ONE REBEL’S CAUSE: LOH LIK PENG, UNLISTED COLLECTION
Loh Lik Peng laughs when I ask if there is a ‘Loh Lik Peng way’ that takes precedence when working on new ventures (the hotelier and restaurateur’s Unlisted Collection now boasting seven boutique hotels and 20 restaurants across four famous cities); ‘no,’ he tells me, ‘the approach has to be different because the end product is different’. I can’t help but be sceptical of Peng’s humility. The ex-lawyer has played a big role in Jason Atherton’s rise from Gordon Ramsay executive chef to one of the world’s most renowned gastronomic names; his hotels — Singapore’s Hotel 1929, Wanderlust Hotel; Shanghai’s The Waterhouse at South Bund — have been used as blueprints the planet over.
He’s right though, each end product is different … but, whatever he wants me to believe, perhaps it is in this where we can glean an insight into the elusive ‘Loh Lik Peng way’. For starters, Peng finds it hard to tear himself away from difficult heritage projects: ‘It’s really just a passion, it’s lovely to be able to work with — and preserve — a slice of history. You can never quite recreate the sense of time and age built into these old buildings, and I like that I get to touch and feel history for real. I always try to imagine the stories they have to tell, and the lives they have seen and touched.’
And stories they have; the ex-lawyer’s first venture — Singapore’s Hotel 1929 — opened in 2003 … its former life a brothel, in what was then the city’s red-light district (‘it really was not so fashionable at that time,’ he asserts). Chinatown has become one of the city’s hippest ‘hoods, and Peng has continued to cast his magic touch — making Little India hip with the extravagant design of Wanderlust; giving London’s Bethnal Green its first design hotel in Town Hall Hotel and Apartments.
‘We try to be as local as possible, and we try to ensure our neighbours are proud of having us there,’ Peng begins, when I ask about his fixation with under-developed neighbourhood locations. ‘To me, this is so important — we try to use local designers and artists in all our projects, the locals are the best people to translate the essence of what we’re trying to do. We like to have conversations with our guests, invite them to explore the neighbourhood and witness local life. The authenticity of the experience is something you’ll store away and savour long after you check-out, that’s the key take-away.’
A long-kept secret of central Sydney, Chippendale is the latest local ‘hood set to be transformed by Peng and his team; its art galleries and cool cafés having been joined by The Old Clare Hotel — a key cog in the AUS$2 billion Central Park redevelopment project. A mammoth undertaking, this four-year restoration project is perhaps the entrepreneur’s most complex venture to date.
‘I work opportunistically, so it wasn’t that we set out to open a property in Sydney — Dr. Quek (from Frasers Property [who led the Central Park project], and a family friend) introduced me to the heritage-listed site quite a few years back. We realised that in the area rooms were in short supply, and so the transformation began at the Clare Hotel pub and the Carlton & United Breweries Administration Building to convert them into the 62-room Old Clare Hotel.’
‘We engaged Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects to achieve a distinctive and unique design-led property, constructed with obsessive attention to aesthetics and a focus on retaining as many interesting and original features as possible.’ The attention-to-detail has paid off, the Old Clare an astounding project that is a handsome reward for years of construction headaches.
Of course, the Unlisted Collection man couldn’t stop at leaving Sydney with just a new hotel; restaurants are in Loh Lik Peng’s blood, and the Old Clare project brings with it three notable new openings. With experience as executive sous chef at Noma, Brit Sam Miller’s Silvereye is joined by Automata — led by former Viajante and Momofuku chef Clayton Wells — and, naturally, Jason Atherton’s first foray into Australia: Kensington Street Social.
There is no will to homogenise the Unlisted experience, which is likely why Peng is reluctant to accept my notion of a ‘Loh Lik Peng way’. Collaboration and creativity are key: ‘we try to maintain our values and principles, in that we are still big on partnerships with like-minded people. We leave a lot of creative freedom and autonomy to the experts — from the chefs and the food they bring to the table, to the designers and architects.’
Dave Pynt’s smokey Burnt Ends; Jason Atherton’s Pollen at Singapore’s wild Gardens by the Bay; the Art Deco splendour of London’s Town Hall Hotel; the Old Clare, spanning those two iconic listed buildings; whatever the project, it’s impossible to discount an intangible something that unites them all. When you scratch the surface, though, Peng’s hesitancy to take credit for how everything has fallen into place becomes apparent. If Loh Lik Peng is a rebel, he is a quiet revolutionary.
‘Home-cooked is still the best!’ The Dublin-born family man proudly exclaims when I probe him on his all-time favourite restaurant; ‘I prefer to be at home, playing with the kids, taking them to the park or swimming.’ If you expect a flamboyant visionary behind unconventional properties like Shanghai’s The Waterhouse at South Bund, you’ll be left disappointed.
In a moment that makes me question how much of my past transgressions I really should reveal to strangers, Peng admits the most rebellious thing he’s ever done is leaving the law practice. And on what is next for Unlisted: ‘I think we’re good with where we are now. I’m not looking at anything major in terms of expansion at the moment, I think I’d like to relax this year.’
But I can’t accept that a man with a portfolio like his is a devout conformist, his love of challenging restoration projects is a clear sign of somebody who secretly enjoys cutting against the grain … so I push a little harder: ‘in some ways yes, it’s important to go against the grain. It’s crucial to be original, and to not follow the herd. I don’t consciously try to be rebellious, but I think in any given circumstance I do try and follow the less-travelled path, because they are where the unexpected treasures lie.’
Bashful as he may be to accept it, there is a ‘Loh Lik Peng way’. A dissident maverick? Definitely not. A closet subversive? Perhaps. Loh Lik Peng revels in a challenge, and puts creative freedom at the forefront of each of his projects. He might not think he’s a rebel but, underneath that expensive suit, and childlike smile, there’s a revolutionary busting to get out. And that, is the ‘Loh Lik Peng way’.