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Faces Going Places
Kuok Meng Ru
BandLab Technologies CEO & Swee Lee Managing Director
Like all the aspiring Jimi Hendrix-es in Singapore, Kuok Meng Ru bought his first guitar from Swee Lee.
"My mother took me to the Aljunied location at Sims Drive and I picked a Fender Highway 1 Stratocaster, a very affordable Made-in-the-USA guitar which I still own today," shares the 29-year-old, who is the third child of agribusiness tycoon Kuok Khoon Hong.
In 2012, three years after graduating from Cambridge University, the younger Kuok acquired Swee Lee - established in 1946 in Singapore as a family business - and as its managing director transformed it into one of South-east Asia's largest music retailers and distributors.
The company now has 13 stores in Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar and Vietnam; and its new flagship at The Star Vista is three times the size of the its previous outlet.
While Swee Lee used to be the place to visit when you needed a new set of strings, the flagship is positioning itself as a one-stop store for musicians and a must-visit for music lovers.
You will still find plenty of branded guitars and amplifiers for sale; but with the popularity of Electronic Dance Music, it also stocks DJ equipment for those who want to be the next Steve Aoki.
For serious musicians, they can customise their own six-string in a by-appointment-only VIP room.
Even if you don't play any instrument, the flagship offers a range of vinyls, music accessories and lifestyle apparel to keep shoppers occupied; and the store houses a cafe called Swee Lee Social Club.
Lessons are also offered in the expanded on-site Swee Lee Academy which has five teaching rooms.
Mr Kuok says music has always been a big part of his life so turning it into a business came almost naturally for him after his father advised him to only follow his passion.
He is also chief executive officer of BandLab Technologies, a cloud platform where musicians create music, then collaborate and engage with each other across the globe. The company crossed a million users earlier this year and doubled that figure in the last couple of weeks. It also acquired a 49 per cent stake in Rolling Stone from the magazine's parent company, Wenner Media, last year.
With both BandLab and Swee Lee Music Academy, Mr Kuok is seeing a new generation of homegrown musicians emerging and the days of parents signing their kids up only for piano lessons has become a thing of the past.
He shares: "We are witnessing different stages of creativity (through) BandLab... and today, it's not so much about picking piano or guitar (as the first musical instrument you master) but more about whether you want to learn classical, acoustic or electric guitar."
Principal at Kite Studio Architecture
Architect Khairudin Saharom is ending 2017 on a high. He made it to the Urban Redevelopment Authority's '20 Under 45' list, which recognises 20 architects under the age of 45 who have contributed towards "shaping a distinctive and highly liveable city." There were 56 architects vying for the top spots.
Earlier in the year, he launched Chrysanthemum by Kite, a 10-piece Asian-inspired series of furniture that includes tables, lights and beds. The furniture collection was a logical move, since he had already been designing pieces for his clients. It's a natural progression for an architect, he says, "to make the designs of both the building and the accessories come together."
Come April 2018, he will launch a second line of furniture, which will include day beds, and furniture for cats. "Cat beds and litter boxes tend to look ugly, and I want to make them look more beautiful," says the animal lover.
He is also currently in talks with manufacturers to produce Chrysanthemum on a larger scale, instead of being limited to Kite's clients.
"The furniture industry is rather saturated, so it needs to be tried and tested first," says Mr Khairudin, who hopes to open his own furniture store in three to four years.
In the meantime, the firm is keeping busy with building private residences that are "lean, mean and honest," says Mr Khairudin. By that, he means that the design of a home is stripped down to its core, not necessarily built with expensive materials, and every angle designed with a purpose. "The house could be slanted in a way, to maximise on the views," he cites an example.
Mr Khairudin declines to reveal too much about his ongoing projects, but he is particularly excited about one residence which he says is "an evolution of the courtyard."
Next year, the firm will also see the completion of its first mixed-use development project in Rangoon Road, a seven storey-building, for commercial and residential purposes.
And if you think Mr Khairudin looks familiar, you're most likely to have seen him on TV, as a presenter.
Next year, he will be on the small screen, hosting several shows on Channel News Asia Channel 5.
Entertainment and architecture, he says, complement each other.
"Sometimes, I just have to get away from the office, and hosting a show helps refresh and clear my mind," he says.
"Being in entertainment has made me more confident, which is crucial for inspiring my clients."
Tay Suan Chiang
See Mr Khairudin's works at the '20 Under 45' exhibition at The URA Centre Atrium, 45 Maxwell Road, which runs till Jan 31, 2018.
Luke Heng is one of the most promising young abstractionists to emerge in recent years. From canvases to wall sculptures, his works are contrapuntal geographies of austerity and sensuality, minimalist landscapes interrupted by sharp dissonances.
