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 old structure suffered a leaking roof, which was removed and replaced to match the existing roof profile and material.

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.

The interiors of Hotel Vagabond are lavish and over-the-top Jacques Garcia at his idiosyncratic best. The ground level has four banyan (ficus or balete) trees, each serving as focal point at the hotel reception area, the restaurant 5th Quarter, Bar Vagabond, and The Vagabond Salon. The choice of the banyan tree, the national tree of India, is Garcia’a tip of the hat to Indian-born Garcha. It took 200 people 18 months to make the four trees.

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.

READ MORE: Hotelier Loh Lik Peng’s fascinating fear and Unlisted collection of hotels

‘Opulent’ and ‘sumptuous’ are such overused adjectives they seem insufficient to describe Garcia’s work. His projects like Costes in Paris, and recently, NoMad in New York, are simply magnificent—Hotel Vagabond is almost kitschy by comparison. What rescues it from vulgarity is the fine craftsmanship in every corner of the establishment. There is nary a nail, etching or termination out of place.
Owner Satinder Garcha has a wildly eclectic taste in art. His collection includes unknowns and street artists peppered with pieces by Michel Platnic, Julia Calfee and Peter Millard.

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.”

Singapore is the new cocktail capital of the world, with a tight-knit community of famous international mixologists who have flocked over to support each other in their craft and inventiveness. The Hong Kong-based Proof and Company, which runs Bar Vagabond, is one such group who could not resist the allure of Singapore’s increasingly neophile but discriminating market.

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.”

READ MORE: Spice trade warehouse adapted into industrial luxe hotel

The men’s and ladies’ rooms do not at all feel like back-of-house, as is the case in many bars and restaurants. The attention to detail is just as impressive, allowing one to enjoy the Vagabond experience undisrupted by discrepancies in quality.

On the way out of the washroom, many a guest has been startled by these three striking oil on canvas self-portraits by Marco Brambilla. They’re not paintings, but a video installation. For the most part, the heads are perfectly still—until they twitch, blink, switch their gaze, or let out a sigh.

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.

READ MORE: The Bayleaf – from rundown building to four-star hotel

Although most of the hotel guestrooms are twice the size of the original shophouse bedrooms, it’s still a tight squeeze because each room now has a small wardrobe, lavatory, toilet, and bath. In the original plan, five rooms shared a communal kitchen and toilet. The spacious room pictured here are another story, however. An attic floor plate was added to the old structure, and the roof bumped up in order to accommodate a suite and mini-suite. No expense was spared in insulation and low-e glass to minimize heat gain.

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.B ender

The layout of the suite and mini suite reflects a growing trend in ensuite bathrooms in hospitality projects–open plans that incorporate the lavatory and bathtub with the bedroom.
Kryptonite or Emerald City? The bottle green glow is from the original glass of the stairwells facing Syed Alwi Street.

BluPrint thanks Grohe for making the visit to Vagabond Hotel in Singapore possible.

This article was first published in BluPrint Volume 1 2016. Edits were made for BluPrint online.

Photographed by Ed Simon

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