SINGAPORE (Aug 6): To the rest of the world, the word “zouk” is Antillean Creole for “party” or “dance”, a term that evolved from the Afro-Caribbean style of dance music of the same name. But mention the word to Singaporeans and they are likely to identify with the term differently.

In a small yet cosmopolitan country where entertainment and dining venues depart as quickly as they arrive, the Zouk in Singapore celebrated its 27th anniversary in May this year. The nightclub’s milestone makes it about half the “age” of Singapore when the city state celebrates 53 years of independence on Aug 9.

The nightclub first opened along the Singapore River in 1991. After a quarter-century of operating at the present-day Jiak Kim Street, the entertainment icon was sold by its founder Lincoln Cheng to Genting Hong Kong upon the expiry of its lease in 2015. Andrew Li, vice-president of Genting Hong Kong’s lifestyle and F&B concepts division, took over the reins from Cheng after the acquisition.

Although the high-profile sale was initially unpopular with generations of clubbers in Singapore — who grew up frequenting the original site’s fluorescent-lit tunnel and the cavernous main room awash with Moroccan-inspired mosaic tile patterns — the club was quick to announce its return in late 2016 at Clarke Quay’s The Cannery, which was previously home to rival institutions such as Zirca and Ministry of Sound.

Named after the red tail panda, RedTail Bar boasts a DJ deck and pong table, just to name a few, to liven up your hangout and pre-drink sessions. Image: Colossal Photos

Same yet different

Li made sure that plenty was done to ensure that Zouk fans and loyalists would still feel at home. For one, the custom-made Gary Stewart speakers, which have been with the club for the past 12 years, were brought over to the main Zouk dance floor and continue to be recalibrated on a yearly basis. The neo-industrial aesthetics of the club’s main hall, meanwhile, are thanks to Independent Consultants founder Phillip Connor, the man behind the former Jiak Kim Street building’s whitewashed Caribbean aesthetics.

While Zouk 2.0 retains several crowd favourites such as retro-themed Mambo Jambo nights on Wednesdays and the club’s experimental hip-hop/R&B component, Phuture, certain elements closely associated with the Jiak Kim venue are forever lost in history.

Instead of spaces like pre-club watering hole Wine Bar and the more age-exclusive Velvet Underground, up sprang concepts such as RedTail Bar by Zouk, and Capital. The former is a social gaming bar concept targeting millennials, and the latter, a luxurious lounge-club space by design studio Charnley Stadworth.

When asked about the constant comparisons drawn between the former Wine Bar as a spot for pre-party drinks and RedTail Bar with its “the drama before the party” slogan, Li admits that the concepts from “the Jiak Kim days” are irreplaceable.

“I don’t think you’ll ever really replace Wine Bar. It had its unique place in the Jiak Kim days, but there are a few concepts that we want to revamp [going forward]. For example, people always say Capital is the new Velvet because it has an age limit of 25, but I don’t think you can ever replace Velvet. I think they’re just different things that were conceptualised to meet different demographics and the customers that we have,” says the CEO of Zouk Group in an interview with Options.

Li is a picture of easy-going confidence, speaking volubly as he leans comfortably into the sofa we are sharing. Upon confirming there would be no dress code for the photo shoot, the London-born Hongkonger has chosen to don a white ZoukOut event tee under his blazer. My guess is that it has pretty much to do with the fact that the upcoming edition of ZoukOut Singapore is set to differ greatly from that of previous years.

Zouk recently announced that the annual dance music festival will be held a week earlier than usual on Dec 1. And, for the first time in a long while since its debut in 2000, it will be held over one night only instead of two for, in Li’s words, “a more compressed experience”. He says it is also likely that future editions of ZoukOut could extend beyond Siloso Beach and even Singapore.

One example of such a concept is Tomorrowland’s “Tomorrowland Unite” project, which features live-streamed performances of the dance music festival at various venues around the world. In the case of Zouk, Li is considering staging regional pocket events, such as pre-ZoukOut parties held at selected clubs in the region, to boost brand awareness and also provide a more inclusive experience.

“Everything is still a work in progress… But we are definitely taking steps to [turn] Zouk into a lifestyle institution instead of just a nightlife institution. The Zouk experience itself can be very different wherever we go; it just needs to be one where people have a very positive outcome from it,” he remarks.

ZoukOut Singapore returns to Siloso Beach in its 18th edition on Dec 1. Image: Colossal Photos

From Singapore to the world

At past noon, we are nursing bottles of Fiji water in the brightly lit, empty Capital on the second floor — a rare and rather bizarre sight for frequent patrons who have only visited the space for its whisky bar and glamorous themed parties.

Even as a relatively new concept, Capital is still undergoing transformative works. The private whisky room is being converted into a speakeasy, exclusive to selected club members and guests, explains Li, who expects it to be launched in a couple of months. “We brought on a senior bartender to create a more bespoke experience and guests will be able to try hard-to-get tequilas, bourbons and whiskeys here. It’s going to be very personal yet educational,” he divulges.

