Lincoln Cheng: the king of clubs

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Zouk recently turned 21, and Singapore’s one true super-club shows no sign of slowing down. Cherylene Chan asks founder Lincoln Cheng how he did it

First published on 31 May 2012. Updated on 26 Jul 2012.

Brushing past a ripe 21 years of riotous parties – with many a punter stumbling through its glowing tunnel in inebriated glee this year – the only way appears to be up for Singapore’s longest-standing nightclub. Zouk is now ranked the fifth best club in the world on DJ Mag’s recent list, just behind mainstay giants such as Ibiza’s Space and Pacha and Madrid’s Fabrik. With their annual ZoukOut festival attracting over 30,000 punters, and popular club nights both past and present like Mambo Jambo, Bassic and Ready Set Glo, Zouk has constantly sharpened its edge and shipped in big names like Crystal Castles and Above & Beyond. We spoke to founder Lincoln Cheng, now 64, about the super-club’s evolution.

What was the catalyst for opening Zouk?
I’ve always been interested in the clubbing scene – I’ve been going to Ibiza every year since 1985, and it remains an annual trip for me. In ’87, I started to notice how certain Ibiza DJs were successfully mixing underground house music into more commercial music. I knew by then that this music mix was going to explode. I started out by testing this Balearic music at parties in one-off hotel clubs and private parties in Singapore, and eventually decided to venture into opening a club.

Not everyone would be able to see the potential in abandoned warehouses – how did you decide to set up Zouk at its current location?
House music was born in Chicago in ’85 in an abandoned warehouse and that’s why the music is called ‘house’. When I saw the three old dilapidated warehouses in Jiak Kim Street back in ’89, I just fell in love with them because of their size and isolated yet convenient location.

When was the first moment you knew Zouk had made it big and conquered the scene?
It was some time between ’92 and ’93, when I managed to buy out all my non-believing partners and got to the stage where I could do what I always believed in. And as our patrons became a loyal following, I knew that I’d created something unique that had a foothold in Singapore’s entertainment and clubbing scene.

Tell us about Zouk’s current layout and how it’s changed from the original concept.
With Velvet Undergound’s recent renovation, Zouk is now five separate entities capable of catering to all music and age demographics under one roof. This has evolved a lot from our starting point of one main room for dance, an MTV Bar where we were the only place to play MTV videos before Singapore had cable, a Mediterranean restaurant, a deli and a wine bar. For me, it’s always been about providing an unforgettable, unique and all-encompassing nightlife experience.

Do you have a secret formula for Zouk’s success in the past 21 years?
Our formula to success is pleasing our customers – not only giving them what they want, but leading and guiding them to the next era of entertainment. Staying true to what we believe in, yet evolving – always staying relevant and remaining absolutely passionate about what we’re doing. I treat my managers and staff like my own family and reward them well, while listening to feedback to earn their trust and loyalty. Also, we provide the best service in the industry that no competition can match.

How does Zouk stay so cutting edge after all these years, and how are new nights conceptualised?
By having a crack team of marketing, entertainment and operation mangers, as well as staff that remain the envy of the industry. We hold frequent discussion groups to hear customer feedback and act on their needs. My marketing and entertainment team also attend music conferences and festivals around the world to understand what the next wave of trends are.

What has been the most rewarding part of helming Zouk?
Seeing our patrons go home with a smile or hearing rounds of encores at the end of the night. This is a much more accurate gauge than counting the money in the till.

How has the party crowd changed since Zouk first opened?
With the evolution of technology and easy access to information, today’s youth have proven to be much more impatient and have become a generation of instant gratification. Every song must be a rocket and the mix must be instant, with no breakdowns, intros or outros. They’re also much more [free-spending] in buying drinks and they don’t mind a popular, recognisable track being played two or three times so they can sing along.

As a huge fan of music yourself, who are the acts you feel proudest to have brought to Singapore for the first time?
Just to randomly name a few: Björk, Kylie Minogue, Armin van Buuren, Steve Aoki, Justice, Afrojack, Tiësto, David Guetta, Avicii, Luciano, Masters at Work, Danny Tenaglia… The list just goes on.

Following Velvet Underground’s makeover last year, are there any plans to expand or renovate Zouk in the near future?
But of course. We will renovate our outlets one by one this time, instead of a complete shutdown – the next in line is Phuture.

By Cherylene Chan
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