As the founder of The Unlisted Collection, Loh Lik Peng has garnered a worldwide reputation for finding rundown buildings in off-the-radar neighbourhoods and transforming them into luxury hotels and hard to get into restaurants. Take his first venture, a boutique hotel called Hotel 1929, which is situated in a former brothel in Singapore’s red-light district or the neo-bistro he recently opened in Paris in collaboration with culinary whizz André Chiang, which is set in a former lingerie workshop. Both have his ultra cool, super quirky signature style stamped all over them. The first thing Loh looks for when he’s hunting for a project space is a place with a real sense of “localness” to the location. “I love to be in areas where locals hang out and where they play and sleep and shop. I love having locations where mostly you find locals and where the scene is authentic to the city. Unloved heritage buildings in these locations are what really attracts me. I love those hard to do projects in challenging locations.”
It also takes a certain type of guest to discover and enjoy one of Loh’s venues. “I like my guests to have a sense of adventure and wanderlust. I love the traveller who seeks out unusual neighbourhoods and unusual hotels. Hopefully they discover something they like in our hotels. We try to include local people in our hotels and we try to make our hotels and restaurants and guests part of the local scene. These are the types of people we want as our guests.”
Born and raised in Ireland where he went to boarding school and studied as a lawyer, Loh decided to give up his career as a corporate lawyer to become a hotelier and restaurateur when he stumbled upon the site for his very first venue, Hotel 1929, in Singapore’s red-light district. “We opened in 2002-2003 and to be perfectly honest I had no real expectations or plans beyond making sure I didn’t totally lose my pants in the business,” quips Loh.
“I was aware of Keong Saik’s reputation (the district of Singapore) but it didn’t bother me too much as I always thought that the kind of visitors who stayed with us would appreciate the authentic local feel of the neighbourhood. Certainly I didn’t foresee the huge changes since then and the rapid and massive gentrification of the street. I was as astonished as anyone about how rapidly the place changed. It’s simple really, I guess. I managed to follow my passion and somehow made it work. I only gave up my license to practice law recently but in reality once 1929 opened and was successful I never really looked back. I think I have been extraordinarily lucky.”
In 2004, only a year or so after opening, Hotel 1929 received the New Tourism Entrepreneur Award from the Singapore Tourism Board. Since then Loh’s career has spiraled, seeing him open another seven hotels and restaurants in London (Town Hall Hotel and 196 Bishopsgate hotel and Typing Room and Corner Room restaurants) and Shanghai (The Waterhouse at Southbund hotel and The Commune Social and Table No.1 restaurants) as well as a number of new projects in Singapore (Wanderlust Hotel and restaurant Pollen, to name just two).
Most recently, Loh opened a neo-bistro in Paris called Porte 12. In collaboration with André Chiang and headed up by chef Vincent Crépel (who has had experience in the kitchen André’s eponymously named award-winning restaurant ANDRÉ in Singapore, as well as with Philippe Rochat and Benoît Violier of the famous Hotel de Ville Crissier, Switzerland), it is set to become one of the city’s coolest fine dining hotspots.
With a seasonal bistronomy concept at its core, Porte 12’s food is driven by local tastes and traditions with a twist that reflects the background of chefs Vincent and André. For the design, Loh and his team worked with Rare who also designed his London-based project, Town Hall Hotel, which is inspired by the history of the building, in Porte 12’s case, a former a lingerie warehouse. “We always try to work with the building and its character and history and we also try to make sure we fit in with the neighbourhood and local culture,” says Loh. “This means being as local as possible from working with local designers to hiring locals to work in the hotels and restaurants we set up. The character of the hotels and restaurants have to be relevant and familiar to the building and its location. This is what we always try and achieve. As for the food and décor working in unison, we rarely, if ever, make any overt effort to make sure everything gels nicely from a design aesthetic and functionality point of view. We like eclectic and slightly chaotic places because this is how people really live their lives. [There’s] No need to be too ordered and sterile!”
With a love of old heritage buildings and a passion for boutique hotels and restaurants in his DNA, Loh Lik Peng’s Unlisted collection is only set to get bigger and even more desirable for his bon vivant guests.
“I want [our guests] to be happy and entertained and I want them to have a delicious meal. This is the most important thing. We are in the business of entertainment, lifestyle and food, so having a fun environment and good food is the most important thing. Dining out is a social experience and we want to share it with the people we love and we want to have a good time. So long as I can provide these things in abundance I feel I have a good thing going.”
Look out for Loh’s next project, a 62-room hotel and three restaurants opening in Sydney in 2015.