Party days at Zouk

The famous nightspot has left an indelible mark on the lives of many clubbers and deserves to be remembered

Among the 75 old buildings in Singapore that were gazetted for conservation last week, I noticed a familiar address - Jiak Kim Street.

I don't know why but my heart suddenly started racing.

One Google search later, I realised my hunch was right: The famous nightspot Zouk was being conserved.

More accurately, the old restored warehouses that house the 23-year-old dance club were being conserved. That means the building can never be demolished and whoever owns it in future has to maintain its facade so that the way it looks will be sealed for all posterity.

I could hardly contain my excitement. I even did a little fist pump.

"Now this... THIS is the true objective of conservation," I declared loudly to bemused colleagues. "Zouk is the ultimate repository of collective memories of a whole generation of Singaporeans and it shall never be razed to the ground!"

Minutes later, I felt somewhat deflated when a reporter quietly told me that the building was, of course, not conserved on account of Zouk being located there.

Apparently, the warehouses were used to store goods such as rice and coffee, and they are being conserved because they "played a big role in entrepot trade that was conducted along the Singapore River".

Yeah, yeah, I grumbled. Whatever.

To me, those warehouses on Jiak Kim Street will always be special - and should be conserved for a whole host of reasons that are actually applicable in the current century.

From the economic development perspective, for instance, one could argue that Zouk was one of the early outward symbols of how globalised Singapore was becoming.

At the turn of the millennium, every famous international deejay was lining up to play at Zouk. Big names such as Dave Seaman, Danny Rampling, Derrick May and David Morales were regular visitors and it seemed like Paul Oakenfold would come as often as every few months.

Some of these deejays said Zouk was a unique marvel in the world because its clientele were always on a "natural high, without the drugs". As its fame spread and music magazines started to name it one of the top clubs in the world, more and more friends overseas heard about Zouk and some would come to Singapore just to visit it.

On a less tangible but no less important level, the club has an unshakeable place in the annals of Singapore pop culture.

Zouk opened in 1991, billing itself as the riverside club that played music so cutting- edge you couldn't find it in the shops. At the time, house music was all the rage in Europe and the United States, but clubs in Singapore were still mostly stuck on playing dance remixes of Top 40 chart music.

I still recall casual visitors to the place complaining for years about the "weird music that had no singing" at Zouk. But the club stuck to its music policy and gained a legion of fans that slowly learnt the unique language of the club.

That meant, in the early years, balancing on the edge of a water fountain in the centre of the dancefloor and waving your arms elegantly as you "vogue-d" to the euphoric piano breaks endemic in the house music of that era.

Later, as Zouk added more dance platforms of different heights throughout the club, one had to learn to negotiate the strange politics of who deserved to be seen on them.

Over the years, the Zouk vocabulary expanded to include what time to arrive to get parking and avoid queuing, what to eat at the cafe (hotdogs and chilli fishballs), what to drink at the wine bar (lychee martinis) and what to wear to the annual Halloween party.

Later, Zouk even spawned a quirky and quintessentially Singaporean dance movement. You couldn't call yourself a Singapore clubber if you didn't know at least some of the cheesy but fun retro dance moves performed during its Wednesday Mambo Jumbo nights.

And most recently, of course, people have learnt how to dance barefoot in the sand as they greeted the first rays of the morning sunrise - thanks to the pioneering success of the ZoukOut overnight beach parties on Sentosa.

Ultimately, though, it is in the collective memory of the thousands of individual clubbers who regularly went to Zouk that the club left its most indelible mark.

Zouk was the backdrop to my tumultuous growing up years in Singapore.

From the carefree post-junior college days to the stressful years of working adulthood, Zouk was where I went to meet up with my best and oldest pals, to catch up with what had happened to them, to gossip about so-and-so, to forget about all the schoolwork or office work that I was procrastinating over, to let the music wash over me and "feel what you want it to be what you want it to feel what you want it to be".

For so many nights, I have felt true contentment as I huddled on the dancefloor with my friends, looking up at the spinning mannequins and wanting nothing more from life. And yet on many other nights, I have stared blankly into the dark cavernous space, ruminating on the highs and lows of relationships and one-night stands, wanting so much more.

It is a testament to the club's longevity that my experiences are probably mirrored in the lives of so many Singaporeans - from those in their 20s perhaps even to those in their 60s. And this is perhaps the greatest reason the club should stay.

Alas, even though the urban planners have saved the building it is in, the club's future is altogether more uncertain.

Zouk's lease expires at the end of this year and the warehouses are zoned in an area that is marked in the Urban Redevelopment Authority's Master Plan as residential.

This means that in future, the ware- houses could become shops or restaurants that sit below a shiny new condominium.

Looking at the way the club has today been dwarfed by the new residential developments that have sprung up around it, it seems only a matter of time that it must give way to the hard principles of urban progress and the efficient use of land.

With many conserved properties, a plaque is usually put up somewhere to remind future generations why this building was significant in time and space.

When that happens, it would be remiss to say that numbers 17, 19 and 21 on Jiak Kim Street were simply warehouses on the Singapore River that contained rice, coffee and other spices.

For many Singaporeans, those doors opened the way to a lot more than that.

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