Saturday, January 30, 2010

In with the old

IT is ghosts of the past that worry hoteliers most when they convert old buildings into new lodgings – and not the supernatural kind. ‘With old buildings, you never know what you are getting into. You find faults you didn’t see before, once you start work on them,’ says Loh Lik Peng, who owns Hotel 1929 and New Majestic Hotel in the Chinatown area, both of which occupy pre-war structures. On top of that, he adds, engineering is costly and ‘a pain’, because such buildings have no grid; as a result, there can be no replication in design as every room has different dimensions.

Then there are restrictions on the extent to which the original structures may be modified. Take Wangz Hotel, for instance: the month-old hotel, which occupies a 20-year-old building at Outram Road, is located near an MRT tunnel, so it had to work around a structural load constraint. Says its director, Wang Chang Yuin: ‘Our structural engineer had to perform meticulous calculations on both internal and external loading to ensure that we didn’t put additional load on the building. The existing facade tiles and internal walls were removed, and lightweight materials, such as the external perforated aluminium cladding, were used instead.’

Still, such hurdles have not stunted the growth of a new boutique-hotel culture – crafted out of mature buildings – here. Over the past few months, several such lodgings have sprung up and more will open within the first half of this year, including a new venture by Mr Loh.

The magnetic appeal of these projects, which are generally more costly than constructing something from scratch, lies in the fact that they are rich in history, local flavour and charm, says the hotelier. ‘There’s something about old buildings that really captures my interest. There are layers of history imbued in them, and it’s like you’re peeling them back when you do your renovations and incorporating them with a new interpretation. I would never look at an empty plot of land and say that,’ he says.

Adds James Ting, general manager of Nostalgia Hotel, a six-month-old business that takes up two heritage shophouses in Tiong Bahru: ‘These buildings possess rich historical value. In converting them into new premises, we can preserve a part of Singapore’s history, perhaps for the younger generation to appreciate in future. Additionally, through the hotel’s architecture and retelling of its history, guests can get an insight into Singapore’s story and have a unique experience that is different from the monotony of chain hotels.’

BT Weekend takes a look at four new-old hotels that form part of the burgeoning boutique accommodation culture here.

2 Dickson Road
To open by mid-year

DICKSON Road is a pretty offbeat location for a trendy hotel, what with the motor workshops, Chinese-style ‘beer garden’ and coffee shops that line it. But then, owner and lawyer-turned-hotelier Loh Lik Peng has never been one to follow convention. ‘Very often, a project is not about the location,’ he says. ‘It’s about falling in love with the building; looking at it and seeing a little gem there. It’s not about being near an MRT station; I never look at projects that way.’

His latest hotel, then, takes up a charming, tiled-front building that was constructed in the 1920s. ‘This was the Hong Wen School until the Buddhist Welfare Association took over in the 1970s, when Hong Wen moved to bigger premises,’ says Mr Loh. ‘Now I guess the association has outgrown it too – they’ve moved to Toa Payoh.’

To be called Wanderlust, the 29-room, four-storey establishment will be ’something a little more sophisticated and fun’ than the other hotels in the neighbourhood, and it’s being designed by cutting-edge creative agencies Phunk Studio, Asylum and fFurious, along with architects DP Architects. Each company is responsible for one floor.

On the hotel’s positioning, Mr Loh says: ‘There are very few nice, interesting hotels in Little India, nothing like what we’re doing. They’re all the budget sort, lacking in imagination and not leveraging on the uniqueness of the area. This is a really authentic part of Singapore, so I thought it’d be nice to do something special.’

No surprise then, that Wanderlust aims to bat creativity out of the park with visual treats like Asylum-designed bespoke wallpaper printed with modern images of Little India; neon lighting; and heavy play on light and shadow on the various floors. The rooms, to be priced from around $200 to $250 a night, promise to be ‘almost like a playground designed as furniture’: there’s a ‘monster room’, a ‘tree room’ and one with a spaceship concept, and all fittings are being custom-made because of the complex shapes needed.

Says Mr Loh: ‘We’re using fibreglass, concrete, steel, plywood … everything. It’s going to be the first hotel of this sort that I’m doing, as in working with this level of complexity.’