Heng's latest show at Pearl Lam Galleries in Gillman Barracks sees the 30-year-old artist expanding his practice talent/skill/mastery to include installations and standing sculptures. Like his previous solo outings, the show displays Heng's sure sense of minimalist aesthetics tampered by a dash of the odd and unexpected.
Heng says: "I like this sense of uncertainty which makes us vulnerable… It exists even when we could be doing familiar things in familiar environments. "
Since Heng graduated from Lasalle College of the Arts with a degree in fine arts, his works have been warmly received by collectors. At his first solo show at FOST Gallery in 2015, nearly every work was sold. This was followed by a successful show at Galerie Isabelle Gounod in Paris in 2016.
The current show sees the artist taking greater risks, such as those found in a wax sculpture fitted on standalone steel platform. Heng says neither the beeswax nor the untreated steel is expected to retain their shape or shine - the wax will probably droop over time, while the metal will gather rust.
"But that's deliberate. The work is exploring time and impermanence. And while their decay will likely be slow and gradual, it will be visible and inescapable."
Heng lectures part-time at his alma mater Lasalle College of the Arts. He says his exploration of the impermanence of life grew after the death of his grandmother last year. As a Catholic, it led him to contemplate the possibilities of a world beyond the here and now.
Heng says: "Increasingly, I respond to the idea of liminality and transience, the idea of the things changing from one state to another." For now, though, Heng's star is most certainly on the rise.
Luke Heng's solo show at Pearl Lam Galleries at Gillman Barracks runs from now till Feb 28, 2018.
Creative director at Laank
"A nice surprise", is how Cherin Tan would describe her design firm Laank's performance this year. It's a bit of an understatement given its performance at the recent Interior Design Confederation Singapore's Design Excellence Awards 2017.
First, it bagged two gold awards for its design of restaurant National Kitchen by Violet Oon - the AkzoNobel Colour Award, and another for Best F&B Design in Asia Pacific for spaces less than 2,000 sq ft.
The boutique-sized firm was also named Emerging ID Firm of the Year. Not bad, considering it's the first time the five-year-old firm has ever taken part in a competition.
As its creative director, Ms Tan says that she has always acknowledged her firm's good work, and "the awards are a boost of encouragement to the team."
Besides restaurants, Ms Tan also designs retail spaces, such as the largest Melissa shoe store in the world at Raffles City, and private homes. She doesn't have a signature look, but tackles each project with a view to telling the story of the brand. "A design that provides solutions is essential," she says.
An example is optical store O+, for which she created a bespoke look taken from the material that the homegrown company uses to make their eyewear frames, such as resin. The store's panelling gets a turtle-shell finish, with flexible display shelves that allow them to display more or fewer items as needed. The attention to detail continues to the mirrors placed at strategic spots, so that the staff can see a distant corner of the store without having to be physically there.
"Our style is not tied to trends, so it is not important to have a signature look," says Ms Tan. "But clients appreciate the meticulous design that goes into it."
Ms Tan, who has a degree in interior architecture from Curtin University, never intended to start her own firm. She had previously worked with WOW Architects and Asylum, and was planning to take a sabbatical. However, the freelance work started coming in and when that grew, she ended up starting her own firm, "so that I could do things my way."
In the works include the completion of an office for a design agency, that Ms Tan says will have quirky elements that are "grown up and yet fun."
She is also excited about an aesthetic clinic which she describes as "loud and vibrant, and nothing you'd expect of such a space."
And there is more. Ms Tan hopes to go into furniture design on a more massive scale, designing chairs, vessels, lighting and rugs. She already does bespoke pieces for clients, but wants to expand on the collection.
2018 looks set to be another busy year, leaving her no time for her sabbatical. "I have to shelve that idea, and take two weeks off at the end of every year instead."
Tay Suan Chiang
For someone who has been on the forefront of street fashion for about two decades, Earn Chen pretty much resists trends and prefers to forge his own creative path.
The result is an empire of cool that includes burger and cocktail diner-bar Potato Head, old school hip hop club Cherry Discotheque, and his own clothing label and e-commerce platform The Salvages.
But since earlier this year, he has relocated to Los Angeles. "Singapore has gotten too comfortable for me and I don't like that," says the 45-year-old, who is also currently helping influential youth culture and streetwear website Hypebeast rebrand in his role as its creative adviser. "I eat and breathe culture... A lot of people in Singapore are just copying and pasting from the West but I don't want to do that."
Like every local parent, his father initially wanted him to be a doctor but Mr Chen dropped out of school instead. Thankfully the former recognised his offspring's creative streaks from the fashion sketches he dabbled in, and supported his son.