The reopening of Zouk Singapore at Clarke Quay was only the first of several projects undertaken by the new management team headed by Li. In what he describes as a “natural progression” after the acquisition, Zouk clubs were brought aboard Genting Hong Kong’s Dream Cruises line, namely the Genting Dream and World Dream vessels, in 2016. A lineup of customised, millennial-focused projects under the Zouk brand are also currently in the works for the first of Dream Cruises’ Global-class newbuilds, for which construction commenced in March this year.

Later in 2018, the brand is set to launch its Genting complex in Malaysia that will comprise, among others, its very first restaurant. This follows the success of another RedTail Bar by Zouk outlet, which opened its doors at Resorts World Genting in January. “We might open a Zouk restaurant in Singapore as well; it’s only a matter of time. But for now, we are mainly using Genting as a test bed to try out the concepts,” says Li.

His vision does not end at Genting and Singapore. For the longer term, the group is exploring development opportunities at close to 100,000 sq ft of real estate in Las Vegas, where Li hopes to launch a nightclub by 2022 — and possibly even a hotel to complete the entire portfolio of Zouk-branded entertainment, F&B and hospitality offerings.

At its new home at Clarke Quay, Zouk Singapore offers three thematic bars, three VIP pods, a solid DJ console against a glowing LED backdrop and a dance floor. Image: Colossal Photos

Where the heart is

A career in the nightlife industry has taught Li to be more selective while imbibing, especially in situations where he has to do “work drinking”. While he claims to have had the ability to “pretty much drink everything” in his 20s, he now avoids mixing spirits or binge drinking to stay on top of his game the next day. Personally, he enjoys the occasional glass of Bordeaux wine and whenever he is at Zouk, Don Julio 1942 Tequila as a shot or on the rocks.

At just 35 years old, Li already has a handful of C-suite years under his belt, his last role prior to Genting Hong Kong being chief operating officer of Privé Group in Hong Kong. But make no mistake — this high-flyer has definitely earned his stripes, having worked his way up since his days as a room service waiter at COMO Metropolitan London before enrolling into a management trainee programme at Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong.

Li’s colourful job history includes bartending in Bangkok and teaching archery as a sports instructor for Club Med in Phuket. He also studied Chinese in Beijing for a period of time — although he claims his fluency in Mandarin, Cantonese and Thai are quite rusty at the -moment from the lack of practice — and holds a Bachelor of Applied Science majoring in Psychology from Durham University. He moved to Singapore in March last year after spending his first two years at the company shuttling between Singapore and Hong Kong, where he resided.

Beyond his hours at the Zouk office and visiting the nightclub, usually over weekends, he also somehow manages to train eight to nine hours a week as an ironman triathlon competitor. Li shares that his next competition will be at the Ironman 70.3 Asia-Pacific Championship held this month in Cebu, Philippines. It will mark his fifth triathlon race to date. And as if all that was not enough, Li also finds time to cook about four times a week — a hobby that he finds “de-stressing”. He also tries to sleep at least seven hours each night.

One of the first big life decisions Li made after moving in to his River Valley apartment, where he lives alone, was to become a first-time dog owner. “I named her ChiZouk, which sounds like chizu (“cheese” in Japanese), and I love eating cheese.” he says fondly of his furkid, a Maltese breed. “I’ve never had so much joy as having a pet. She’s also the official mascot of Zouk. I’ve always wanted a dog but didn’t have one in Hong Kong because there was no space for it.”

After spending years of his life travelling and working in various countries and cities, it seems Li is happy to remain in Singapore for the long term. In fact, he has just applied for permanent residency status here.

“I’ve actually settled in very quickly in Singapore. People say it’s hot here, but I don’t mind that. I can’t be happier living here. They say it’s the number one expat country to live in and I totally agree. It’s amazing,” marvels Li, who waxes lyrical about everything from the city state’s infrastructure and space planning, to its living standards and culture of automation.

Needless to say, Singapore’s nightlife culture is also particularly endearing to him for the very fact that it is practically synonymous with Zouk.

“Whenever I’m clubbing in the US or Hong Kong, people talk about it as something that happened at one time and one place, unlike in Singapore where it’s actually part of growing up… People I [have] met in Singapore would talk about Zouk [then at Jiak Kim] and tell me they had their first clubbing experience, or met their first girlfriend or wife there. That, for me, is something very special. It [proves] the fact that the brand itself actually went above and beyond just ‘clubbing’ and instead became part of people’s lives as they transitioned from their teenage years to adulthood.”

And whether it is Las Vegas or the high seas, no matter how far Genting Hong Kong plans to take the brand expansion, Li believes Zouk will always remain a uniquely Singaporean brand. “The concepts may be different now, but Singapore is really where the brand grew up. And it’s a magical experience that all started here.”

Among several notable features of Capital is an illuminated ceiling by Tetsuya Toshima