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Welcome to the New Majestic, a hotel unlike any others.
By Yeoh Siew Hoon ~ SHY Ventures
Thursday, 23rd March 2006
 
I've never been a big fan of design hotels, says Yeoh Siew Hoon.

I mean, I love looking at them and I appreciate them, but I don't much like staying in them. It's like going into someone's house which looks more like an art gallery than a home. You never quite feel comfortable for fear you might mess things up.

But like everyone else, I was curious to see what Singapore's latest design boutique hotel was all about. It's not yet fully open yet the New Majestic Hotel (picture) has got everyone talking.

It's easy to understand why.

First, the hotel is the baby of baby-face lawyer-turned-hotelier Loh Lik Peng, who is an easy guy to like.

The media describes him as "a shy but accommodating bachelor". Last year, the 34-year-old won Singapore Tourism Board's New Tourism Entrepreneur Of The Year award for his work on Hotel 1929, Singapore's first hip budget hotel.

He has an easy-going manner which puts people at ease. You also know underneath that easy demeanour is smarts and shrewdness, which you'd like to know more about.

Secondly, the 30-room hotel is located on Bukit Pasoh Road, which used to be called Mistress Street on account of the fact that wealthy Chinese merchants of yore used to house their extra-marital nymphs here.

Thirdly, the hotel is unlike any in town or indeed any I've ever seen.

Let me tell you a little about Loh because his story is worth knowing.

He knows nothing about the hotel business. He was born in Dublin to Singaporean parents practising there, he studied law in the UK and returned to Singapore in 1997 to seek opportunities in "the Asia decade".

"In the mid-90s, everyone was talking about the Asia decade and we all came back with big dreams."

Then the financial bubble burst and he found himself having to deal with clients who had lost their money. "It was so depressing that I decided to try something different."

The opportunity came when the site of Hotel 1929 on Keong Saik Road, also in the red light district of Chinatown, came up for sale. "It was very cheap (S$3.4 million) and I decided I'd do a hip budget hotel. It was experimental."

Loh spent about S$1 million transforming the hotel. "I was inspired by a few hotels I had seen in London, Amsterdam and Barcelona and there was none in Singapore. I came into it with no preconceived notions, it was based on my own desires."

He then got a professional operator to run the hotel. "I don't know how to run a hotel so best to leave it to people who do," he said.

Hotel 1929 opened in February 2003, in the middle of the SARS period when a little known bug threatened to decimate the tourism industry in Asia. Today, it runs about 90 percent occupancy on an average rate of S$120.

The secret to Hotel 1929's success? Loh puts it down to "the right timing".

"It was a new entrant. If it had opened now, it would have made less of an impact. Let's face it – a glass toilet was news then. Now, no one would raise an eyebrow. But it was cutting edge in Singapore at the time and the market was ready for it."

So his formula is – get them in, get them talking, give them a good time and good value, and get them to return.

Well, he's certainly got them talking with The New Majestic, which leads me to the second part of my story. Loh bought the site of the old Majestic Hotel for about S$7 million and spent S$3 million transforming the conservation shophouses into his new baby.

The lobby is all white floor and glass. You look up and you see what looks like an unfinished ceiling. "When we scraped away the layers, we found the original ceiling and we decided to keep it," said Loh. "You either hate it or love it."

I neither hate it or love it, but I appreciate it for the statement it's trying to make.

Loh is very clear about the statement he wants to make. He makes no bones about the fact that he built it for himself. "I looked at me as the customer. It'd be difficult if I had 1,000 rooms but with 30 rooms, we had the licence to go wild."

He is not kidding – the New Majestic screams creativity and individuality. It feels like you're walking through an art gallery where each section brings with it something new and different.

First there's the swimming pool (picture left). The 10m-long pool has has three glass portholes in its floor, and as this is also the ceiling of the Majestic Restaurant, swimmers can look at diners and vice versa.

Then, there are the rooms which are all different.

The Mirror Room is completely covered with mirrors. I'd be frightened of sleeping there – alone. I can imagine a good time to be had though by many or perhaps a playful twosome.

The Hanging Bed room (picture right) where murals form the bed-head of a classic four-poster bed will make you feel like you're suspended in space.

Then there's the Aquarium Room where a glass-encased central bathtub sits in the middle of the room – I can see plenty of frothsome frolicking going on here.

The Loft Room is split in two levels and you get to bed by a very steep and narrow staircase.

Every room has one signature item – big cast-iron bathtubs. "I know Asians don't usually take baths but when I was studying in Ireland, baths were a luxury and I wanted to make sure I had the nicest baths," said Loh.

Then there are five concept rooms, all individually named and designed by local creative designers.

"Fluid" by fashion designer Wykidd Song of Song+Kelly21 is all about space, swirls and simplicity – I liked this room best.

Work" by graphic designer Theseus Chan uses all plywood and is supposed to redefine "living in a box" – it felt a tad too boxy and claustrophic for me.

I'd be able to indulge my starlet dreams and pretend I was a star in "The Dream of the Red Chamber" in "Wayang", by film and theatre director Glenn Goei.

"Untitled" by furniture designer Patrick Chia is heavy on cement and would make me feel very anonymous – it is supposed to celebrate modern class European design.

Then there's the totally over-the-top "The Pussy Parlour" by fashion show producer Daniel Boey with fuschia and turquoise accents, French chandeliers, a brass bed, neon lights and mirrors. This is a room made for partying, not sleeping and I wouldn't mind messing up this room.

The rooms are spacious. Reducing the original 50 rooms to 30 means the average room size is about 40 sqm. I like the garden suites best – you can soak in the bath in the outdoors.

You wash with toiletries from Kiehl's and you luxuriate on bedding from Ploh.

With New Majestic, Loh is playing in a higher league than Hotel 1929. Rooms are priced between US$150 and US$250.

He is pitching the hotel at the design-conscious crowd. He is also unabashed about aiming for the pink dollar. For two years, Hotel 1929 sponsored the Gay Nation party which has since moved to Thailand after Singapore authorities declined its licence.

You can tell that Loh's having a ball with his new project. "I must say that I never thought I'd be in the hotel business. But I am glad I came back during the downturn. If there had been an upswing, I would not have left the law."

He finds the hotel business much more rewarding than law. "With law, you're always fixing someone else's problems. This is more creative, more tangible. It's your work. You build it, you can touch and feel it and people react."

He is quick to dismiss the suggestion that he built the New Majestic for his own ego. "I wouldn't call it a vanity project. I have to work to pay the bills and the bank."

He is also taking it one project at a time. "I have no over-arching vision. I would like to do something in Bangkok or Shanghai but only if the right opportunity comes along. You got to go bottom fishing. Then the Return On Investment is easier to achieve. Turning a profit is not difficult, it's the ROI that's a challenge."

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