Everybody has had fights with their landlord,’ says Style:Nordic’s managing director Jonas Ericsson, who has been on Ann Siang Road for four years, renting his shophouse from one of the oldest clans in Singapore. While Ericsson says he has an exceptionally harmonious relationship with his landlord, he claims others have not been so lucky. ‘Front Row has moved and Books Actually has moved around the corner,’ he laments.
As recently as 2007, the Singapore Design Festival touted the Ann Siang Hill and Club Street enclave as one of the city’s ‘urban inspirations’, detailing the design and retail outlets which had sprouted up there.
Festival-goers were encouraged to find independent fashion stores like Front Row, Venue and RedWolves; the Art Seasons gallery; creative agency and retail outlet Asylum; and Scandinavian furniture, clothes and gift store Style:Nordic. According to the site, each business was housed in beautifully restored shophouses forming a ‘design hub’ unlike any other in Singapore.
But thanks to rising rental prices and, in some cases, greedy landlords wanting to tap into the success of the so-called Design Hill, many of these idiosyncratic businesses have recently been forced to move or close down.
BooksActually owners Karen Wai and Kenny Leck wanted to stay in the area because of its creative vibe and the artistic cluster of businesses. In the final moments before renewing their lease at 5 Ann Siang Road, however, discussions turned sour, and they were forced to walk away. ‘There was a sudden 180- degree turn on the negotiated price,’ says Leck. ‘We were in a shophouse with Front Row and both of us were caught out. We were lucky because we could move into another shophouse we had on Club Street…but Front Row had to go.’
Stalwart restaurateurs Philippe Hoyez and Gabriel de Balasy own L’Angelus, Les Bouchons, Le Café des Sports and Le Carillon, and have been in the area for 11 years. They say recent neighbourhood departures are sad and unsettling, but they’ve seen it all before. ‘The story has been like this for years,’ says de Balasy. ‘The rent is raised, the renters move out, the shops are empty. The rental comes down and the shops are full again. It’s the eternal circle of Singapore and it’s been like this since 1998.’
With their successful bars and restaurants on Ann Siang Road and Club Street, Hoyez and de Balasy say they are lucky to work with landlords who are more interested in a long-term relationship than short-term money spinning. ‘Our owners are much more conscious that we take care of the houses, that we bring value to the houses. For them it is very good because they have a steady income,’ de Balasy explains. ‘But we have very often seen the shops here vacant for six months or a year, and even if you call every six months, the rent is always the same…even if you offer a lower price, they won’t take it.’
Despite the constant upheavals in the neighbourhood, Ericsson says the artistic enclave will remain his home for as long as possible. ‘If you are putting up a business, you have to kill your darlings. You have to make sure that your business is feasible. We are doing tremendously well and we love this area. We haven’t been [created] like Clarke Quay; we are not a shopping mall and we weren’t put up by the Government. We are a destination.’ And for now at least, let’s hope it stays that way.