In a time where the only constant is change, one thing has remained

At 26 years old, Zouk Singapore has come a long way since its daring inception. Amanda Chai takes a look back at the ups and downs of the nation's premiere dance club. Photography by Zouk.

Here’s a proposition: There’s no one thing that better encapsulates Singapore’s burgeoning nightlife than Zouk. It’s the name that rolls cautiously off a local freshman’s tongue on their first foray into the clubbing scene; and stays with them long past their halcyon days. It’s where the young congregate and the old mock—but secretly reminisce. Meaning ‘party’ in a French creole dialect, it quite literally is the definition of a good time.

Despite being ranked fourth on DJ Magazine’s Top 100 Clubs in the World, and first in many a Singaporean’s heart, the nightclub now located along Clarke Quay had its rough patches to weather before reaching its current status. In particular, the last five years have seen major restructuring changes in management and marketing, what with the club being sold to Genting Hong Kong in 2015, and its controversial move out of its Jiak Kim Street location in end 2016.

But change isn’t all bad—Tracy Phillips, who headed Zouk’s marketing team from 1999 to 2009, thinks it’s good that “everything changes”. Together with club culture and music tastes, the nightclub has evolved from its first days as a pioneer hub for global house music. And like any child having to learn to navigate the waters of adulthood, Zouk has rebelled, won, lost, hit milestones, and carved an identity for itself amid an increasingly homogenous crowd. In tandem with its loyal supporters, Zouk has grown up.

Early Days

In March 1991, three old warehouses along the Singapore River were taken over by a local entrepreneur. Lincoln Cheng, who turns 70 this year, had been frustrated by the lack of good global dance music in Singapore. He took inspiration from the beach clubs of Ibiza and the house music of Europe—and channeled passion and personal funds into creating an all-white dance club that didn’t just play the pop music of hotel discos. He filled it with fine art whose worth went unnoticed by most—a Keith Haring in Velvet Underground worth US$60,000 and Andy Warhol prints. Club-goers likely only remember the pounding music, smoke-filled tunnel, and stumbling about the three interconnected rooms in giddy laughter.

Phillips, who joined the team to do marketing in 1998, remembers going to Zouk every weekend in her teens—before she was personally brought onboard by then Marketing Manager Andrew Ing. At the time, there was a less diverse bar scene and more club- oriented spaces, but still no definitive local nightlife culture; Phillips named places like Venom, St. James and Liquid Room as key competitors in the scene then.

Still, Zouk Singapore never fell behind. It was awarded “Best Nightspot Experience” by the Singapore Tourism Board six times between 1996 and 2007, and the lineup of international DJs—a literally foreign concept at the time—kept the crowds coming.

As Marketing Manager, Phillips was in charge of producing events, making props, settling designs for publicity materials, and booking the acts. She conceptualized key nights like Readyset Glo and the club’s anniversary parties, but also instigated creative collaborations with local music, fashion and design talents to showcase Singapore’s creative scene. The aim, said Phillips, was to maintain a balance between being progressive and global-looking, while still being commercially viable and relevant to a local audience.

“I think we stood for being a world-class nightlife establishment—at the forefront of local and global trends; a champion for different creative outlets and a rite of passage for many young Singaporeans.”

Rite De Passage

For many, Zouk Singapore is an agreed-upon rite of passage. And the rituals that come with a night out at Zouk rarely deviate.

Back at Jiak Kim Street, there was the gathering in circles on the infamous Zouk bridge, where the young and broke pre-drank cheap alcohol from convenience stores in Holiday Inn; the sinful midnight snacking on bangers and mash from the food cart outside the club; splurging on a round of sour plum shots that thankfully have made their return to the club at Clarke Quay.

Current Legal and Marketing Communications Director at Zouk Singapore Chung Siqi said her best memories there revolve around the “iconic queue” during Mambo Jambo, the club’s 1980’s pop hits night. “The queue would snake out to the river,” she added.

Goodbye Jiak Kim

The 2015 alcohol ban brought with it an end to many pre-drinking rituals. Under the Liquor Control Act, the sale and drinking of alcohol in public places is prohibited from 10:30pm to 7am. But the biggest change most clubbers feel even today is the move out of Jiak Kim Street, leaving various Zouk monuments and memories behind.

After a 21-year run in the Gaudi-inspired warehouses Lincoln Cheng had so lovingly sought to create, Zouk Singapore’s lease at Jiak Kim Street expired. According to a spokesperson from the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the warehouse buildings had at the time been leased “for interim use, as the surrounding area was not fully developed, and there were norm development plans for the site”.

Furthermore, Robertson Quay had been “zoned largely for residential use”. “Over time, the surrounding area had become progressively developed as a residential precinct, and the gathering of patrons in large numbers along the waterfront adjacent to Zouk into the wee hours of the morning caused nuisance to the nearby residents,” URA added.

