In the beginning
Ten years ago, The White Rabbit was a derelict church in Dempsey. Loof was a forgotten rooftop on the top of Odeon Towers, and Tanjong Beach Club? Well, who would have thought of bringing the flash of Miami beach culture, paired with the boho cool of Brooklyn, to our shores?
The powerhouse behind all three, The Lo & Behold Group (TLBG), was also a mere concept waiting to be hatched in the mind of co-founder and managing director Wee Teng Wen. Today, the Group, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last month, has become a stalwart on the lifestyle scene: It’s where the kids want to work, who the tenant landlords court when they want to turn around a space, and, of course, the name tied to a string of venues that have, time and again, nailed the zeitgeist.
Its beginnings can be traced to a meeting of serendipity and foresight. “There was no clear vision of starting a group and owning multiple venues. It was very pure and simple. I was shopping one day at Bras Basah next to Odeon Towers, and I crossed over and took the lift up to the third floor. There was a truly stunning rooftop that was unused. It had Chjimes on one side, and Raffles Hotel on the other. I fell in love with the space,” shares Wee. “It was completely vacant and begging to be brought to life. That feeling is something that continues to tug at me – seeing a space and bringing it to life.”
A new wave of club culture
Within eight months, the space had metamorphosised into Loof, Singapore’s first standalone rooftop bar. Within the next six, it broke even (if you want a gauge of how long this takes the average bar, take that figure and triple it). The name was a tongue-in-cheek take on the Singlish mispronunciation of the word “roof”, while the menu glistened with mischievous cocktail names such as Steady Pomme Pi Pi – a play on the French word for apple, and the Singlish slang for the ability to remain cool under pressure. A venue that took all our Singaporean idiosyncrasies and flaunted them, it injected the fun and irreverence we didn’t even know we were missing into the night scene.
“It brought a new wave of club culture to the next generation, the millennials,” says DJ and former Zouk creative head Pamm Hong. It was the perfect spot at the perfect time for a new breed of partygoers who wanted the boutique experience over the big brand name. “They pioneered so many interesting takes on the regular club scene,” continues Hong. “It was about renewing entertainment, not just with music, but in all matters of conviviality.”
Bringing party life to Sentosa
“The starting point is always wanting to have a point of view and inject something that will alter the landscape,” says Wee. With Tanjong Beach Club, which opened in Sentosa in 2010, it was about kick-starting a beach culture in Singapore. “I was truly excited to be working on that project because I felt that though we live on an island, we had no beach culture to really speak of. There were almost no habits formed around the beach and enjoying yourself there.”
Five years later, on any given weekend, the custom-built retro-luxe beach club is still packed. “You see kids floating around in the afternoon and hours later, you have party revellers in the same pool. Traditional marketing would suggest we cut it more finely, but we’re not,” laughs Wee, when I ask him if there’s any target demographic the group aims to attract. The point is, for Lo & Behold, having a good time should be democratic.
Brewing now at the National Gallery
Its latest venture, Odette, is a fine dining establishment at the National Gallery, and a partnership with former Jaan chef and rising culinary star Julien Royer. Wee explains: “We feel that fine dining, in general, is very slick, masculine, serious and stiff. We wanted to create something that was the flip side of that. That was feminine, soft, pure and very personal.” The restaurant is named after Royer’s grandmother (who taught him how to cook and inspired him to be a chef) and everything, from the style of service to the clean food and raw interiors, is an homage to her.
The arty tie-ups
Tie-ups with artists-du-jour have made the spaces even more Instagrammable. Loof hosted the first exhibition of photographer Jing Quek’s hyper-surreal works (well before he had been invited to shoot presidential candidate John Edwards for the cover of Newsweek or showcase at the Venice Biennale). More recently, artist Dawn Ng’s (Wee’s wife) neon light installation Perfect Day was erected at the rooftop bar, adding a shot of whimsy to Singapore’s skyline. Ng is also currently working on the branding for Odette, from logo to menus, as well as a large-scale artwork for the main dining room.
A far cry from its guerrilla days, the amount of planning that goes into any project now is a full-scale operation. For one, the team has grown more than a hundred fold from four squashed in a tiny office in the carpark basement of Odeon Towers, to 224 full-time and 200 part-time staff headquartered in three shophouses along Beach Road.
“Their restaurant concepts have stayed strong over the years, and it appears they don’t sit back and get comfortable with their success,” says food journalist Victoria Cheng. “They’re constantly reinventing and expanding – just when I thought Overeasy was surely going to meet its end after neighbouring Butter Factory closed, I started receiving notice about the new location in the heart of town. Likewise with the long-standing White Rabbit, I still hear visitors request to go, and White Rabbit’s Halloween parties have become a tradition among many.”
The 20th, and even the 30th anniversary, is the goal. “I’ve always said I want to be able to bring all my grandkids to The White Rabbit,” says Wee. “That’s how we like to think about them. It is not necessarily about being the most creative or cutting edge, but about always evolving and making it better.”
Photography Zaphs Zhang Art Direction Leyna Poh Hair & Grooming Marie Soh, using Givenchy
An adapted version first appeared in Female‘s December issue, out on newsstands now.
Things To Do In Singapore: A Comedy Film Festival & Exhibitions On Aesthetics And The Salaryman