SINGAPORE - Circular Road is only 400m long. But it is the kind of street where well-dressed executives knock back beers at Irish bars while, a few doors down, women in hot pants and high heels loiter outside bars with their windows covered up by giant advertisement posters for Chivas whisky. Diners calmly eat their dinner at coffee shops, as enthusiastic warbling from the Mandarin karaoke joints nearby waft intermittently by.
The last time Circular Road was cool was probably in the 1990s, when alt-rocker wannabes chilled out over drinks and prata in the more laid-back stretch behind bustling Boat Quay.
Since then, hipster paradise such as Haji Lane and Club Street have overtaken it in terms of cachet. The time is ripe, however, for a revival - with new developments afoot. New anchor tenant Limited Edition Concepts took over the master lease of 28 shophouse units in the area last month, intending to tweak the tenant mix.
The plan is for new "bespoke" food and beverage concepts that will imbue Circular Road with a sophisticated vibe similar to London's Covent Garden.
Furthermore, a new three-month trial to turn the road into a pedestrian-only street on Friday and Saturday nights starts today. Existing tenants are hoping it will increase foot traffic.
Already, Limited Edition Concepts, which currently manages basement nightclub Club Kyo at Cecil Street, is moving its upscale bistro lounge The Vault from nearby South Bridge Road into the neighbourhood.
Mr Tyrone Tabing, executive director of the non-profit Singapore River One organisation, predicts that "the days of the seedy bars on Circular Road are ending".
Singapore River One represents the business interests of tenants across Clarke Quay, Boat Quay and Robertson Quay.
Says Mr Tabing, 46: "I'm very excited by the changes underway. With nearly 30 ground-floor units under its control, Limited Edition Concepts is able to function as a mall operator and create a proper merchandise mix for the street."
The existing tenants have been operating there for between five months and 18 years.
Still, tenants tell Life! that Circular Road's current eclectic mix is due to the high turnover rate of businesses there. Many businesses last no more than three years.
For now, rental rates are cheaper than those in Orchard Road, Clarke Quay or neighbouring Boat Quay. An 800 sq ft ground-floor unit, for example, can be had for between $5,000 and $11,000 a month.
Asked how rental may be affected by the upcoming changes, Mr Godwin Pereira, 39, one of the partners of Limited Edition Concepts, says: "We're looking at a fair range for rentals for operators. What's essential is that we have prime property and we're trying to keep a competitive edge in terms of rental, and it will have value for what it's worth."
Mr Rick Tan, manager of eight-year-old Chinese karaoke bar Amber 21 at 32A Circular Road, notes that many Chinese KTV bars in the area have closed in the past couple of years.
He feels that the upcoming changes will make the neighbourhood a more Westernised nightlife destination. His bar attracts mostly Singaporeans in their 20s and 30s, who sing Chinese and English pop songs.
But Mr Tan, 35, says he is not too worried about his business being affected, adding: "We've been here eight years and we don't rely on a lot of walk-ins... we rely on our regular customers."
Chef-owner Marcus Loh, 32, who opened his Mexican restaurant El Rocho's five months ago, is hoping that his business will benefit from the changes. He currently sees a packed weekday lunch crowd at his 53-seat restaurant, with an al fresco dining area. Weekends, he notes, are quiet for restaurants in the area.
Mr Loh, who picked Circular Road to locate his restaurant after getting wind of "changes happening in Boat Quay", says: "Back in the 1990s, Boat Quay was quite happening, but now it's like a forgotten place. It's still vibrant, but not where I want my eatery to be. Hopefully, we'll see some good changes."
These changes may draw a new crowd of young and hip bargoers and diners.
User experience researcher Samantha Yuen, 35, sometimes has drinks at nearby North Canal Road, home to discreet, bespoke cocktail bar Bitters & Love and rooftop bar Mad Men Attic Bar, but is never inclined to traipse the mere 200m over to Circular Road - at least for now.
She says: "Circular Road still seems a bit dodgy now, because of the KTV bars and Indian pubs. It's like North Canal Road is the hip cousin and Circular Road is the awkward 'ah beng'."
A new, big tenant such as The Vault may help to "pull in more expatriates", she adds, but other interesting places are needed to counter-balance the less savoury and seedier outfits in the street.
Mr Henry Bristow, general manager of two-year-old Mogambo Bar Singapore at 3 Canton Street, at Boat Quay, which spills onto Circular Road, says the pedestrianisation trial "will bring some improvement and greater footfall".
The trial is similar to what is being done in Club Street. Starting in April this year, that street is closed to traffic from 7pm to 1am on Fridays and Saturdays.
Mr Bristow, 29, adds that Circular Road has the potential to be a "little bit like Club Street, Ann Siang Hill, Jiak Chuan Road or Duxton Hill", with "a similar, good mix of restaurants and bars, cafes and even retail outlets".
Mr Tony Coughlan, managing director of Tadcaster Hospitality, which manages Irish pub Molly Malone's at 56 Circular Road, notes that when the road was closed for the three-day St Patrick's Day festival held in March this year, foot traffic and the pub's food and beverage sales increased.
Mr Coughlan, 40, also says the road closure over the weekend "opens up many possibilities" for street parties, busker festivals, art fairs and flea markets.
Even North Canal Road outlets are hoping to benefit from the Circular Road facelift. Bitters & Love's co-owner Beverly Yeoh, 28, says: "We're excited that Limited Edition Concepts is moving into the area, it's good for us as well. I think the changes will happen quickly, and people will know this is the new place to go."
She adds: "If Limited Edition Concepts is looking to draw that type of young, hipster crowd who are adventurous to try new things, it'll be good for us too."
Mr Marc Checkley, 37, who is vice-president of development for a television production company with an office in Circular Road, says the area is "on the way up". It is "definitely exciting to think of a new hip enclave literally at my workplace's doorstep," he adds.
But the New Zealand native and Singapore permanent resident who has lived here since 2009 is crossing his fingers that BK Eating House at the corner of Circular Road and South Bridge Road, a popular eatery known for its dry mee sua, is staying.
He says: "I hope it doesn't get tossed. The same goes for my fabulous nasi padang restaurant Sinar Pagi, because it's 'shiok'."
Sinar Pagi's manager, who wanted to be known only as Dato, 38, tells Life! that the eatery has been there for 21 years and does not plan to move anytime soon.
He says: "It's difficult to say if the changes will be good or not. This area is certainly not booming like it was in the 1990s. But as long as the office crowd keeps coming to our restaurant, we'll be okay."
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