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The Peak Interview: Savvy Collector

When hotelier and restauranteur Loh Lik Peng turned his acquisition zeal to old buildings, what could come of it but a lifestyle empire?

Loh Lik Peng is a bit of a hoarder. As a kid, he collected Star Wars toys and Marvel comics. Today, the man has amassed a collection that’s far more grownup, preferring retro furniture and curios to action figures and Tintin. Oh, and he also owns, at last count, seven hotels and 14 restaurants across Singapore, London and Shanghai – a lifestyle empire, known as the Unlisted Collection, that has grown steadily over the past 10 years.

Over steak, burgers and lobster sliders – his favourite – at his new restaurant, The Market Grill, Loh, who turns 41 this year, says he’s been collecting one thing or another since he was a child. “I was always ferreting things away. My mum would say I was like a karung guni man,” he says with a huge laugh.

These days, his “eclectic collection” includes more than 50 designer chairs and over a dozen barber chairs, along with “thousands of pieces” such as enamel advertising signs, weighing scales and vintage electric fans. He says: “I don’t spend huge amounts on collecting anymore, because then it becomes businesslike and serious. In anything well above the $10,000 range, I start to lose interest.”

He estimates that he has spent “several hundreds of thousands” on collecting over the years. “They have been great and really fun investments, and the pieces are scattered throughout the hotels and restaurants,” says Loh, who also warehouses them in two 20 sq m spaces. He does not keep them at home as his wife, violinist Min Lee, 31, hates having boxes of stuff lying around. They have an 18-month-old son, Conor, and live in a condominium in River Valley.

“It becomes harder once you have a family,” he says, as he cuts the lobster sliders into sharing portions. “I collect purely for fun and because I become obsessive about things, but I don’t like to have museum pieces that I can’t place around or use daily. I have a use for all of them, and so I keep on accumulating and collecting things.”

The hotelier is an avid sportsman.
The hotelier is an avid sportsman.

KICK-STARTER
In a mind-bending sort of way, he collects old buildings to turn into boutique hotels, too. His first was the whimsical four-storey, 32-room Hotel 1929 and the adjoining Restaurant Ember in Keong Saik Road. The original owners rented out rooms by the hour. Loh’s parents had bought the building for less than $4 million in 2001 as an investment. When Hotel 1929 opened in the middle of the Sars crisis in February 2003, critics said the hotel would not last those tough months.

Not only did it thrive, but it also kick-started the boutique hotel trend in Singapore and the rest of Asia. With that success, the former corporate litigator soon became known as Singapore’s accidental hotelier.

Loh was born in Dublin, but his doctor parents brought him back to Singapore when he was a year old. He was packed off to boarding school in Dublin when he was 12. He was never trained in hospitality or tourism, and has a law degree from Sheffield University and a post-grad business diploma from the London School of Economics. He returned to Singapore from Britain to practise law in 1997.

Bitten by the boutique-hotel bug, Loh bought the Majestic Hotel in Bukit Pasoh for a reported $7.2 million. It re-opened as the New Majestic Hotel in May 2006. He then became co-owner of restaurants such as Ember, Majestic and Jing at One Fullerton – as well as Corduroy & Finch in Bukit Timah; Chiharu, its replacement; and Braise, on Sentosa’s Palawan Beach. The last three opened, then closed down within a few years, in the mid- to late noughties.

Where people see ruins, Loh sees the raw materials of a heritage hotel.
Where people see ruins, Loh sees the raw materials of a heritage hotel.

GETTING UP
Musing on the failures, he says: “Sometimes, no matter what you do, it won’t work. Like Braise. I went in for the wrong reasons. I loved the view and the beach, but it never occurred to me to check whether traffic on weekdays was good enough. We never got any lunch trade, but weekends would do really well.

