Rarely associated with the hip crowd, things are starting to change for Little India.
Tue, Jun 28, 2011
The Business Times
By Melissa Lwee-Ramsay
THERE is something brewing in the air around Little India. And no, it's not just the scent of steaming hot cups of masala chai tea that we're talking about.
|Is Little India the new lifestyle hub?|
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Things in the ethnic enclave, it seems, are starting to change, thanks no doubt, to an influx of hip and chic lifestyle businesses that have started to pop up in the area.
From bars and restaurants to hotels, they are helping to infuse new flavours into an area that was once better known only for its curries, spices and saris.
Just take the cocktail bar Barkode for instance that is due to open its doors in Dunlop Street within the next month.
To most people, Little India would not be one's first choice of location for an upscale cocktail bar and yet, its founders chose it ahead of other arguably more straightforward choices such as Dempsey village or Rochester Park.
'We chose Little India because we love the energy there,' explains Barkode's director of operations Diego Cedeno.
'It has an edge of difference and is not commercially developed like other parts of Singapore. We wanted Barkode to be a cocktail bar which is 'found' or 'discovered' so a place like Little India is suitable as we would be different in comparison to our surrounding area.'
Barkode joins a growing number of unlikely lifestyle businesses that over the past two years have slowly helped to breathe new life into the area.
Spicing up the mix
This includes the hugely popular two year-old Zsofi Tapas Bar at Dunlop Street, a posh wine shop/showroom Booze Wine Shop (111 Jalan Besar) and two cool boutique hotels in the form of mOOn@23Dickson and Wanderlust along Dickson Road.
Little India is also home to two Western-styled cooking schools: Expat Kitchen (9 Norris Road) that teaches healthy, low-fat cooking and Paisley and Cream, a novelty cake baking school that is located at 2 Veerasamy Road.
According to industry players, Little India has slowly but surely been mushrooming into a lifestyle hub, inspiring more people to head there to look for non-traditional Little India offerings.
'Several years ago Little India was a consolidated area of shophouses partaking in various trades, and in the recent years, it has transformed into a wide heritage of cafes, hostels and boutique hotels, drawing charm from the existing culture,' observes mOOn's managing director Billy Ong who felt that Little India was a cultural and interesting location that accentuates the 'mOOn experience'.
'Travellers' profile to Little India has changed greatly as well, and this includes a strong influx of Europeans of all ages.'
Savills' senior director Sulian Tan-Wijaya agrees: 'Little India has been developing organically as a lifestyle hub for quite a few years.
'The fact that many of the lifestyle players chose to operate in Little India is because they see its potential as a quaint destination which attracts many young tourists and locals.'
There are, of course, other reasons why lifestyle operators are keen to move there.
Apart from affordable rental, most of the newer tenants interviewed point out that Little India has cleaned up both in terms of general cleanliness and in terms of the kind of businesses that can be found there.
Zsofi's managing director Janice Tan for instance pointed out that in the time that Zsofi has been in existence, the number of massage parlours had decreased dramatically 'which gives an indication of how the area is changing,' she says.
In fact, one only needs to look at the swanky new wing of Mustafa Centre to know that Little India has moved with the times.
A modern-looking glass and steel fixture, the seven-storey building boasts a rooftop garden and restaurant complete with a huge glass dome and water features. The aim: to capture a whole new market of shoppers with its new charms.
'I feel that this is a new era for Mustafa,' says the building's maintenance manager Shamim Ahmad who reveals that buildings opposite Mustafa are no longer run-down and falling apart.
'We are bringing in many new things including branded items and garments to attract the younger generation. The new building is nicer and our rooftop restaurant will be an attraction. I think the new wing will help to make Little India more popular with Singaporeans.'
Ultimately however, it is the untouched character of Little India that has captured the hearts of the various lifestyle operators who have chosen to open shop there.
Hotelier Loh Lik Peng for one, had been attracted to the area's authenticity and raw energy for a long time before deciding to open Wanderlust there last year.
'I had been looking to do something in Little India for a long time as I've always felt that it's one of the most exciting parts of Singapore,' says Mr Loh who also runs the New Majestic Hotel at Bukit Pasoh Road.
'The pure energy of the place, with the vegetable sellers, the trinket seller and the smells from the spices, it's just so vibrant and I knew that the kind of guests that choose to stay at our hotels would appreciate this sort of environment.'
Indeed, as founder of Paisley and Cream Puja Pawa points out: 'Most of this area is still untouched. Apart from Tekka Mall that is now The Verge, Little India is all still shophouses, the way it has always been.'
Little India's ability to blend old-world with new-world says SMU's associate professor of marketing (practice) Seshan Ramaswami, is what makes it stand out from other enclaves in Singapore, while still being within a short commuting distance of City Centre.
'It makes a nice setting for 'hang-out' type places such as bars, restaurants, spas, tattoo parlours etc, especially for the visiting budget Western expat traveller, but also perhaps to the alternative crowd among the young and old in Singapore itself,' he says.
'This old-world and unique charm makes that entire area of much greater interest to certain kinds of tourists from the Western world - the young, the backpackers, the ones looking for the exotic (and) the path less travelled.'
Indeed, says Ms Pawa, people's perception of the area is no longer as it was before.
'Two years ago, when I first moved here, it was difficult getting students to come here. There were quite a few who were either reluctant or didn't know how to find the place,' she says. 'Now, everyone knows how to find my school and there is a growing appreciation for the area, I feel.'
It perhaps explains why even the most unlikely of businesses can thrive in Little India today.
Just ask Mr Loh whose French bistro Cocotte in Wanderlust is doing roaring trade.
'When I first told people that I was going to open a French Bistro at Wanderlust, everyone thought I was nuts,' he laughs in recollection. 'But Cocotte has been doing extremely well and 90 per cent of our customers are Singaporeans.'
Adds Mr Emil Teo, executive director of Taste of Tradition that runs Booze Wine Shop: 'We used to sell by appointment only, and the showroom and wine shop were designed for our professional clients. With apartments nearby, people were buying homeware and bike accessories in this area - they came initially to check us out and now they come by regularly to pick up wines.'
But lest we think that Little India will become the next Ann Siang Hill or Dempsey Village, the industry players there say, think again. While many of the current tenants are obviously keen that the area will flourish, they believe - and hope - that the growth will be organic and not become gentrified overnight.
'I think that Little India is mushrooming into a lifestyle destination but it will be done in Little India fashion - by different independent, creative, small businesses in order for it to retain its haphazard charm,' says Zsofi's Ms Tan.
Indeed, as Ms Tan-Wijaya points out, it takes a particular kind of business to survive in Little India.
'It really depends on who the business is targeting and how it complements the existing shops and restaurants,' she says.
'For example its not likely you will find a high street fashion brand there, but a small authentic French bistro would fit in nicely.'
Wanderlust's Mr Loh is on the same page.
'For the moment, Little India already has quite a good niche for itself by catering to the more intrepid travellers,' concludes Mr Loh
'Parts of it will gentrify and more F&B operations will move in. That's clear to me. But I can't see it turning into a Chinatown or Ann Siang Hill. I don't think that a really mainstream business like Starbucks for instance will ever be a part of Little India.'
This article was first published in The Business Times.