Wanderlust Hotel, Little India, Singapore

by AFP/Bernice Han, Apr 15, 2011 | Destinations: Singapore

They may look like wrecks to most people, but to Singaporean hotelier Loh Lik Peng creaking warehouses or unused school buildings can be architectural gems just waiting to be polished.

The former lawyer is Singapore's boutique-hotel king, and he is credited with spearheading a trend to create intimate accommodation that is both hip and historic in a city dominated by gleaming skyscrapers.

"I like finding old buildings that are a bit of a wreck," Loh told AFP in the lobby of his newest hotel, Wanderlust, which opened last year in Singapore's Little India district.

"For me, it's a huge amount of fun and it always makes my heart beat faster when I see a beautiful, old building and it's available to restore, and I imagine what I could do with it."

Loh's move into the hotel industry would never have happened if not for his previous stint as a lawyer winding up companies that had collapsed after the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s.

It was during one of his assignments that he came across a derelict three-storey shophouse that generated little buyer interest because of the slump and the fact that it was located in a red-light district in Chinatown.

But Loh saw an opportunity.

"I realised there were no interesting, cool, little boutique hotels at that time," said the 38-year-old. "They were all large, chain hotels and weren't that different from each other."

Against warnings from well-meaning friends, Loh bought the site for Sg$3.5 million ($2.76 million) in 2001 with financial support from his parents, both doctors.

After a complete refurbishment, he renamed the building Hotel 1929 after the year it was built and opened its doors to the first guest in February 2003.

Customers were wowed by the 32 individually-styled rooms done in what Loh called "nouveau chic" decor, with black and white photos of Singapore in the early 20th century lining its corridors.

Janet Greasley, an English retiree from Nottingham, stayed at the hotel in January this year and liked what she saw.

"I did connect the fact that the decor and the name of the hotel were linked and liked it," Greasley told AFP.

"Too often developers throw out what they call 'dated things' unless they are over 100 years old," she said.

The success of Hotel 1929 came as a surprise even to Loh but he realised he had tapped into something worth pursuing.

Three years later, he opened the New Majestic Hotel across the street from Hotel 1929.

"I had never kind of imagined that it would be that successful," said the accidental hotelier, who has not donned a tie to work since the day he gave up his legal career in 2002.

"I would say at that time ignorance was bliss, I didn't really know what I was getting myself into and I had no idea whether people would respond to it."

Trendy boutique hotels in Singapore do not come cheap, though.

An online check showed the New Majestic's published rate for a basic room averages Sg$280 ($220) a night, while at the nearby four-star Amara hotel it is Sg$260 ($204).

By comparison, the best available online rate at the Singapore Marriott Hotel for a night's stay is Sg$450 ($354) while the Hilton Singapore charges from $Sg409.40 ($322) onwards.

Loh expanded overseas last year, opening The Waterhouse in Shanghai and the Townhall Hotel and Apartments in London, both of them in heritage buildings.

The Shanghai property is a former warehouse brought to his attention by a friend while one of his staff told him about the building in London's Bethnal Green district.

"I really only work with conservation projects and because you work with old buildings, this is how it is," said Loh.

"You can't walk around and say 'I want to do a project' and then find the building, so it is largely opportunistic."

The four-storey, 29-room Wanderlust hotel in Singapore's ethnic Indian enclave is housed in a former school building.

In the lobby, a pair of huge old-fashioned barber chairs from the 1930s sit alongside a dental surgeon's lamp, all from Loh's personal collection.

Guests can rest on handmade chairs made from recycled road signs when they're not in rooms that can resemble a space rocket with friendly aliens or reflect neon themes inspired by the Beatles' hit song "Yellow Submarine" or "Purple Rain" by Prince.

Johan Svanstrom, Asia-Pacific managing director with booking website Hotels.com, says boutique hotels appeal to well-travelled guests who want something different.

"A boutique hotel has now become a unique experience," Svanstrom told AFP.

"What people like about boutique hotels is that they feel closer to the staff. It is not mass production."


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Fact File:

Wanderlust Hotel
2 Dickson Road, Singapore 209494
Tel: +65 6396 3322

Hotel 1929
50 Keang Saik Road, Singapore 089154
Tel: +65 6347 1929

New Majestic Hotel
31-37 Bukit Pasoh Road, Singapore 089845
Tel: +65 6511 4700 

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The Waterhouse at South Bund, Shanghai
Maojiayuan Road No 1-3, Zhongshan Road South, Huangpu District, Shanghai 200011, China
Tel: +86 21 6080 2988

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