Zouk and Singapore Flyer: Perfect for each other?

Both are modern Singapore icons whose futures are hanging in the balance.

One is facing financial woes and looking for a buyer to turn a good profit; the other is facing the threat of closure when its current lease expires. Could the Singapore Flyer provide a new home for Zouk, answering both their problems?

One man who thinks so is 67-year-old Lincoln Cheng, the founder of Zouk nightclub who has set his sights on the ferris wheel - one of the largest in the world.

"The location is just on the fringe of the Central Business District," he told The Sunday Times in an exclusive interview.

"We can do day business, have a restaurant to serve lunch. We can have a happy hour, to cater to the after-office-hour crowd, like Balaclava before. Right now we open Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. There, we can open Monday to Saturday. Our operating hours can be longer."

With more than 10,000 revellers from Singapore, Asia and other parts of the world visiting Zouk every week, the 23-year-old nightspot could just be the right tenant to get the Flyer turning in the right direction.

Mr Cheng said he contacted Adval Brand Group, which handles sales and marketing for the Singapore Flyer, some time in 2012.

"Adval told me that the company is in financial difficulty and can't lease the land to us until the (financial) problem is resolved," said Mr Cheng, who later approached the receiver of the Singapore Flyer after the company that ran it went bankrupt.

"They told us to wait for the tenderers to come in. It's been a year and we are still waiting for the results."

Zouk shot to international fame in 1993 when it was featured in British magazine The Face. Since then, it has been well documented in the international media, promoting Singapore's nightlife to a worldwide audience in notable publications ranging from Mixmag and Rolling Stone to The Wall Street Journal and Time.

Actress and entrepreneur Irene Ang said: "Whenever I have overseas visitors, like Korean boy bands, Hong Kong stars, friends and delegates, they ask me to take them to Zouk. They never ask me to take them to see the Merlion."

Zouk was valued at $40 million by financial audit firm Ernst & Young last year and has won the prestigious Best Nightspot Experience award from the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) a record nine times.

Mr Cheng invested $10 million in 1991 to turn the conserved warehouse next to Singapore River into today's renowned nightspot.

"Zouk will need to find a new site," the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) told The Sunday Times. Its lease expired in June 2012 but has been extended three times since.

"The Robertson Quay area has shaped up very rapidly as a residential district, and Zouk's operation is not compatible with the area," a spokesman said, adding that there have been complaints about litter and noise.

Mr Cheng began looking for a new site for Zouk in 2010. He spent 18 months talking to City Developments (CDL) about moving to South Beach - a mixed-use development next to Esplanade MRT station.

CDL's plan was to blend four historic buildings - three former army blocks and the Non-Commissioned Officers Club built in 1952 - with two new towers.

"The conservation building is not a big building to start with," said Mr Cheng. "It can never house the size of Zouk. But at that time, I was thinking, maybe Zouk has gone on for so long we can downsize it and just make it easier to run. And I am getting older.

"In 2012, we were ranked No. 5 in the Top 100 club poll by DJ Mag. That was a really high ranking for an Asian club. The top four were in Europe and Brazil. We were the No. 1 club in Asia, North America and Australia. I thought, if I shrink the club I can never attain that kind of ranking again because the top ranking clubs are superclubs."

Mr Cheng also found it hard to "squeeze" Zouk's crowd into the conservation building and decided to keep searching for another venue.

He said that the STB and URA later offered him a huge piece of land at the Old Kallang Airport.

"STB and URA really wanted us to go there. They said, soon, they are going to redevelop it and Zouk will be the major anchor tenant and we can attract the other outlets to come in," said Mr Cheng.

"But the problem with that is the location. It's a bit far. I asked quite a few of our customers if they would drive out to Kallang if Zouk locates there and almost 100 per cent of the answers were 'no'."

With no lease extension or a suitable venue for Zouk beyond its current location at Jiak Kim Street, Mr Cheng felt he had no choice but to shut down the club.

"We have looked at many venues and none of them are really suitable. The suitable ones are not available. It leads us to this last step to start a petition with the public for a lease extension."

Last Friday, the club launched an online appeal - www.save-zouk.com - for an extension to its lease at Jiak Kim Street until it secures and moves to a new venue.

Mr Cheng said: "Hopefully we can get a three-year extension on Jiak Kim Street. If we are to find a new location, just to go through the submission, paperwork, negotiating with the landlord and construction, all the way from foundation to interior design, would take about three years. That's why we are petitioning for three years so that we have a smooth transition."


This article was first published on June 22, 2014.
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