Look inside the refurbished 1950 shophouse Hotel Vagabond
Loh Lik Peng, Jacques Garcia, and Hotel Vagabond owner Satinder Garcha's collective genius have created an experience designed like no other in Singapore
September 12, 2019
Written by Judith Torres
Photographed by Ed Simon
It’s a red menagerie. There’s the brass rhino reception desk, a monkey in Pharaoh’s robes guarding the bar, and two 9-foot golden elephants book-ending the elevator. The blood-hued walls are studded with the owner’s diverse collection of art and oddities from around the world. Housed in a refurbished 1950 shophouse surrounded by cheap Chinese eateries, Hotel Vagabond is a hot spot for Singapore’s rich, artsy and chichi crowds.
The story of a hotelier-wannabe converting a leaky old shophouse (that had degenerated into a brothel, KTV lounge, and tire shop) into a boutique hotel is interesting but not new. Loh Lik Peng, Singapore’s pioneer of adaptive reuse boutique hotels, has been there and done that, with older (1920s and 1930s), more decrepit structures (flea, termite, and fungus-infested), housing even more nefarious activities (prostitution, thievery and opium consumption), in infinitely more colorful (Chinese criminal syndicate) neighborhoods.
How do you beat that? Well, you assemble an unbeatable team, which includes the hotelier and restaurateur with the golden touch, Mr. Loh Lik Peng himself. You get a French interior designer adored for his lush, grand and opulent style, Jacques Garcia, and you ask him to make your place idiosyncratic, playful and surprising. You partner with a sous chef of Gordon Ramsey, rising star chef Drew Nocente, to handcraft a specialty menu built on charcuterie. You reel in award-winning Proof and Company to design bespoke cocktails and bar bites. You offer something no one else has (at least, in Asia), an artist-in-residence program. Finally, you rely on your discriminating taste and personal expectations of great hospitality, because you are after all Satinder Garcha, one of Singapore’s richest men—a polo-playing, art-collecting, former dot-com start-up success, self-made millionaire, foodie, photography buff and global nomad.
Their collective genius has put together an experience designed like no other in Singapore. At the time BluPrint visited the hotel, the artist in residence was a DJ. In exchange for several weeks’ stay at the Vagabond, he performed several nights and “created some exquisite mixes for the hotel,” says Suzy Goulding, Vagabond’s PR and Communications representative. The hotel will accommodate up to two artists at any given time. “We would love to have artists of different persuasions,” says Goulding, “except perhaps for painters, because for obvious reasons we wouldn’t want paint sloshed around in our beautiful rooms.”
On the ground floor, it is all about interior design. There is nothing to indicate one is in a former shophouse in Singapore. In fact, context is irrelevant. The concept of the gathering spaces in Hotel Vagabond (or Hôtel Vagabond with a silent h and staccato French syllabication) is that of a Parisian salon. The goal is to go on an immersive experience, cossetted and inspired by a film showing, exhibition, musical or dance performance, or a poetry reading—and of course, the great ambiance and F&B. Says Garcha: “We want to introduce guests to forms of art and artistic expression they may not have encountered or experienced before.”
Up on the second and third floors, one sees some evidence of the hotel’s previous incarnation. The doors to guest rooms huddle in clusters of six, instead of neatly spaced along a corridor. If you look out the window of the bathrooms at the rear of the hotel, you can see a concrete spiral staircase—the fire escape of traditional shophouses in Singapore. These tiny rooms are arranged like a U around a shared terrace with outdoor furniture. Step out onto the terrace and be greeted by bright red shutters gaily announcing their heritage.
Where the ground floor is blazing red and gold, the guest rooms are light and cheery, accented with bright, hand-painted wall-coverings. Like downstairs, the upstairs walls are laden with art, vintage doodads, and photographs taken by Garcha. Little brass rhinos graze on writing desks. The bed and bath linen are fabulous. The bath fixtures are the sleekest from Grohe. It’s modern and Old World all at once. It feels you’re staying at a guest cottage of an eccentric, restless bachelor relative who has run out of space for mementos of his travels in his own home. C’est la vie Vagabond.
BluPrint thanks Grohe for making the visit to Vagabond Hotel in Singapore possible.