like a theatre witnessing the unfolding of major political events, and those historic moments are relieved when one steps into the pop-up attraction.

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Kicking off the experience at a facsimile train station, the voyage continues in the showrooms, where objets d’art, archival documents, photos, news videos, movie extracts and items from those era evoke the rich literary and cinematographic heritage inspired by the Orient Express. Referencing the different stops on the train’s past itineraries, the touring exhibition travels to cities that form part of the train’s historical itineraries, like Venice, Vienna and Istanbul. Another area of the pop-up attraction is devoted to the desire for the Orient conveyed by the Orient Express and how it abolished borders. Texts, works of art and films like the one shot in Lebanon in Rayak station by Gilles Gauthier and Eric Damon, spoke in turn about the correspondences that arose between Orient and the Occident, to remind visitors of the meaning of travel.

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Guests will even get a chance to dine as the passengers did in the past, with a pop-up restaurant by Chef Yannick Alléno, who has won three Michelin stars for Hôtel Le Cheval Blanc in France. Guests will be able to have a lavish meal on board the replica Anatolia dining car, with recipes created specially for this showcase, inspired by and for the Orient Express. The exhibition will also be setting up their very own café. The Orient Express Road Café will seat 40 patrons, and feature various coffee blends discovered and made famous along the Orient Express route. Curated for Singapore by Visionairs in Art, the menu will even include Kopi O, and feature dishes aligned with the road map concept, as designed by Chef Yannick Alléno.Passengers can step aboard the Orient Express dining experience and enjoy a gourmet meal amid period décor from the train’s heyday in the 1920s. 

“Orient Express has given me the chance to express myself through their pop-up restaurant that took place in an Orient Express car situated on the square of the Arab World Institute in Paris in 2014, and my second collaboration was in 2016, for “La Table Orient Express”, the travelling restaurant with exclusive dinner experience. Being associated to a magical name such as Orient Express for the third time is a fabulous opportunity. The Orient Express is a fairy-tale universe linked to travel, culture and gastronomy. It has always spread ‘l’art de vivre à la Française’ (the French art of living) to the entire world. I am very proud to be associated with this project and to be able to offer a pop-up café and restaurant experience made especially for “Once Upon in Time on the Orient Express” in Singapore,” remarked Chef Yannick Alléno.

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A reminder that this train was in its own way a testament to the relationship between the East and West, the Orient Express also represents the modernisation of the Middle East and the advent of the railroad in view of the domination of maritime links. For three quarters of a century from 1883 to 1956, the Orient Express created and enchanted history. It was like a theatre witnessing the unfolding of major political events, and those historic moments are relieved when one steps into the pop-up attraction.

Referencing the different stops on the train’s past itineraries, the touring exhibition travels to cities that form part of the train’s historical itineraries, like Venice, Vienna and Istanbul. Another area of the pop-up is even devoted to the desire for the Orient conveyed by the Orient Express and how it abolished borders. Texts, works of art and films like the one shot in Lebanon in Rayak station by Gilles Gauthier and Eric Damon, spoke in turn about the correspondences that arose between Orient and the Occident, to remind visitors of the meaning of travel.

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CEO of Gardens by the Bay, Mr Felix Loh, said: “We are indebted to the French people for sharing with us this national treasure of theirs. We have no doubt this extraordinary showcase will bring delight to our local visitors and add to the offerings we have in store this year and next. With overseas travel on hold for many, we hope to bring a bit of the world to the Gardens, so that Singaporeans can spend some quality time with their family and friends this holiday while keeping safe.”

Once Upon A Time on the Orient Express runs from 12th December 2020 to 13th June 2021 at West Lawn, Gardens by the Bay. Tickets available via SISTIC, with more information available here

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