Mr Chen's first foray into retail was in 1997 when he distributed then-unknown Australian messenger bag brand Crumpler in Singapore. Just before the turn of the new millennium, he set up multi-label store Ambush at Far East Plaza, where he used to hang out and breakdance when he was younger. The shop introduced cult brands like Recon and Invisible Man, and was so popular he established another retail store, Surrender, four years later.
By 2013, Mr Chen had expanded his retail business to Shanghai and Jakarta. But he grew tired of it and sold his stakes to co-owner D'League, which distributes high-end watch brand Richard Mille in Asia.
"I'm always looking for the next thing to do because once I've done something after awhile, it bores me," admits Mr Chen, who says he is fine with walking away from the brands and businesses he has built. "It's no different from taking care of a child and letting (him or her) grow up (on his or her own)... I just feel the need to move on."
Before relocating to the City of Angels, he lent his creative vision to Potato Head and Cherry Discotheque and now he is focused on taking The Salvages "to the next level".
The brand produces limited edition apparel - often emblazoned with images of classic rock bands Mr Chen is a fan of - and is carried in Dover Street Market stores worldwide. A recent oversized t-shirt featured a close-up shot of the late Kurt Cobain, frontman of Seattle grunge legend Nirvana, shot by local photographer Jacque Chong when the band came to Singapore in the mid-nineties for a promotional visit.
On its e-commerce website, The Salvages also carries a range of used "museum-quality" fashion collectibles: think along the lines of a 1968 Rolex Paul Newman Daytona and Helmut Lang trucker jacket circa 1996, some of which belong to Mr Chen himself.
He says the name itself is a reaction to the current trend of fast fashion which gets disposed of quickly, so he is 'salvaging' worthy items of clothing and giving them the same treatment and value as classic cars.
"It's my pet project and my creative outlet that is free from any sort of corporate interference because I run it independently and it's what I love," Mr Chen quips. "It has caught on and become a business again which made me a little depressed initially but I've since come to take it in a good way."
Native cocktail bar
A Guide to Toxic Plants of Singapore may not be everyone's idea of a page-turner but for Vijay Mudaliar, owner and head bartender at year-old cocktail bar Native, it's more of a must-read (and self-preservation tool) than any tome on how to mix the perfect martini.
Mudaliar's commitment to the use of local and regionally foraged ingredients in Native's drinks menu is not a ploy to differentiate himself - it's also part of a mission to promote local craftsmen, involving everything from ceramic ware, candles and chocolates to music, furniture and the batik-themed uniforms worn by Native employees.
That dedication has made Native a required stop on any bar-hopping tour of Singapore, winning a slew of awards and landing the Amoy Street bar a spot (Number 47) on the latest World's 50 Best Bars list.
Early on in his Native career, Mr Mudaliar would sample random plants he found on his forays through nature. Some leaves and flowers would induce a rash or difficulty in breathing - so he realised that having a handy reference guide would be a good idea.
In addition to raw materials such as wild sorrel, betel leaves, cinnamon, nutmeg, pink jasmine and yes, weaver ants, Native's backbar is stocked with craft spirits and exotic labels that aren't found in ordinary bars, such as Kampot pepper rum from Cambodian distillery Samai, Chalong Bay rum from Phuket and dry gin from Indian brand Hapusa.
"We don't do classic cocktails," says Mr Mudaliar, 28, who honed his skills at bars like The Library and Operation Dagger. "For the first part of my career I made so-called quality drinks using rums from the Caribbean and bourbons from the US but I reached a point where I asked myself, 'What can I do and where do I go from here?' There was a huge divide because I had never been to these places - I wanted to catch up with my roots."
That philosophy, akin to the farm-to-table dining concept, has been termed grass-to-glass cocktail making. Mr Mudaliar broadened it to include local potters, carpenters, artists and musicians. "It's the idea of Native as a platform for local craftsmen," he says. "For instance, we have a curated playlist of 600 songs that is 85 percent local."
What he's doing is making an impact. Up to 150 people might visit the bar on a busy night, asking for the signature drink Antz - featuring Thai rum, aged sugarcane, coconut yoghurt and salt-baked tapioca, topped off with a garnish of ants and basil meringue in a frozen basil leaf.
"When we started it was more about using the exotic produce but now it's about using simple local and regional ingredients like calamansi and gula melaka."
Mr Mudaliar and a few childhood buddies chipped in their savings to go Native. "As a young bartender I dreamed of having my own bar," he says. "Now I'm living my dream but we still have so much to learn - the more I do this, the more I realise I don't know anything."