Additionally, the building will house a cantilevered pool on the second storey, as well as a small ground-floor bar and a casual French restaurant helmed by Anthony Yeoh of the Funky Chefs, who does ‘good, solid flavours’, proclaims Mr Loh.

Wanderlust’s site, says the hotelier, reminds him of Keong Saik, where he opened his first hotel, Hotel 1929, in 2003. ‘It was all hotels with hourly rates and brothels back then. In many ways, this area reminds me of that; it’s really local and I like that,’ he explains. As he sees it, going in early – wedged among those motor workshops and coffee shops – is a good thing. ‘You can’t help other people coming in and diluting the flavour,’ says Mr Loh, ‘but for a while, at least, you can capture the magic of an area.’

The Club 28 Ann Siang Road To open in April THOSE not content with just dinner and drinks at Harry’s will be glad to know that they can soon do bed and breakfast there as well: come April, the group behind the Harry’s chain of restaurant-bars will open a hotel under the newly-established Harry’s Hospitality umbrella.

To be called The Club, the 22-room establishment (rack rate: $400 a night) will also house function rooms plus a couple of F&B outlets that include a tapas restaurant, an outdoor terrace and a rooftop bar – necessary revenue-generating elements in such a small project, says Mohan Mulani, chief executive officer of Harry’s Holdings. ‘With a boutique hotel of this size, F&B is quite a key component in the business plan. You can’t just operate it on room sales alone,’ he says, adding that The Club plans to draw ‘a good 60 per cent’ of its revenue from that channel.

The project is a natural extension of his core business, he adds. ‘While it is a bit of a deviation from opening bars, it really isn’t that large of a deviation. And it gives the company a lot more depth also, plus more offerings for the customer.’

Bed and breakfast aside, what those customers will get is the opportunity to experience a bit of Singapore’s history too – The Club will be located in a historic shophouse that, most recently, used to be home to advertising agency Batey. ‘It’s where the Singapore Girl was born,’ says Mr Mulani, referring to the well-known Singapore Airlines campaigns that Batey produced. The area also used to house many remittance centres for the early Chinese immigrants, a fact that the architect Colin Seah of Ministry of Design, which worked on the hotel, played on.

The entrance, for example, will showcase murals that give a sense of what the place was in the past; there will also be features that hint of this history in the rooms, where the ‘modern day nomad and the nomad of yesterday cross paths for a moment’. The other key inspiration in The Club’s design is Singapore’s colonial past, which in one instance takes shape in the form of a larger-than-life Raffles statue standing with his head in the clouds.

Artists who have been involved in other Harry’s projects have also been tapped to contribute to the hotel – artworks from Romanian Valeriu Sepi (who did a mural in Harry’s Boat Quay outlet) and Singaporean Wyn-Lyn Tan, to name a couple, will decorate The Club.

The hotel’s site was selected for two reasons, says Mr Mulani. One, he has a ’soft spot’ for the area as he owned a wine bar there for more than a decade, which he had to give up three years ago when the building it was in was bought over. And two, ‘I hang around here a lot and I think Ann Siang Road is really heaving and happening again’. Even taking into account competition from the other boutique hotels in the Chinatown area, he is upbeat about the success of The Club. ‘With the product that we’re creating, I don’t think we have a very uphill task, in my humble opinion,’ he says.

Wangz Hotel
231 Outram Road
Tel 6595-1388

AS the saying goes, third time lucky – and so’s the case with the 20-year-old building that Wangz Hotel is located in. Originally called Tarng Chern Building, the unique barrel-shaped structure used to house offices and a jewellery shop. Some years later, it was renamed Hope Centre and became home to a student hostel and several non-profit organisations. But it is with its third and latest reincarnation that the building has really been revitalised with a fresh new look and a more permanent purpose.

The 41-room, six-storey hotel is owned by the Wang family, who have been involved in property development (including serviced offices) since the 1990s but had not previously done a hotel before Wangz. ‘The idea of opening a boutique hotel had been at the back of our minds, but we hadn’t found a suitable property,’ says director Wang Chang Yuin.

