Dilapidated warehouses to top club

Three derelict warehouses (far left) were transformed into Zouk in 1991. The club used to house a boutique as well as a restaurant (left), among other things.
Three derelict warehouses (above) were transformed into Zouk in 1991. The club used to house a boutique as well as a restaurant, among other things.PHOTO: ZOUK MANAGEMENT
Three derelict warehouses (far left) were transformed into Zouk in 1991. The club used to house a boutique as well as a restaurant (left), among other things.
Three derelict warehouses were transformed into Zouk in 1991. The club used to house a boutique as well as a restaurant (above), among other things.PHOTO: ZOUK MANAGEMENT

If Zouk founder Lincoln Cheng had not had his way in 1990, three dilapidated warehouses in Jiak Kim Street might have become a seafood restaurant or storage for antiques.

 

The Government had then tendered the 40,000 sq ft space along the Singapore River for temporary use, and two such bids had been submitted.

But Mr Cheng's proposal for a nightclub won in the end.

By 1991, he had transformed the derelict buildings into Zouk, Singapore's first commercial dance club that brought electronic music to the forefront.

"I used to work in the Central Business District and I'd pass by Jiak Kim Street every day on my way to work," says the 67-year-old, who is a trained architect. "The warehouses were completely derelict. No roof, crumbling walls. But I saw something in them."

The warehouses were completely derelict. No roof, crumbling walls. But I saw something in them...

I fell in love with the place

ZOUK FOUNDER LINCOLN CHENG on the buildings he transformed into Zouk

In 1991, Zouk, which means "village party" in French-Caribbean countries such as Martinique and Guadeloupe, housed a boutique, Mediterranean-style restaurant, MTV bar and dance hall featuring electronic dance music.

The concept was inspired by his trips to the dance music capital of Ibiza, Spain, where he was exposed to club culture and the balearic house music that emerged in the mid-1980s.

DJs could use his private vinyl collection for their DJ sets - a practice that continues today.

Those early days were particularly tough as house music was still considered relatively underground. In fact, Mr Cheng says, his two business partners suggested he convert part of the club's space into a KTV lounge.

"They thought KTV would be popular. I refused to change my vision for a fast return. We couldn't agree, so I bought them out," he recounts.

Sticking to his guns paid off. Eventually, Zouk became a trendsetter in the clubbing circuit, building a strong community of dance music fans.

It was - and still is - the place to catch top international DJs, such as Paul Oakenfold, Fatboy Slim, Tiesto, Hardwell and David Guetta. And it is also home to Singapore's longestrunning themed club night - the 1980s-themed Mambo Jambo party.

The award-winning club has consistently been ranked among the top 10 clubs globally, in British magazine DJ Mag's annual Top 100 clubs poll, for the past five years.

In its 24-year history, Zouk has seen it all.

It survived a drug bust in 1995, which led to the club's closure for eight months.

It also outlasted fierce competition from brand-name clubs such as Ministry of Sound (MoS) and Cafe del Mar, as well as home-grown nightclub The Butter Factory, which closed down earlier this year. MoS closed in 2008 and Cafe del Mar in 2012.

"Concept is forever in the process of evolution. We have to see what the young people want and we have to balance it with what we want. We want to make them understand what's the next big trend in music. It's a two-way street," Mr Cheng says of how he has kept his club relevant all these years.

Former Zouk marketing manager Tracy Phillips, who worked with the club from 1998 to 2009, says some of her best memories at Zouk were of conceptualising events that introduced new music and promoted home-grown talent.

Now the director of creative consultancy Present Purpose, the 37-year-old adds: "Zouk is in a class of its own. It has such a long and amazing legacy to uphold.

"This means it has to work harder to stay relevant."

Melissa Kok

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 03, 2015, with the headline 'Dilapidated warehouses to top club'. Print Edition | Subscribe