What defines the Straits Clan? Aun Koh, Wee Teng Wen and their founding members tell us
Utter the word 'clan' and an image of old-school Singapore crops up, along with snapshots of early immigrants lining up in black-and-white photographs. Associations that were formed to provide support and kinship to new immigrants who were arriving in search of a better fortune, clans assisted members in assimilating to life in early 1800s Singapore. The open call criteria? Either share the same surname, hail from the same region or work in the same trade.
Elsewhere in the United Kingdom, social status-driven private members' clubs started gaining momentum around the same time. Reserved for the upper middle class and typically restricted to men, these spaces became a second home for the aristocratic set to unwind and became a gauge of their trade, social or political identity.
But in the current climate where you'd pat yourself on the back for being inclusive, a considerable shift has occured in the private members' club scene. Keeping up with the times, the sheer number and type of private clubs that have sprouted around the world have made membership more egalitarian. Up until two years ago, the private members club scene in Singapore had long been characterised by facility-led country clubs. Enter a new breed of independent private clubs, which focus around networking and content programming that promises to breathe new life.
The first of them was Madison Rooms, which opened in the Freemasons' Hall in mid-2016. Last November, 1880 pitched their flag onto Nanson Road, sharing a building with InterContinental Singapore Robertson Quay. The newest entry, Straits Clan, takes the place of the former New Majestic Hotel in a historic conservation building along Bukit Pasoh Road, an address that was and still is home to many original clan associations.
Aiming to forge a community based on the common interest of creating positive change in the world, Straits Clan envisions itself as a place to work, chill, network and play through a distinctly Singaporean lens. Spanning over 22,000 square feet, Straits Clan is home to three dining concepts, The Dining Room, The Clan Café — the latter being the only space within the club open to the public and the Bar & Courtyard, serving elevated Singaporean comfort classics. There is also a reflexology-focused spa run by Sole Service, a gym conceptualised by Ritual, an informal work space (The Reading Lounge) and a host of swish entertainment rooms outfitted with karaoke, DJ consoles and arcade games. Finally, there's the Attic, an intimate event space that is set to host much of the club's regular and assorted event programming.
Anchored around a dynamic roster of inspirational leaders, thought leaders, community connectors and iconic musicians, some of the events at Straits Clan in March include sharing sessions with molecular biologist-turned-Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard (described as the happiest person in the world) and New York restaurateur and hospitality leader, Danny Meyer.
Lending credibility to the project are the Straits Clans co-founders. There's Sally Sim, who has over 20 years of experience in the hospitality industry and a background in private members' clubs; Aun Koh, co-founder of The Ate Group with an extensive background in media, arts and community development as well as Wee Teng Wen, co-founder of hospitality company The Lo & Behold Group — they're behind some of Singapore's most tasteful establishments including the award-winning Warehouse Hotel and Michelin-starred restaurant, Odette.
To get an insight into Straits Clan's ambitions and how it plans to differentiate itself, we chat with co-founders Wee and Koh, as well as founding members Jiezhen Wu and Jane Binks on why they chose to sign up.
Why did you decide to open a members club at this point in time?
Aun Koh: Teng, myself, and our other co-founder Sally Sim had been talking about building a community space that promoted the interaction of thought leaders and change makers. It was an opportune time when Loh Lik Peng offered us to take over the historic New Majestic Hotel building as the home of Straits Clan.
Wee Teng Wen: In 2015, the co-founders aligned around a shared vision of creating a private members club that sought to challenge what a members' club should stand for. The notion of a members' club is currently Western-centric, modelled after clubs found in Europe or the USA. We wanted to create a club that represented our part of the world, and how we live, work and play. Ultimately, Straits Clan tells a distinct Singaporean story.
What do you think really sets Straits Clan apart?
Wee: The community we will be creating is diverse and represents different industries across Singapore. This in itself makes Straits Clan very distinct. The programming and the design, and in many ways how we approach the club, are done through a Singaporean lens. For example, we thought about how people in this part of the world like to enjoy their leisure. To that end, we created KTV rooms, while our spa is focused on foot reflexology — both are part and parcel of how people lead their lives here.
It is also about the community we are building. If we are successful in bringing people together who are passionate and curious about different ideas, the content we provide in the form of speakers, performances or workshops will serve as a further catalyst to bring them together. As hospitality operators, we also feel like we are able to deliver a new form of hospitality that is rooted in forming deep and personal relationships with each member. We hope the club will be an extension of people's lives and homes, and thus, we have consciously introduced features like our wine concierge, which is spearheaded by Yeo Xi Yang, who was the head sommelier at The Black Swan, and previously Les Amis.
Koh: The most important differentiator between Straits Clan and the more traditional clubs that have been in Singapore is our community. It is a community of individuals who want to venture outside their social circles or professions, and forge natural, meaningful bonds with each other. We serve as the catalyst by creating an environment where people will feel at ease to strike up a conversation with each other. Expect interesting individuals such as Vijay Mudaliar, owner of Native bar; singer-songwriter Inch Chua; film director Boo Junfeng; and even F&B owner-operators Howard Lo and Lim Hui Nan.
