Genting's gamble: From Zouk, to club lite?

The casino and cruise-line conglomerate's purchase of uber-hip Zouk may seem like a mash-up. But delve deeper and there's reason to believe the party will get bigger.

So, one of the world's hippest nightclubs, home-grown Zouk - and the spot that became a rite of passage for countless Singaporeans - has been sold after being owned by businessman Lincoln Cheng since 1991.

Although clubbers will mourn the end of an era, few would begrudge founder Mr Cheng cashing out at the age of 68 to spend more time with his 11-year-old daughter.

The sum was undisclosed when the purchase by Genting Hong Kong (GHK) was announced last month. But the Zouk brand and its business was valued at $40 million in a 2013 audit.

Many would also be relieved that the Zouk beat goes on, after the uncertainty of the last few years.

The club was under intense pressure to leave its Jiak Kim Street site after residents in the area complained to the authorities of litter and noise pollution by club-goers.

Zouk is the only club that has won the Best Nightspot Experience award from the Singapore Tourism Board a record nine times.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) later announced that the prime estate has been earmarked for residential development, that "Zouk has become incompatible with the residential nature of the area" and that it had to move out.

When Zouk's lease first expired in 2012, it was given a short lease extension and told to find a new location.

Last year, Mr Cheng threatened to shut down the club for good when he was given a third lease extension of just six months.

He had said that he was having trouble finding a big space to house Zouk and asked for more time from the authorities.

Almost 40,000 people signed an online petition marshalling support for Zouk. The URA then agreed to extend its lease to the end of 2017 if Zouk could secure a new location by June this year.

A silver lining came when entertainment firm LifeBrandz had to shut down its operations and move out of a 57,000 sq ft space in Clarke Quay in March. Mr Cheng managed to ink the lease for a 30,000 sq ft space at Clarke Quay, just a week before his deadline.

Perhaps the news of such a big buyer - Hong Kong-based GHK is valued in Singapore at $3.82 billion, and owns the popular Star Cruises with stakes in Norwegian Cruise Line and Resorts World Manila - has purchasesd Zouk has been a relief to clubbers, in that their favourite nightspot's future is financially secured.

GHK, which is listed in Hong Kong, with a secondary listing in Singapore, might not be such a familiar name to them. But it is linked to the Genting Group, which Genting Singapore is also affiliated to.

Genting Singapore operates Resorts World Sentosa, and this month it posted a gaming revenue of $451.8 million for its third quarter ending Sept 30.

But the elephant in the room is the X-factor that made Zouk, Zouk.

"When Zouk opened, it was ahead of its time. In the 1990s, Zouk put a stamp on the kind of nightlife that didn't exist," said celebrity presenter and Zouk regular Najip Ali.

It was the breeding ground for electronic dance music, which saw internationally renowned DJs queuing up to play at the club.

Zouk also developed a unique retro-style party for its Wednesday Mambo Jambo nights.

The club's former marketing manager, Mr Andrew Ing, said: "When I was there, the music that Zouk played was not played anywhere else. Otherwise, it could be any other club brand that has a shelf life."

Zouk went on to win international fame and has been consistently ranked among the top clubs in the world. It later expanded overseas to Kuala Lumpur, where it became Asia's biggest superclub, with its 106,000 sq ft premises.

Even though many clubs today are playing the same kind of music as Zouk, the club's five outlets - Wine Bar, Phuture, Velvet Underground-Dance and Velvet Underground-Lounge and the Zouk main dance hall - continue to draw more than 10,000 revellers from Singapore, Asia and other parts of the world each week.

Zouk is also the only club that has won the prestigious Best Nightspot Experience award from the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) a record nine times.

Some wonder how it will be a good fit for GHK, whose Star Cruises and casinos appeal to the auntie-and-uncle crowd.

However, the change of ownership opens up exciting possibilities for the grand old dame of Singapore's nightlife scene.

Singapore's icon has a shot at a new lease of life, to become a global phenomenon, much like the US-based Hard Rock Cafe chain after it was founded by two American music-lovers in London and sold to Seminole Tribe of Florida.

If the comparison bears out, then Zouk might have to pull back from being at the cutting edge in order to provide a recognisable experience anywhere on the planet. But this may be no bad thing.

The idea of incorporating Zouk into the popular Star Cruises owned by GHK, however, does not sit well with some people.

Mr Ing, who is now chief operating officer of The Lo & Behold Group, said: "I assume these guys paid lots and lots of money for the IPs (intellectual properties). If they are going to put Zouk on Star Cruises, that's like wasting their money. I can't imagine the ah peks and aunties on the cruises going to Zouk."

The Genting brand has long been associated with gaming and the development of integrated resorts, while Zouk has earned street "cred" and a "cool" reputation in setting the stage for contemporary electronic dance music.

Mr Ing added: "There was nothing in Jiak Kim Street when Zouk first started. It created its own magic. I am also not sure how Clarke Quay matches that philosophy, sharing the space with many others."

On the other hand, Genting Group's international presence would give Zouk the global access and network to expand overseas.

That would, in turn, bring more awareness to the clubbing scene in Singapore where Zouk was born, said Mr Gordon Foo, managing director of Mando-pop club Shanghai Dolly at Clarke Quay.

Given the Genting Group's casinos, cruise ships, hotels and other entertainment properties around the world, Zouk is likely to have an assured clientele if it opens at any of the properties owned by Genting, said another nightclub operator.

Zouk's success lies not only with its founder, but also the fact that it was born at the right place and the right time.

While the current club continues to be run by its core team, Zouk will not be the same without its founder Mr Cheng, who is known for being hands-on.

So whether it was being sold to GHK or to a local firm, Zouk's very move to Clarke Quay next year perhaps already spelt the end of an era.

Mr Cheng has said that the philosophy behind Zouk was never about the money, but more about continually giving clubbers a new experience. For many Singaporeans, Zouk was like a rite of passage when you came of drinking age.

Like them, that wild child has grown up. When the crowds come for one final party before she moves out of her home, will it be to toast a debutante moving on to the wider world, or to bid farewell to someone they will never see again?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2015, with the headline 'Genting's gamble: From Zouk, to club lite?'. Print Edition | Subscribe