DEAR PENG, you're born in Ireland to Singaporean parents. While the family returns to Singapore during your childhood, you spend most of your formative years living in Dublin, where you attend boarding school. You find the city interesting and love it, despite the cold, wet weather. After you do your National Service in Singapore, you head back to the UK to study law and complete your bar exams, only to return to Singapore again in 1997 to become a corporate litigator. It's not a fun time to be in the country, as it's the tail end of the Asian financial crisis and the country is in a recession.
You spend your days doing a lot of bankruptcy work and find it tough because, in some instances, you're picking through people's broken lives. As a young lawyer, it's a pretty big shock, especially when you've been watching shows like Ally McBeal. You think to yourself, "Wait, this is not what I signed up for." But from this negativity, something unexpected will come. You see a run-down building on Keong Saik Road in a notorious red-light district in Singapore's Chinatown. It's a foreclosed property that was passed in at auction three or four times, probably because it's a former brothel and is in a rough condition.
But you see potential in it — the architecture is great and you find the neighbourhood interesting. Plus, it's going for a song. So you buy it, with plans to rent it out. Unfortunately things don't go according to plan and you soon find no one wants to touch it. You wonder what to do; your idea to take some time off work and turn it into a hotel has legs — go with that. You still have your corporate lawyer job to fall back on if it doesn't take off.
That's how Hotel 1929 is born, and with it comes Unlisted Collection — the umbrella brand that will eventually comprise seven design-led boutique hotel properties and 20 restaurants in Singapore, London, Shanghai and Sydney.
At the moment it's impossible for you to fathom, but believe me when I tell you that, in 2015, you'll be sitting in Sydney in a former pub turned convivial corner bar for international guests and locals alike, chatting to journalists about its conversion into the ambitious Old Clare Hotel development.
It's bound to be loved by locals, just as Hotel 1929 is. That initial project is Singapore's first boutique accommodation offering and garners you huge press attention and a bunch of awards, including the New Tourism Entrepreneur Award from the Singapore Tourism Board. It always cracks you up because it's a small 32-room hotel surrounded by brothels that becomes the city's most fashionable hotel destination.
And that is when you realise your brand's secret to success. You continue to create exciting hotels by going into gritty, nontouristy neighbourhoods — places where locals hang out — and transforming old character-filled buildings with new designs that pay respect to the building's history. It's a formula you replicate in Shanghai and London, and should be something you always follow. The one time you don't is the time you'll fail.
In late 2012, you buy chef Fergus Henderson's Michelinstarred St John Hotel in London's Leicester Square and rebrand it as One Leicester Street. Although the hotel does well, and the restaurant is critically acclaimed, you never truly understand the neighbourhood. Yes, it's a busy spot, but it's in a tourist hub and the people who frequent the area want to eat cheap food. You learn a big lesson from that project — it doesn't matter if your hotel is situated in the busiest place in the world, if it's the wrong crowd, it won't work. Simply put, your brand doesn't suit tourist neighbourhoods.
Stick to those areas you like hanging out in and setting up restaurants you want to eat in — places such as Esquina and Pollen in Singapore, The Commune Social in Shanghai as well as Typing Room in London. And partner with good chefs, such as Jason Atherton and Sebastian Ng.
You start working with Ng in 2002, when he runs your first restaurant, Ember, at Hotel 1929. He's one of Singapore's hottest chefs and his decision to follow you to the Keong Saik Road eatery sets you on a different path — one as a restaurateur. It's a crazy concept, as you're a lawyer, but just go with it. You can always go back to the profession if things don't work out, right?