What kind of programming can members expect?
Koh: Our main restaurant, The Dining Room, is a modern Asian surf-and-turf concept, focused on the beautiful, restrained preparation of food grounded in familiar flavours. These restaurants are spearheaded by chefs David Thien and Jeremy Nguee. We also have an arcade in the club with Space Invaders, Mario Bros., Street Fighter 2, other '90s-era arcade games and ping pong, which taps into the sense of nostalgia we have today. We're talking to personal development coaches to create workshops to help our members' mental and physical wellness and looking at events that showcase local performers, as well as talks about policies and social issues.
How do you decide on who should be a member?
Wee: We have a membership committee who are all leaders in their respective fields, and their task has been to bring together a community of founding members for the club. We are looking out for change-makers who are passionate about driving change in their respective industries, to apply for membership.
Koh: The members always go through our membership committee. This is to ensure that we are able to create the environment where people from different walks of life are able to connect with each other in one space. It is all about creating a club that is relevant through generations, across a broad spectrum of industries.
What have been the biggest challenges so far?
Wee: We are trying to create a concept that is still, in many ways, untested and new. To approve that end, we faced a lot of regulatory challenges. We had to get the authorities to understand and approve what we're trying to create. But the biggest challenge was working with the space to ensure that we're doing something that truly does justice to the beautiful building.
Koh: There were several challenges. One was fleshing out the business model. Fortunately, Sally, our co-founder, had experience in private clubs in order to help us understand how they worked. Secondly, it was a challenge to get various government approvals to move ahead with this, especially as we are in a heritage-listed building. Thirdly, it was an opportunity, rather than a challenge, for Teng and I to seek financial investment support from like-minded entrepreneurs who believed in Straits Clan as much as we did.
What is your long term goal for Straits Clan?
Wee: We hope that this club spans across generations, and that there will always be a rejuvenation of leading people and ideas that happen under the roof of Straits Clan, in order to add value to the landscape in Singapore.
Koh: Through a variety of factors coming together — from the facilities and offerings in the club, to the programming we have planned — we hope to create a safe space for new ideas to be conceived and even for businesses to be born. We also hope that in the long run, we can create other clans in other exciting cities in the region.
Are you affiliated to any other clubs around the world?
Koh: We are constantly working on developing relationships with other clubs and we expect this list to grow. Currently, we are affiliated to clubs and co-working spaces such as The Stack in Cape Town, South Africa; The Spoke Club in Toronto, Canada; Wingtip Club in San Francisco, California; Saint James Club in Paris, France; and Candela Nuevo in Melbourne, Australia.
What do you have to say to people who think that Singapore is too small for members club and that everyone already knows everybody?
Koh: Early on in our membership process, one of our committee members told me that she had run the idea of Straits Clan past a business associate. The response shocked her. He said, "Why should I join a club like that? I already know everyone worth knowing in this country." That shocked her and equally shocked me. I consider myself a pretty social person but I am well aware that I only know a fraction of our population, among those thousands of interesting persons.
In fact, what has been especially rewarding has been the emails from people who had heard about Straits Clan that were completely outside of mine or my colleagues' radars. I've always tried to take the time to meet these people and so many of them have been inspiring and talented, and leaders in their own fields.
"You can never know every interesting person in a society. That kind of thinking is the antithesis of what we're trying to accomplish."
Why did you decide to join Straits Clan and are you a member of other clubs?
Jiezhen Wu: I joined because of Teng's vision for the club. It's easy to stay in our little bubbles in Singapore, so having a space where a diverse and intentional community could gather is key in helping us expand our perspectives and our ways of seeing the world. I never joined members' clubs of the past as they never appealed to me. I value inclusivity and community — which is why I changed my mind when I learned of the vision of Straits Clan.
Jane Binks: It's really easy to get 'silo'd' in your own groups — only meeting people that share your background, experiences, or point of view. I'm a member of Changi Sailing Club, Corinthian Yacht Club and the Chinese Women's Assocation, but in reality I'm not much of a 'joiner', so it is somewhat of a departure for me to join a club. But the idea behind Straits Clan really resonates.
How do you plan to use the club?
Wu: I plan on coming in once a week. As someone from the social impact sector, it's very easy to get consumed in the work you do because you find so much purpose and meaning in it. We spend a lot of time with our communities and it's hard to find time to breathe. And it's so easy to forget to look after ourselves or to practice self-care. In order to avoid burnout, particularly in this sector, we need to look after ourselves better. I plan on using the space as a way to recharge, take a breather, and get inspired so that I can go back out in the world to do even better work for the community.
Straits Clan opens its doors later this month. To see more of its interiors, look out for an upcoming story focusing on the club's spacial design and influences. For enquiries on membership, click here.