With champagne and cocktails in hand, conversation starts to flow among the guest list of six – some friends, some strangers – selected for their shared interests or experiences. Dinner begins. A four- to six-course affair personally crafted by the host, followed by dessert made by the hostess. Whisky is poured and everyone swirls a dram or two, as the conviviality stretches into the night.
Welcome to a typical Saturday night dinner party at the home of Aun Koh and Tan Su-Lyn, co-founders of strategic brand communications agency The Ate Group. Preparations for the menu would have taken the 45-year-old Koh, popularly known as food blogger Chubby Hubby, more than two nights.
But this month, he will be taking his host-with-the-most savoir faire to a new level, welcoming a much larger and more diverse group to a new adoptive home, and fostering connections among a new generation of kinsmen.
After six months of renovations to a building that was once a boutique hotel, private members’ club Straits Clan is about to open its doors. Its stylish four-storey, 22,000 sq ft den is designed by local design firm Takenouchi Webb to include terrazzo flooring, custom-made rattan furniture, and walls mirroring elements from 1970s Singapore. Brass palm trees in the entertainment room pay a cheeky homage to Tropicana, a now-defunct 1960s entertainment complex in Scotts Road best known for its topless revues.
Straits Clan has taken over the heritage shophouse premises of the former New Majestic hotel in Bukit Pasoh Road, which sees it nestled amid numerous clan associations, many of which were founded as welfare organisations for Singapore’s early immigrants. But, unlike its neighbours, whose members are united by lineage, the club endeavours to gather individuals from diverse industries, all underscored by a common passion for change and creativity.
Last November, potential members were invited to Capitol Theatre for a series of talks featuring speakers such as Lee Poh Wah, CEO of Lien Foundation; mountaineer David Lim; and Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna. If the teaser event was anything to go by, Straits Clan, it seems, is keen to fete the thinkers, doers and dreamers of our time.
For Koh and co-founder Wee Teng Wen – managing director of The Lo & Behold Group – it is the shared interest in individuals behind Singapore’s changing lifestyle landscape that gave rise to Straits Clan.
“In the last decade, Singapore has seen an amazing explosion of creative energy and entrepreneurship. Both of us have really enjoyed getting to know people at the forefront of these businesses and creative ideas. We’d see each other at art exhibitions and new business launches, and talk about them,” says Koh. “To then be able to create a business that celebrates these people and their energy has been very rewarding.” The duo is joined by fellow co-founder and chief financial officer Sally Sim.
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
Developing the concept and space has been an “all-consuming” project for the past year, says Wee, 37. “We poured a lot of time and research into developing the concept. We see the value in thinking very hard about engineering the spaces and the club’s strategies before the doors even open.” Wee’s deliberate approach comes through even in this interview. While Koh replies without missing a beat, Wee’s responses are often more measured, preceded by pauses allowing him to collect his thoughts.
The duo met a decade ago when Wee was starting up The White Rabbit – his second F&B outlet after rooftop bar Loof – and engaged Koh as a consultant. “We became friends very quickly through the experience. It’s thrilling to watch Lo & Behold expand from that one bar and one restaurant to this empire that Teng now runs – and just watching Teng grow over the years,” Koh says with some brotherly pride.
CLUB RULES: WHAT MAKES A WINNING PRIVATE MEMBERS’ CLUB?
HAVING CLUB-HOPPED AROUND THE WORLD AS PART OF HIS RESEARCH FOR STRAITS CLAN, WEE TENG WEN HONES IN ON ELEMENTS TO LOOK OUT FOR.
MEANING AND IDENTITY
“I always look for authentic spaces with a strong sense of place. One with a design that does not try too hard, is not led by trends. I particularly like light spaces that inspire and reinvigorate the senses.”
A CONVIVIAL COMMUNITY
“Exciting members’ clubs are always filled with a diverse group of characters, all of whom are interesting – even those with slightly crazy ideas. It is a place with few egos and one that fosters a culture of openness to connect and exchange ideas.”
THE WARM WELCOME
“Clubs should possess a strong culture of hospitality. A welcoming environment with staff that remember you – a place that basically makes you feel like you are returning home. It is rarely found in the industry, but I believe that it is an opportunity for clubs to create a special bond with their members or guests.”
Wee’s hospitality group – a constellation of 11 F&B concepts – has a track record of home runs, from weekend hotspot Tanjong Beach Club to two-Michelin-star fine dining restaurant Odette. He views Straits Clan as a natural extension of the group’s portfolio, following its foray into hotels with the opening of The Warehouse Hotel last year.
“Lo & Behold is coming in as an operator of the club and we’re excited about creating a new model of hospitality. A members’ club has a finite number of members, giving us the opportunity to go much deeper into the relationship. We’re able to understand their likes and preferences and give them a customised experience you won’t be able to get at a regular restaurant or bar,” says Wee. Over the next five years, the club is expected to cap their membership base at 2,000.
“Travel is continually inspiring for me,” says Wee. The club’s spa, with its foot-reflexology offering, took a leaf from an outlet in Hong Kong, which had a comfortable, clean and well-designed environment, coupled with great service.
“So you could be reading a book, listening to music, and having a martini, while getting a foot rub. These are some of the ideas we put together for the club,” he elaborates. The spa sits under the same roof as three F&B outlets, a co-working space, a gym, and entertainment rooms for karaoke, mini discos and retro arcade games. The fourth level attic, which accommodates up to 120, is the designated events space.