Thus began a series of proposals and petitions to have the lease extended—which succeeded, first till June 2013, then June 2014, and finally end 2016.

Most prominently, the 2014 “Save Zouk” campaign started by Cheng himself drove an uncomfortable wedge between loyal fans and the government. The explanation that Zouk had become “incompatible with the residential nature of the area” sparked outrage from fans, many of whom had come to see the club as a national icon.

Spearheaded by then Marketing Manager Sofie Chandra, the campaign included an online petition to URA to reconsider a lease renewal for another three years, with Cheng even threatening to shut the club down. Over 32,000 signed the petition, and URA, caught in a deadlock, “granted several lease extensions in response to their appeal for more time to look for an alternative site”.

In an unexpected turn of events, Cheng sold Zouk Singapore, in Sep 2015, to cruise and resort holding company Genting Hong Kong. To Phillips, who had by then handed over the reins, it was the end of an era.

“Being a club kid and a fan of Zouk from way before I even worked there, it was hard to imagine it in anyone's hands other than Lincoln,” she said. “But 25 years under the same management is an anomaly in clubland, so in a way it was inevitable.”

The buyover, coupled with the move to new premises, marked the closure of a crucial chapter for Zouk.

A slew of farewell parties were hosted, and on Dec 3, 2016, Zouk at 17 Jiak Kim Street opened its white, Park Guell-esque doors for the last time.

A sign of the times

A six-minute cab ride away, Zouk 2.0 stands assuredly at 3C River Valley Road. From the Google-inspired, open-office concept of the new Zouk office, 28-year-old Chung wraps a sweater around her shoulders to stay warm under the air-conditioning’s cool blast.

She may be the current head of marketing at Singapore’s most iconic nightclub, but her easy candour and straightforward replies don’t betray her revered position. Switching effortlessly between marketing speak and legal jargon—Chung was formally trained as a lawyer—she shares of what’s to come in the next three to five years.

There is the cruise ship Zouk at Sea, which will dock in Singapore at the end of the year; a second Zouk opening just across the border; and even Zouk Vegas in the next three years. The common thread here is the expansion towards an international audience, something Chung says started naturally with the move to Clarke Quay, a tourist hub.

“In the past, Zouk was known to be this place for locals, but now you see clubs like Kilo (Lounge) coming up, and their crowds are very expat-heavy as well,” she pointed out. “So it’s nice to have a bit of that too. It’s a good thing for the club.”

Adding a new room, Capital, in place of Velvet Underground has been a bold move for the club too. Advertised as a lounge bar for working professionals, it has helped bring in a slightly older and more affluent crowd, which Chung said helps with the raised cost of rent and artist rates that “have kept up with the times”.

The word ‘change’ comes up 14 times in the interview; Chung, who stepped up to the role halfway through 2017, is well aware of the challenges of picking up the mantle in the middle of such massive change. But she is undaunted. Many may lament the loss of an iconic club space, but Chung firmly believes in change being the only constant. Looking ahead to all of Zouk’s upcoming projects, both locally and abroad, the fiery Marketing Director has no time for nostalgia and petty complaints.

“You can’t really let nostalgia hold you back from keeping up with the times and being relevant to the current crowd,” she said. “I guess it’s like growing up right? You look back to your primary school days and it’s really nostalgic, but to me, ‘what’s going to happen in the future?’ should be the question that’s always being asked.

“It’s sad to see the old place go—having those three rooms interconnected and all the nice tiles done Park Guell style; but it’s just different. There’s no right or wrong, or bad or good; it’s just a change.”

When it comes to negative feedback she has received about the growing international crowd and experimenting with new sounds, she remains diplomatic but firm.

“It comes to a point where you can’t please everybody,” she said. “Ultimately it’s still a business—so it’s important to know what your consumers want, but you can’t always cater to everybody’s taste.”

Nicky Romero

Still, retaining the local crowd and old Zouk-goers remains her priority. Students, especially, are important, because “eventually these are the people who grow up to be your clubbers”.

Because of this, marketing has shifted strategically to become more digitally focused. Particular nights are also receiving more attention to win back old crowds—like the tech house-centric SoulFeed night, which used to assume residence at Velvet at the old Zouk space; now back despite the lack of a designated room to call its own.

Ultimately, Chung has just one vision for Zouk—that it be an inclusive space; a club for everyone. “When I was younger it was where I went to learn about music and a lot of people whom I met then I still know now,” she said.

“It’s that community aspect that I’ve always loved, so I hope to retain that.”

For now, she’s got Zoukout 2017 and the upcoming ZoukTV, an in-house web series featuring interviews with local and international DJs, on her plate. It goes without saying, really, that Zouk’s future looks bright.