When the family was approached about the Outram Road building, however, they took to it immediately. ‘We were drawn to the strategic location of the building,’ says Mr Wang. ‘It is close to the CBD and Orchard Road, and we like its prominent location. We also like the charm of the art deco buildings in the area.’ In addition, he adds, the hotel is the tallest building in the immediate vicinity and offers great views of the city skyline, particularly from its rooftop.

The decision to develop the site and create ‘a modern hotel that would stand out from the nearby art deco buildings’ was made in 2007; some two years and $8 million later, Wangz Hotel has emerged from its chrysalis of scaffolding. And what a transformation it has undergone: the original dull tiled facade is now all gleaming perforated aluminium, teased by local architects CPG Consultants into a three-way curve to give the building a ‘bulging’ effect and a futuristic look, and its interiors are a cocoon for culture. The spacious rooms – priced from about $228 a night, and stuffed with creature comforts such as pillow-top mattresses, iPod docking stations, goosedown duvets and Molton Brown bath amenities – feature artworks by artists such as Hijran Seyidov, a Dubai resident who counts royalty among his clients; Singaporean Anthony Tan, who is known for his nature-themed abstracts; and contemporary South Indian artist P Gnana, whose works are in the Singapore Art Museum collection.

Apart from studying these aesthetic treats, guests can also have drinks at Halo, the rooftop lounge, dine at in-house restaurant Nectar, or work out in the fully-equipped gym.

Already, the hotel is reporting a 55 to 80 per cent occupancy rate, with most guests coming from Europe, the United States and Australia.

‘There is a growing market for tourists who specifically go to boutique hotels because of the cosy environment and personalised service they offer,’ says Mr Wang. ‘Because of this, and given the usually small number of rooms each boutique hotel has, we think demand for such hotels will remain high.’

Nostalgia Hotel
77 Tiong Bahru Road
Tel 6808-1818

WITH the warm lighting that spills out of its wooden shutters in the evenings and the comfortable, lived-in buzz that radiates from it, one can easily imagine No 77 Tiong Bahru Road to be a home straight out of the pre-war era. Step inside the perfectly preserved shophouse, however, and a reception area will reveal the truth: the more-than-half-a-century-old building actually forms part of a hotel.

That homely feel is exactly what owner Cornerstone Link, a mining company based in Indonesia, was looking for when it bought the property from developer Lion Properties Group in September, says the hotel’s general manager, James Ting.

He adds that Nostalgia is positioned to feed the growing demand for such boutique accommodation.

‘Travellers are becoming more savvy and most are looking for a unique experience,’ he explains. ‘They no longer crave the monotony of luxury chain hotels but are looking for a different environment with character and charm.’

The appropriately-named Nostalgia Hotel, then, has 50 rooms (some of which are housed in the heritage shophouse and others in a new extension built over what used to be a bird singing corner) and features design and decor inspired both by Singapore’s colonial years as well as the romantic history of the neighbourhood – Tiong Bahru in the past was known as an area where the well-heeled kept their mistresses. It’s ‘old-world charm with a dash of modernism’, as Mr Ting puts it, which translates to lush fabrics, furniture in warm colours, gilded mirrors and chandeliers, set against a backdrop of specially commissioned contemporary artwork by a local artist and other modern touches.

The rooms, which are priced from about $215 per night, are equipped with cutting-edge conveniences like LCD TVs and iPod docking stations, as well as bath amenities by French designer Pascal Morabito or Chopard, depending on the category of room. Meanwhile, in the Balcony rooms, which are situated in the heritage bit of the hotel and overlook the junction of Tiong Bahru Road and Seng Poh Road, architects AMC Architects International have preserved the original louvered windows, wooden panels and wall artifacts of the original structure.

The new-old juxtaposition is intended to ‘reflect the existent community of Tiong Bahru’, a mature estate in a modern age, says Mr Ting. ‘We want to echo the cultural and historical values of the area and allow guests to experience the Singapore of yesteryear comfortably; as such, Nostalgia provides accommodation that reflects the essence of Singapore in a luxurious environment.’

Source: Business Times, 30 Jan 2010

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