“At that time, you had to pay an entry fee into Sentosa and walk in the hot sun for 100m to get to the restaurant. If it rained, you couldn’t get there at all. Chiharu was the same, in a way. At Corduroy & Finch, the partners had different motives. It was a painful lesson, but a very valuable one. It taught me about whom I should work with and making sure we have good chemistry.”

Despite these failures, Loh remains upbeat. He says: “People always say you learn more from your failures than your successes. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true for me. In some ways, you learn from every project you do, successes as well as failures.”

And so he did. In 2010, Loh – with ambitions running high – opened three hotel projects here and overseas: Town Hall Hotel in East London, The Waterhouse at South Bund in Shanghai and Wanderlust in Little India. He also helped to open Table No. 1 at The Waterhouse with famed chef Jason Atherton, formerly from Gordon Ramsay’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Maze, in London; Michelin-starred restaurant Viajante at Town Hall with Nuno Mendes, previously from another famous London restaurant, Bacchus; and casual French eatery Cocotte at Wanderlust.

As part of his strategy, he gave these brand-name chefs a stake in the business and full creative freedom.

With a sigh, he says that the Town Hall Hotel, originally built in 1910, was the largest, most complex project he’d undertaken. Halfway through, he says almost jokingly, he nearly panicked. London was going through the throes of 2008’s banking crisis; plus, his contractor almost went bust.

“The old Town Hall was a large Listed Heritage Building, but it was in a poor state and cost a tonne of money. Two new floors were put in. It had the potential to go very wrong, into a black hole, with long delays. I had a deep sense of foreboding. It was that daunting, and larger than life. But I had no choice. I had to plough through and finish it.”

It was an incredibly stressful time, he recalls, with “many sleepless nights just staring at the wall”. He says: “I thought, ‘wow, what am I doing? I have too many projects going on.’ I was s******* bricks. But we pulled them off , and that gave me confidence, that maybe I do have something to add to the industry.”

His experiences in 2010 showed that he had the “ability to drive projects through and remain 100 per cent committed”. Candidly, he reveals how it changed him. “It took me a long time before I told people I was a hotelier, because I never really believed it. I never trained to be a hotelier. I still thought of myself as a lawyer. I felt a little bit like a fraud. I just happened to do hotels that were a reflection of my taste.”

It was soon after that the Unlisted Collection was born, and only after years of urging from his public relations company. He says: “When we started having so many hotels, it became unwieldy. So we were kind of forced into that position. We never set out consciously to do a brand. We just wanted to do hotels.”

Now, he adds with that big laugh, he writes down “hotelier” instead of “lawyer” on immigration cards when he travels. Officially, Loh is no longer a solicitor.

Loh Lik Peng now looks forward to reaching home by 6.30pm to spend time with his wife, violinist Min Lee, and his son.
Loh Lik Peng now looks forward to reaching home by 6.30pm to spend time with his wife, violinist Min Lee, and his son.

STROKE OF SERENDIPITY
Still, Loh admits to suffering from an anxiety complex. “There’s always a seed of insecurity and fear when I do these projects. It makes you think hard about how to make it cool. So you’re never complacent. I never walk away feeling 100 per cent certain I can make it work.”

Despite the insecurities, he attributes his success formula – his secret sauce – to being able to convert old buildings into something cool.

Seeing a potential hotel has to seem like “serendipity” or “an epiphany”, he says. “I have to fall in love with a project. It’s not purely dollars and cents. I like buildings with a lot of character; I don’t like things that are too polished. And I’m not keen on run-of-the-mill investments, boring hotels with 100 rooms or hotel chains. The project always has to be fun and inspire me.”

Which is why, he says, he never repeats a concept, preferring to use a different designer, for instance, each time. “I only ever do it once. I don’t really ever want to open another The Market Grill or Esquina.”

One of his latest – backed by chef Andre Chiang and hotelier Mavis Oei, who also co-owns tapas bar Esquina and casual eatery Keong Saik Snacks – is an 18-seat barbecue restaurant led by Australian chef David Pynt called Burnt Ends, a couple of doors down from Hotel 1929.

