Hip heritage

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 March, 2006, 12:00am

Post-war colonial black and white houses transformed into swank restaurants? A row of Chinatown shop-houses turned into a hip boutique hotel? Heritage buildings are being given a new lease on life to cater to a discerning crowd of Singaporeans.

In the past month, several new restaurants have opened in Rochester Park, an area where the British military's top brass once 'camped' - in large bungalows amid greenery. While a bit out of the way, they offer the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors, breathe air without car fumes and sip the latest cocktails.

The latest chic place set to open at the end of this month is Graze, a restaurant by the Hong Kong-based, Singaporean entrepreneur Yenn Wong of JIA Boutique Hotels, whose Opia eatery was recently voted restaurant of the year in the inaugural SCMP/Harpers Bazaar Style Awards. She will be in good company, as nearby One Rochester, a modern tropical-style bar, has perfected the 'lounging out in your backyard' style, and already draws the brunch crowd at weekends.

Downtown, the place to be seen for the young and beautiful is the Majestic Restaurant, in the just-opened boutique hotel New Majestic. On the day I went I was shocked to see so many of Singapore's officially pretty people in just one place - and it was only lunch time.

While tucking in to 'modern' Chinese cuisine - meaning small portions presented the western way - diners can crane their necks to watch, through strategic portholes above them, the swimmers in the hotel's 10-metre pool.

Owner Loh Lik Peng, who is also behind the nearby 1929 boutique hotel, was happy to reveal that he managed to pick up the heritage building 'cheap'. Well, that is always a matter of perspective: he did pay S$7.4 million ($35.4 million) for it, but apparently that was well below the valuation. 'Two to three years ago, no one wanted those Chinatown buildings: now there is really a demand,' he said.

Chinatown is actually becoming quite crowded with hip boutique hotels. The Scarlet, with its over-the-top, lush red decor opened just a year ago.

Mr Loh has roped in some of the who's who of Singaporean contemporary artists and designers to decorate his baby, giving each a different room. The result is a very individual, highly stylish hotel, which I confidently predict will become the darling of interior-design magazines and might even pick up some awards.

In some rooms, the beds hang from the ceiling; in others, mirrors line walls and ceiling. My favourite are the 'aquarium' bedrooms with the glass-encased tub in the centre. Who says Singaporeans have no flair for design?