RIP, Zouk at Jiak Kim Street

Ignatius Low
The Straits Times
27 November 2016

It's 10.30pm on a Friday night and I'm in a cab.

Sheena Easton's Almost Over You is playing on the radio as we sweep past Raffles City, then Capitol Theatre.

The traffic is light and the streets are empty, but there's a familiar excitement with the start of a big night out.

How many times have I done this before, I wonder, as the cab makes a left down Clemenceau Avenue towards River Valley.

But tonight is different.

Tonight is the last time I will be taking this route to Zouk at Jiak Kim Street, which is having one of its farewell parties as it moves to new premises, under a new owner, in Clarke Quay.

Of the various parties, I've chosen to attend the one featuring Balearic beats - the sort of music that defined Zouk as a nightspot when it first opened - rather than the more popular Mambo Jambo night featuring 1980s pop hits.

Easton's incredibly sad song is not helping as I think back to all the nights in my life that have started this way.

Waking up from a nap after a long Friday at work. Escaping from the annual Christmas or Chinese New Year Day dinner with relatives. Wondering what to wear. Leaving the car at home.

Tonight, my friends are all on a WhatsApp group. We are chat group DJs, texting each other links to all the great Zouk songs.

Someone drops Robin S' Show Me Love and Rozalla's Everybody's Free (To Feel Good), and my instant response is the K-Klass classic, Rhythm Is A Mystery. There is a silent collective squeal as The Key, The Secret is mentioned.

Our age is showing. Tonight, I have younger colleagues on the chat group who were not yet born when these songs played at the legendary nightspot.

Later, at Zouk Wine Bar, one of them exclaims into the crowd: "OMG, can you all STOP saying 'It's been 20 years' already?"

Tonight, however, there is no malice or irritation. There is no clubbing generation gap. For tonight we have a table and VIP entry.

We get our wrists stamped at the door and walk through the famous Zouk tunnel, this time all lit up in fluorescent blue, into the smoke-filled yonder.

Inside, it is Midnight Madness, one-for-one drinks until midnight. We buy four jugs of the club's famously potent Long Island Iced Tea and start drinking from straws, heads together, two at a time.

And just like that, the last great night out at Zouk begins.

I'm what you would call a Zouk old-timer. I was there when the club opened in 1991.

By then, house music was starting to sweep through Europe and big Mediterranean clubs. The CDs that topped the charts were already selling in stores here but, frustratingly, none of it was being played in our nightspots.

Tired of bopping to songs such as Room At the Top and Simply Irresistible every weekend, some of us flocked to Zouk in search of something new and forward- looking.

There, in an all-white club with real water fountains on the dance floor, we fell in love with what others called "tuneless electronic music with no singing".

Yet the movement gained momentum and we went back week after week for more. How could we not, when international DJs such as Sasha, Paul Oakenfold, David Morales and Roger Sanchez were lining up to play at the club practically every other week?

To me, this is the first of two reasons why the closure of Zouk's original premises at Jiak Kim Street is culturally and nationally significant.

Zouk was a global club way before Singapore ever became a global city.

Depending on who you talk to, some would even say that Zouk was precisely one of the those local institutions that showed Singapore how it could be a global city - by looking beyond narrow parochial interests and a formulaic reliance on the tried and tested.

Within just a few years of its opening, top music magazines such as DJ and Ministry were declaring Zouk among the top five clubs on the planet. In the late 1990s, younger tourists were coming to Singapore partly because they had heard so much about the club.

But these rankings always noted that Zouk's success was more remarkable than the rest on the list because it did not build its popularity on the back of the designer drug wave that had accompanied the rise of house music globally.

This was important because, in a way, it showed critics of a more progressive Singapore that one could open up society more without necessarily losing sight of the nation's identity.

This brings me to the second reason why Zouk at Jiak Kim Street is important in the nation's narrative.

If you think back to some of the greatest clubs and nightspots in the world throughout history, you will find that modern and progressive music always attracted a clientele that was similarly cutting-edge.

New York's Studio 54 was the vanguard of the disco movement in the late 1970s and home to a glittering array of bold and beautiful regulars that included Andy Warhol, Calvin Klein, Grace Jones and other noted fashion designers, writers and artists, models and musicians.

In the 1980s, London's Blitz Club was the birthplace of the New Romantic movement, which spawned seminal bands of the decade, including Spandau Ballet and Culture Club. The club was famous for patrons that tried to outdo each other each weekend with ever more bizarre home-made outfits and wild make-up, presenting a highly androgynous appearance.

I wouldn't dare compare our little home-grown Zouk to either of these legendary clubs, but there is something to be said for how the Singapore club became a natural home here for the alternative set - the flamboyant, the creative and the downright strange.

There seemed to be no rules at Zouk.

Boys danced with boys and girls with girls. In the wee hours of Sunday morning, as the music broke in wave after euphoric wave over the smiling crowd, it never mattered to anyone.

It did not matter how you looked or what you wore. Girls did not need to be in a sexy tube top or have long hair. Buff, muscular men with crew cuts could just as likely be straight or gay.

That person with the bejewelled Michael Jackson white glove every week - who knew who he was? Who cared? And on Halloween nights, all bets were well and truly off.

For a whole generation of us, therefore, Zouk was a beacon of liberalism in morally conservative Singapore. I often wonder what can, or will, succeed it at a time when conservatism in Singapore seems to be deepening.

I did not stay until the last song to find out if it was Boy George's Bow Down Mister or The Farm's All Together Now - two songs that frequently closed the nightly playlists at Zouk. It was way past my bedtime and I am an old-timer after all.

But I stayed long enough to spot Zouk founder Lincoln Cheng on the dance floor and waited patiently for my turn to shake his hand.

Thank you, Lincoln, for all the good times. RIP, Zouk at Jiak Kim Street.

The Straits Times

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