52A Amoy Street, Singapore 069878. Tel: +65 8869 6520. Open Mondays to Saturdays 6pm to midnight www.tribenative.com
Sebastian Sim is what you might call a late bloomer. The author was 49 when he received his first mark of literary recognition. His first English novel, Let's Give It Up For Gimme Lao!, was shortlisted for the 2015 inaugural Epigram Book Prize and immediately attracted public attention for its incisive and humorous look at Singapore society. Although it didn't win the top prize, the novel received strong reviews from critics and the online community.
Then came his second novel, The Riot Act, set to be published early next year. Based on the Little India riots that took place in 2013, the book clinched the top prize at the third Epigram Book Fiction Prize awards ceremony last month, catapulting Mr Sim into the limelight once again.
By now, Mr Sim is 51 - hardly the age where publishers would think of hyping him as an exciting new voice. But that may be exactly what he is.
The Riot Act looks at the fateful incident when angry mobs attacked a bus after the fatal accident of a worker from India. Mr Sim is not as interested in what's been published and discussed as what hasn't been discussed - namely, the deep social undercurrents that converged on that fateful night.
He says: "There've always been cracks in the system. And what we witnessed were simmering tensions reaching a boiling point."
The novel is told from the perspectives of three Singaporeans: a young social media influencer capitalising on the event to draw eyeballs to her sites, an opportunistic Member of Parliament using it to further her career, and a student who was injured during the riot and turned into a patsy by the government and advocacy groups.
Mr Sim says: "I'm always interested in looking at the society as a whole. It's the reason why I have taken on a wide spectrum of jobs, from a bartender to a prisons officer to a croupier - to understand people."
Mr Sim was an academic achiever in his school days at River Valley High School and Hwa Chong Junior College. But despite being accepted by National University of Singapore, he decided to forgo his place at the university and travel the world instead.
"To me, success isn't measured by your car, condominium or cash. It's about your life experiences and the people you befriend. It's about your understanding of society, humanity and life."
The Riot Act is set to be published in the first half of 2018.
Mike Ho found himself in the news spotlight recently when he was identified as one of the new players in the currently feverish en bloc sales market. Together with his friends, the 40-something had acquired Jervois Green condominium for S$52.9 million. Although his day job is as the scion of one of Singapore's oldest and most successful restaurant-owning families, Mr Ho is looking beyond family traditions to pursue his real estate ambitions.
"I'm passionate about property investment and architecture, and the chance meeting of the right partners convinced me to push ahead with what I've always wanted to do," says the third-generation owner of Spring Court restaurant, which was opened in 1929 by his grandfather.
The investment streak was sparked off in the early 2000s, when he and his family were looking for new premises for the restaurant. He learned first hand the reality that businesses are always at the mercy of the landlord, with rentals taking up a big chunk of operational costs.
The family bought over the premises where the present Spring Court sits, but in the process, it also whetted his appetite for property. He began to invest in shophouses and even began re-developing landed property. "I am always on the lookout for ways to add value and improve on investment yield," he says.
His entrepreneurial streak surfaced early in his life, even before Spring Court came into the picture. After graduating with an MBA from the University of Dubuque, "I was involved in the running of a manufacturing and trading business in Hong Kong for about three years," he recalls. "In the mid 90s, my parents called and I returned from Hong Kong, but even then I started a couple of coffee bars selling cappuccinos and mochas."
Eventually, his mother talked him into joining the family business. "She asked me to help her out; after all, Spring Court has had a long history in Singapore since opening in 1929." This year Spring Court celebrated its 88th anniversary, and remains one of the grand doyens of traditional Chinese gastronomy in Singapore.
He sees his role at the restaurant as chiefly to assemble the best possible team for the job, incentivise it, and keep the momentum of business surging. "We are in the midst of consolidating our business direction; focusing on dishes that have made a name at Spring Court, doing them even better, and maintaining our culinary legacy." But there are 'exciting' patches too, namely those that come hand-in-hand with being a family business.
"Like any business, there are disagreements between partners. In this case, my partner is my mother," Mr Ho grins. "But we have learnt to agree to disagree - she disagrees and I learn to agree with her! But she is an amazing woman. Her commitment and persistence are what inspire me."
But increasingly, his interests veer towards his new entrepreneurial life; he maintains a positive outlook on the Singapore property market. Despite the sluggish market and weak economic outlook, Singapore can still be considered a safe bet, he reckons. That's because despite the global market volatility as a result of Brexit, political unrest in the Middle East, and the continued deterioration in the oil and gas industry, Singapore is fairly protected due to the strength of its dollar.
"While our neighbouring countries may enjoy faster and higher investment returns," Mr Ho elaborates, "Singapore has strong fundamentals including political stability, market transparency and also a sound track record of long-term capital appreciation."
It's clear that he's only just getting started; and this latest en-bloc deal is definitely not the last we'll hear of him. "We are continually looking around for potential land deals, not only in Singapore but in other countries too."