Henry Johnstone, Sydney - Australia - on 31/5/12
As part of the Zouk Radio mix series hosted exclusively on Pulse, and to celebrate the Singaporean club's 21 years as one of the dance music industry's most shining success stories, we speak with owner and founder Lincoln Cheng to get a taste of the rich history that is Zouk.
Pulse: What was your intention when you started Zouk back in 1991? What were the clubbing alternatives in Singapore at the time? Lincoln Cheng: I have been going to Ibiza every year since 1985 and from 1987 onwards, the music began to evolve from pop songs to embrace a lot of American underground House music which uses a lot of samples from Pop music. That was the birth of Balearic House. When I came home to Singapore in the late 80’s, there were only hotel discos basically playing only the top 40 hits and there were no proper dance clubs as such. I got so frustrated with the lack of progress in the scene that I decided to open a proper dance club playing music that was up-to-date with this newly created music in the West. That was the birth of Zouk.
Was it difficult acquiring the land on the Singapore River where Zouk is located? Did you have to adhere to any government rules when building the club because of the heritage of the warehouses that stood there? The three old warehouses that currently house Zouk were so dilapidated that the roof had caved in, the brick walls were crumbling and the concrete floor slabs were all broken. We basically saved the four walls by propping them up while we were doing piling work to support a mezzanine floor. We had to build our electric substation to bring power in, underground piping to bring in water and paved the entire Jiak Kim Street to LTA (Land Transport Authority) standards.
The three houses went out for tender during the end of ’89 and we put in a tender with a concept that was most welcomed by the URA (Urban Redevelopment Authority). There were only 2 other tenders beside ours. One was to turn it into a seafood restaurant and the other was to build an antique warehouse. The buildings were under ‘retention’ and not ‘conservation’ status so we had more flexibility whilst doing the renovation, but we tried to adhere to the original structure as much as possible. The roof trusses were built out of wood which had become a lost art by the early 90s. We had to do a lot of research in order to keep the façade of the three warehouses looking exactly like the original ones built in 1919.
What did you base the look and function of the club on? Were there other clubs in the world that influenced you and your ideas for Zouk? I travelled to Ibiza and the coastal countries surrounding the Mediterranean such as Greece and Morocco to study the Moorish architecture that was prevalent since the Moors occupied almost the entire coastal region of southern Europe and northern Africa. I loved the simple curved forms and whitewashed walls which are very easy to build and maintain. Zouk became the first all white club in Singapore and probably Asia instead of the black hi tech modernist architecture that was then used for clubs throughout the region.
What kinds of obstacles did you face in the early years? We had to educate our clubbers to embrace House music. We brought in DJ Alfredo to be our resident DJ for the first month of our opening. Alfredo is well known to be the godfather of Balearic beat and he changed the music in Ibiza in the late 80’s. But during our entire construction period which took 15 months, we took over the Warehouse disco around the corner from Zouk every Saturday night and asked their resident DJs to play house records which I had been collecting over the previous few years. Over this period, I turned the Warehouse from an empty Saturday night to a packed Saturday night. When Zouk opened, the entire Saturday night crowd migrated to Zouk.
I also had partnership problems in the beginning with partners who did not want to take a long term view and preferred a quick return on investment. After a year, I managed to buy them out and gained sole control of Zouk’s music policy.
How long was it before the club began to gain momentum and popularity? Was there a tipping point? The club stayed true to its course and I reinforced our music policy by bringing in a lot of foreign House music to assure our clubbers that our music was already popular in the West and would soon be a big thing in Asia. There was no single tipping point as such but a long process of education.
Was there a music policy you had in mind in the beginning, or were you always looking to cover a variety of genres? House music was all under one genre, House. The sub genres only came later. Our music policy was simply House and even later on when it started to split into various sub genres, we embraced them all as we do up to today.
In 2004 you were named ‘Tourism Entrepreneur of the Year’ by the Singapore Tourism Board, which you said was a “sign that clubbing is accepted by the Government”. Why do you think the government eventually shift its attitude towards clubbing? Was it purely monetary reasons? A lot of relaxation of clubbing regulations were relaxed due to the push of the STB and Zouk. It does make Singapore nightlife more cosmopolitan and besides attracting tourists, it satisfies the needs of our expatriate community and locals who were educated abroad.
Apart from its regular renovations, how has the club changed over the course of its 21-year history? Club culture is never a static thing. It evolves constantly. The renovation and constant upgrade of our sound and light system is our hardware. The constant change in music is the software we introduce to the crowd. We can’t simply play music that is in today, we need to educate the clubbers on what is the next big thing and remaining relevant is our success formula. Let’s not forget we always have to improve on our customer service as that is an essential element of the clubbing and Zouk experience.
Could you name some of your favourite DJs that have played at the club? Any particular nights or sets that stand out in your memory? There are too many good DJs and artistes that I like to name. Many good nights come spontaneously and unexpectedly. Clubbing is a very organic thing and many factors can change the direction of the night’s chemistry.
Zouk is hosting a party at Space in Ibiza this year, which will see DJ B represent the club’s residents overseas. How does it feel to be touring the brand across the globe? We are currently ranked #5 top club in the world and the #1 club in Asia according to the DJ Mag Top 100 Clubs poll. This means Zouk is recognized worldwide after 21 years of brand building. While in Ibiza, our residents don’t just play Space (ranked #1 in the world), we have also been doing exchange parties with Pacha (ranked #3 in the world) since the late 90’s as well as DC-10 (ranked #16).
Do you still get out on the dancefloor much yourself to have a boogie these days? Yes if the music is really good. But I tend to do more dancing overseas where less people know me than in my own club.
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