Another new, high-profile project is the iconic St John Hotel in Soho, London, which he purchased after it went into administration late last year. Rebranded as One Leicester Street, the 15-room hotel, restaurant and bar opened early last month.

What will command his attention for the next year: Loh’s first foray Down Under, an adaptation of a 60- room hotel on the site of a former brewery and a heritage building in Sydney, slated to open late next year.

Loh, who says that in another life he would have been a historian, talks animatedly about the project’s red bricks and industrial look. The new hotel “will stay true to the spirit” of the original buildings, and be similar in feel to The Waterhouse and New Majestic.

With his fascination with the past, it’s no wonder that he’s a board member of the National Heritage Board, and was appointed chairman of the Singapore Philatelic Museum last year. He also sits on the Conservation Advisory Panel of the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

“No, I don’t collect stamps!” he says, chuckling. “But I do have a deep personal interest in the culture of Singapore. I see my contributions as a kind of national service. It’s emotional and deeply interesting.”

He doesn’t quite understand, for instance, why people look only at the exterior of conservation buildings, but not the interior. “So I always rail against it. I’m deeply indignant. I enter some shophouses and I’m shocked. The guy has ripped out all the original features. That is not the way you preserve a building, to me at least.”

These days, he’s mostly preoccupied with being a family man. Loh usually has to travel twice a month for work, although he keeps those trips short, to two or three days. “I have a fairly nice work-life balance, and am usually home by 6.30pm. I can’t wait to get home and spend time with my family. To me, that’s another measure of success.”

To others, Loh’s other traits are worth admiring. When the interview ends at a cafe nearby and Loh leaves, a young man in his 20s comes over and introduces himself as an aspiring IT entrepreneur. He apologises for having eavesdropped on our chat, but was too curious. Who was that guy, he asks excitedly.

“I’ve just set up my own company, and that guy, whoever he is, really did it for me. Just listening to him talk about how he set up his business was inspiring. Can you pass him my card? I’d like to ask him for some advice. I think he’d be able to help.”

FREQUENT FLIER
A former avid diver who loved diving in Layang Layang, Loh Lik Peng now gets his travel kicks from visiting destination restaurants around the globe.

Your most memorable meal?
Going to (popular tapas bar) Barrafina with my wife before we were married. It was fun because we were in love, and spending hours in a line with each other seemed like time well spent then!

Where would you fly for the food alone?
Well I’m flying to Sweden tomorrow. The sole purpose is to check out some restaurants. I’m going to (the acclaimed hyper-local restaurant) Faviken this weekend, and I can’t wait!

Describe your dream dinner?
It would have to be a meal cooked by Andre Chiang, Jason Atherton, Nuno Mendes and Tom Harris (top chefs at his restaurants). The would all take turns to whip up a dish for the table, so four courses from four chefs I admire very much. I think it would be a meal like no other, but getting all four into a kitchen and dining room will be very hard.

What are your top hotel choices?
I love the Post Ranch Inn in the Big Sur. My wife and I have been back several times but, alas, with a baby now, it’s increasingly difficult. I recently stayed at the Das Stue in Berlin, which was one of more enjoyable recent hotel experiences.

And your worst hotel stay?
I don’t think I’ve ever had a really terrible experience at a hotel. Perhaps when I was a student staying at one of those budget hotels in King’s Cross in London – when I had to sleep in my sleeping bag because the bed was just too disgusting and the walls were stained with goodness knows what. Nowadays, I’m pretty forgiving. I know it’s a bloody hard job, and usually, people try really hard to please. It just depends on the budget. Don’t expect the Four Seasons when you are paying the rate of the Holiday Inn.

You’ve said in the past that you fly economy class. Do you still do so?
Yes, unless I’m flying very far for work. Usually my trips are short – I need to hit the ground running and be home in two days.