The velvet rope to the most fabulous parties in Singapore was first breached some 24 years ago. Then, 17 Jiak Kim Street, the famous address to a row of three riverside warehouses of Moorish design, was the only standalone building in the area. No hotels or condominiums in sight. Just Zouk.
I remember the awe, the splendour, the rock star DJs and the podium dancers who made the 35,000 sq ft club the phenomenon it was then, and still is today. In a fickle and increasingly crowded nightlife industry, it remains the only club here to have stood the test of time, regularly making top 10 in UK-based clubbing/music authority DJ Mag’s annual list of Top 100 Clubs in the world (it’s at number seven this year).
While the partygoers that throng its genre-spanning rooms have shifted from Generation X to Millennials, it’s still where all the different tribes of nocturnal creatures converge: models, designers, artists, musicians, society queens, hipsters, wannabe hipsters. (Fun fact: Both John Galliano and Marc Jacobs have partied at Zouk.) Everyone who’s been there is sure to have his or her own great story to tell. Me? I know Zouk in my own way.
My journey began in 1991 – the year the place was founded – as a clubber, and continued as a journalist covering the nightlife beat at The Straits Times. Fast forward to 2011: That was the year I put together Zouk’s commemorative 20th anniversary coffee-table book Once Upon A Time, which on a personal level, closed that chapter of my reporting career. In a way, the club has defined a considerable part of my life.
Even before becoming an industry insider, I knew it as the birthplace of Singapore’s electronic dance music scene. No other club here before played house music, much less made the experience such a visual spectacle with hypnotising strobe light displays and notable art (Warhol, Lichtenstein, Murakami) on the walls. Since then, it’s become the place for global DJs to perform at, hosting generations of the best – from Danny Tenaglia and Paul van Dyk, to Calvin Harris and Showtek.
The often-raved-about Zouk euphoria that comes with the music is real (and I’m not referring to the club’s Mambo Jambo nights, though those are legendary too). I’m talking about how, for most nights, the club has drawn its varied bands of followers onto the dance floor, and united them with the Balearic beats pounding out from the analogue sound system. I’ve witnessed it, and been a part of it several times: the manifestation of the club’s tag line “One World. One Music. One Tribe. One Dance”.
It’s a multi-sensory experience that is somehow hard to replicate and – like it or not – has helped make Zouk a benchmark of success in the nightlife and partying circuit. Through my years covering the scene, the club would often come up in interviews I had with others opening their own nightspot.
A typical conversation would start with the club owner saying: “My club will be nothing like Zouk. It’s going to be different.” Me: “How so?” Club owner: “It’s going to be an intimate dance club playing electronic music… It’ll be cosy and chic.” Me: “Like Velvet Underground (Zouk’s loungey guest-list-only room)?” Club owner: “Similar vibe, but not the same.”
For me, Zouk’s vision and success boil down to the club’s forward-thinking founder Lincoln Cheng – a trained architect, music lover and art collector – and his closely knit team that lives and breathes the culture of Zouk. Everyone on board, from general manager Benny Heng, who started working at the club in 1993 as front-line staff, to Sofie Chandra and Wayne Lee (the spine of the marketing and entertainment departments, respectively), shares a deep appreciation for music and the arts, often using them to push boundaries.
By the third quarter of next year – due to the lease on Jiak Kim Street expiring – the club will move out of the address that’s become synonymous with its magic, and call Clarke Quay home instead. Its recent acquisition by entertainment group Genting Hong Kong Limited notwithstanding, the team’s adventurous, multi-faceted approach to throwing a party shows no signs of waning. Its annual dance music festival Zoukout (Dec 11 and 12), for example, will showcase the most number of first-time acts in the event’s 15-year history, as well as a new stage dedicated to local names. Chandra also assures that the club is “going all out” for its last Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations on site.
Zouk is not so much a club, but a way of partying – one that marries music with art, design and fashion; one that believes in the unifying power of them all; one that’s rooted in creativity. That spirit is something not bound by location. Here’s to another game-changing era for Zouk.
An adapted version first appeared Female’s December issue.