While Lo & Behold has been hailed as an industry trendsetter, Wee is averse to the notion of trends, preferring to view his concepts as timeless. “My goal is to create strong concepts with Singaporean character that set benchmarks and challenge the notion that we are always looking abroad for references.”
Still, Straits Clan is riding the global wave of private members’ clubs that has reached Singapore’s shores. 1880, founded by Canadian entrepreneur Marc Nicholson – founder of luxury barbershop Truefitt & Hill – was launched last December with a social mission somewhat similar to Straits Clan’s. Boutique business club Madison Rooms caters to “sociable professionals”, while co-working spaces such as The Great Room – with its newly minted Business Club – also tout private networking and industry sharing sessions.
Membership is building up “really nicely, both in terms of diversity and people with interesting day jobs and passions”, Wee shares. The club’s raison d’etre has always been its social agenda, and members are recruited based on mindset, unlike traditional private-club yardsticks of wealth, status, or gender (on the membership application form, members can identify as male, female, or non-binary). Potential members are prompted to answer questions such as “Tell us one item on your bucket list” and “Describe a meaningful change you are driving in your industry”. Members include Vinnie Lauria, founding partner of venture capital firm Golden Gate Ventures; Janice Koh, actress and former nominated member of Parliament; and lawyer-poet Amanda Chong, co-founder of children’s literacy non-profit, Readable.
With a standard monthly subscription fee of $198 per month, membership fees are no more expensive than that at a premium fitness club. To engage a younger and more diverse crowd, those under 30 or in the non-profit sector enjoy a monthly fee of $148.
International members account for about 15 per cent, with sign-ups coming from as far as Munich. “It should be a club, space, and community not just for Singaporeans, but also for those coming through or using Singapore as a base,” says Wee.
UNION OF GREAT MINDS
While the long-term ambition is to cultivate more clans overseas, the more immediate challenge is to create an environment at Straits Clan where people would feel comfortable talking to strangers. In his role as chief curator, Koh, who is the younger son of diplomat Tommy Koh, Singapore’s former ambassador to the United Nations, is tasked with keeping the club’s programming – which will serve as the platform to foster connections among members – engaging and enriching.
Invited speakers for this month include French author and molecular biologist-turned-Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, as well as Danny Meyer, the American hospitality maven behind fine dining stalwart Gramercy Tavern and burger chain Shake Shack.
Koh’s role is essentially an extension of a mission he’s held through most of his jobs – showcasing stories, people and talent in different ways. He did this as a journalist in his 20s, during which he also started award-winning magazines East and Shopping!, and spread his love for local food in toothsome spiels on his culinary blog Chubby Hubby. As deputy director of Visual & Literary Arts at the National Arts Council, he brought Singapore’s top artists to the Venice Biennale in 2005. “When you tell stories well and these talents gain recognition, you can shift things. That gives me the greatest satisfaction.”
KITH AND KIN
Koh has warned his wife and kids that they may not see him on many evenings once the club is launched. Still, he’ll continue to block out sacred family time on the weekends, as well as time on weekdays to ferry his son Toby to and from aikido class. If the days to come prove taxing, he has an outlet in Kali-Majapahit – which combines Filipino martial art tenets with other forms of martial arts such as silat and wing chun – that he has been at for six years. “It’s stick- and knife-fighting and hand-to-hand – a great way to relieve stress!”
Wee laments that the past year leading up to Straits Clan’s launch, has left him with very little headspace. “But I’ve recently picked up a new hobby, ping pong. Something about the repetitive sound and the ball going up and down is hugely engrossing. I enjoy driving as well – the drone of the engine is very calming.”
He, too, calendars in family time. “I read a really touching article by Richard Hoon (chairman of the Centre for Fathering), and the takeaway was how time together is important, and he continues to date his daughters, even into adulthood. I bring my daughter Ava to swimming class and that’s our date.”
Asked what the two men have bonded over, Wee hesitates, before slowly proffering: “We have, over the years, had a lot of meals together?” He laughs.
Koh paints a clearer picture: “Art, design, travel. And now that he’s a dad, I can tell dad stories.” The father of two with another on the way turns to Wee, who has only one-year-old Ava, and says: “You’ve got to catch up, though!”
CONSUMMATE HOST AUN KOH ON HOW TO GET LIVELY DISCUSSIONS GOING AROUND THE DINNER TABLE.
ESTABLISH COMMON GROUND
“Find out about the passions and interests that drive your guests and identify commonalities. Using one of these shared interests, bring up an open-ended question, ideally based on recent or current events, and also one that doesn’t have a definitive answer, which allows for a wider variety of opinions or anecdotes.”
NUDGE QUIETER GUESTS
“If you have a particularly reserved person at the table but know that he would have great insight, my technique is to gently put him on the spot by complimenting his knowledge of the topic and reminding him of something he had once shared with you. Prompt him to repeat it for the group’s benefit.”
BE THE MODERATOR
“If opinions start clashing too much, you need to be ready to defuse potential arguments. Tell a joke, change topics, or bring out some prized whisky.”
IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU
“Most importantly, make sure you’re not pontificating too much – you want your guests to get to know one another, not spend the night listening to you.”