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Shooting The Breeze With Loh Lik Peng

 

 

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Shooting the breeze with Loh Lik Peng
Hotelier, restaurateur and - who knew? - music bar owner

6 December 2015


“We’re meeting with Loh Lik Peng to discuss Hua Bee this Saturday at the residents committee office!” 

Loh Lik Peng turned up for the meeting with residents on time and with openness in his countenance. He had agreed to meet with us to discuss the future of a Tiong Bahru coffeeshop (”kopitiam” in our Singlish* parlance) that he’d just taken over. He assuaged our fears and agreed to keep the old-school façade and even the mee pok aunties (the lady noodle sellers). His plan was to operate a kopitiam by day and Japanese yakitori by night, which is now Hua Bee Restaurant and Bincho rolled into one. 

*A version of English that is proudly Singaporean. 

That was my first encounter with Peng in 2013; I feel quite inner circle now that I’m able to call him Peng. I knew the name - I’d read about his business ventures in hotels and restaurants and, oddly, hadn’t heard anything bad about him. Every businessman gets flack from some quarter of society, no matter how obscure. But, Peng seems to have a clean report card. 

I took an immediate liking to his authenticity. 

We were desperate to save Hua Bee from hipster doom. It was (and remains) a chilled out hangout for taxi drivers, residents and anyone who doesn’t work conventional office hours. There’s magic in being able to sip on one’s coffee at three in the afternoon with one leg hitched up on a stool and an arm resting on one’s knee. The thought of Hua Bee being turned into a cupcake shop or purveyor of $6 lattes gave us anxiety attacks. 

But, Peng didn’t need much convincing. He listened to what we had to say and told us, “Please don’t worry; I’m definitely keeping those wall tiles.”

Hua Bee as it was being renovated. Photo: Carol

Peng’s stable of restaurants and hotels under his Unlisted Collection (ULC) brand are largely situated in heritage and/or conservation areas, whether in Singapore, Shanghai or Sydney. He explains that this focus is driven by much more than mere aesthetics. 

“[It] is very much our brand DNA and it’s because for me, these buildings are the most interesting and have the most character. I love the old buildings for their sense of history and social rootedness in their locations. I like to be part of a community and part of the fabric of a neighbourhood when I situate a hotel and I think having an old building that’s been there for as long as living memory and one that the community recognises as part of the urban landscape helps a lot in that respect.” 

Décor is another distinctive feature of Peng’s establishments, each creating a niche ambience that caters to a mostly eclectic taste. 

Quite eclectic also, is Peng’s taste in music.

Use arrows to view photos of Unlisted Collection businesses.

“I certainly enjoy music and I think my tastes are quite eclectic actually. I like everything from blues and soul to classical and even contemporary popular music. My wife Min Lee is a violinist [Ed: classically trained, no less] so I also get quite a lot of exposure to music at home when she practices. I wouldn’t call myself an audiophile or even fanatical music lover.” 

Truly, a music bar seems to be a deviation from ULC’s portfolio of quirky hotels and celebrity chef restaurants. 

“It was Jeff [Peng’s business partner] who went to Japan where he saw this record bar and suggested we open one. I agreed because this venture was to be all about old-school records. And an analog way of playing music; an analog way of living life.”

And so Longplay came to be. The music is on vinyls only, records that were purchased by Peng and Jeff over a year and a half from dealers and auctions. Numbering about five thousand, the music is of an older generation and spans genres such as blues, early rock ‘n’ roll and R&B. 

Is Longplay a place for both audiophiles and music lovers? 

“We do have a very sophisticated music system so we can and do cater to audiophiles, but really, we also appeal to anyone who just enjoys some music in a relaxing environment with good drinks and food. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. It’s really not about being too stuck up about the music. We want to be fun and relaxed and have good music so you can pop over anytime and have something vintage played over a nice sound system.” 

In keeping with ULC’s ethos of preserving heritage and conservation, Longplay sits snugly in a refurbished shophouse along hipster Haji Lane, amongst tattoo parlours, Taiwanese-styled clothes shops and $6-latte coffeeshops. The bar seems to cater to a crowd with niche tastes comprising mainly the younger working professional. 

“I’m happy with how it’s turned out. It’s a hangout sort of place. People spend three to four hours here enjoying quiet conversation, music and good drinks.” 

Here’s a little plug that I must give: John the bartender makes champion cocktails. 

To have this chat, Peng and I are at Longplay. Quite aside from research for the story, it’s a chance for me to catch up with him and we end up talking about so much more than just his music venture. 

Like so many of us who are no longer teenagers and have long outgrown our 20s, music has taken on more of an ambient nature for Peng. 

“Music now is more of a nostalgic thing for me. Like smells and fragrances. The smell of mud in winter brings me back to rugby fields. Or how the scent of really stale beer and Guinness take me back to the Irish pub. But, music back then – from my time in a boarding school in Ireland and then university - was when life’s incidents were, or seemed to be, so much more consequential.” 

Indeed. There was a song or set of lyrics that would cause us to spiral into interminable anguish. *That* song. About unrequited love; about waiting anxiously for that telephone call; about that painful break-up. 

“I’m less into contemporary music now because not too much of it interests me. I have a less emotional connection with them as I did with U2 or Maria McKee.” 

A fandom for the greatest Irish rock band ever was inevitable given Peng’s many years on the Emerald Isle. He has the privilege of associating himself with people whose first-ever music concert was by U2. He even attended the same school as Adam Clayton. 

“I’ve met Maria McKee, you know? Met her at a house party, oh in 1990, 91.” 

I ask the obvious. 

“No, I didn’t take a picture with her.” 

Ah. But even without a smart phone, I managed to steal a photo with Erasure’s Andy Bell back in the day. Incidentally, I, too, quite like Maria McKee. “Show Me Heaven” pandered to my angst-ridden self in her late teens. Many years on, it was to become a favourite “party for one” tune – bottle of wine, no date for the night and too lazy to go out. 

Like music, revelling in the arts has taken a back seat for Peng. 

“I enjoyed literature and poetry in school. But, as an adult, I’ve hardly given any thought to it. I used to be a voracious reader devouring may be two to three books a week. Now, I’m lucky if I read five books a year! And I read them mostly on planes. I buy books fully intending to read them. Highly recommended by friends, Booker Prize winners…then the books pile up and I get panic attacks every time I look at those piles of books! I feel like I’ve disconnected from a lot of my life. I’m in this hamster wheel.” 

In his parallel universe, Peng would read a book a week, go to plays more often and generally keep up with the arts scene. 

“I’d watch interesting movies rather than just blockbusters.” 

Well said. 

To finish off our chat, I ask Peng to give us his playlist for getting through life. He pauses for a bit and takes a sip of his mocktail from what looks like a mini watering can. 

“In the car, Min always has something by Beethoven or Shostakovich playing and so I go along with that. For long drives, I like having a little vintage dance music on so you might get some Faithless playing. I also like some Lou Reed for relaxing to and some blues music from Muddy Waters and BB King or even some Elvis tracks.”

LINKS

Unlisted Collection
http://www.unlistedcollection.com/

Longplay
http://longplay.sg/

Bincho
http://www.bincho.com.sg/

Hua Bee Restaurant
https://www.facebook.com/WeLoveHuaBee

Text: Carol | Photos: Marc (unless otherwise stated)