LE GRAND DAME SINGAPORE’S ADELPHI BUILDING High-End Audio's Grand Emporium
LE GRAND DAME
SINGAPORE’S ADELPHI BUILDING
High-End Audio's Grand Emporium
As a wealthy fin-de-siecle tourist landing in Singapore from Europe or the Americas, you would want to live in the best hotel, where you can attend the best balls and listen to the best Dixieland bands or chamber orchestras in town. There were only three choices; the Raffles, the Hotel De L’Éurope, and the Adelphi.
In the early 21st century, the grand dame has reinvented herself. Ever the attention-seeker but never the dilettante, she manages to retain a reputation for genuine sophistication, still being the go-to place for a high end auditory experience, except now through electronic equipment. Rebuilt from the ashes of that beautiful three-storey hotel, she is today a 999-year commercial leasehold property, and comfortably nestled between the new Supreme Court building, the IT shopping mall Funan Centre to the west and the soon-to-be-opened National Art Gallery to the north.
A directory count of the number of shops in the Adelphi mall reveals (as of New Year’s Eve 2012) a total of 112 - out of which 26 are specialist audio dealers. This works out to around 23% or just over 2 out of 10 shops. This does not sound like much, but because most of the audio shops occupy the most visible (read: most expensive) units encircling a five-storey high atrium, it creates the impression that the Adelphi comprises mainly of purveyors of audio hardware. I am only aware of three other places in the world where audio dealers converge to such an extent in one concentrated area – Hong Kong’s Tim Chi Building (near Dundas Street), a certain street (whose name I cannot recall) in Old Quarter of Hanoi city, and Shenzhen’s Man Sheng Electric City (Hua Qiang Bei Road). Tim Chi however, unlike the others, sells primarily second hand audio equipment.
Our esteemed publisher Clement Perry visited the Adelphi in 2001 while covering the Singapore International Sound and Sight Exhibition and still has fond memories of the place. You can read about his escapades here (here). Since his visit, we felt it would be a great and opportune time to look back at the fascinating history of this old lady and look forward to what we can expect from her as we plunge headlong into the second decade of this second millennium.
Most texts agree that the Adelphi Hotel started operations in 1863 quite possibly in Commercial Square located in modern-day Raffles Place. Unable to accommodate the growth in business, she moved at least three times after that, first to High Street, then to No.3 Coleman Street, the official residence of Singapore’s first-trained architect George Drumgoole Coleman, after whom the street was named. She finally settled in a permanent location at Nos 1 and 2 Coleman Street, where she stayed until she was torn down in 1973, almost 110 years after she first started receiving paying guests.
One particular story of the old hotel that stands out for me - which to my mind represents the spirit and stoicism of this grand dame – comes from a Kiwi couple of Nobby and Annie Clark, who experienced the first wave of Japanese bombing of the “impregnable fortress”, before Singapore island finally fell 8 days later on 15th February 1942. In Annie’s own words:
“Feb. 7th. Shelling and bombing all day, nervous of staying in the bungalows it is on the northern slopes of Fort Canning (Military Headquarters) and will be in line of attack. (Fort Canning was actually not damaged by the Japs.) Stayed all day in the lounge of the Adelphi Hotel where we helped ourselves to food cooked by the Swiss chef, the waiters having fled.”
When the Japanese started to occupy Singapore, General Yamashita, Commander of the armed forces, tried at first to win the hearts of the locals. He did this by annexing the Adelphi Hotel and calling it Nanto Hotel, “Syonanto” or “Southern Island of the Showa Age” being the name given by the Japanese to Singapore during the occupational years. He then met with 400 of Singapore’s community leaders in the Sarkies-built dining hall which could seat that huge number of people, trying his luck at jawbone diplomacy. The Adelphi bore all these indignities with a stiff upper lip that any self-respecting Englishman would be proud to sport.
By the time the old Adelphi Hotel closed its doors on 25 June 1973, Singapore was deep in the throes of the economic pressure cooker syndrome. Many historically significant buildings were demolished in the name of progress, just as Beijing is now tearing down its centuries-old quaint hutongs to build characterless skyscrapers and office buildings. Shorn of her graceful arches and imposing colonnades, the new Adelphi looked horribly drab, but with nary a complaint, the old lady plunged into her new role with renewed vim. She enticed many electronics shops in the nearby Sim Lim Square and Sim Lim Tower to move to the new building, which they did. At the time, “electronics shops” were not exactly synonymous with “good customer service”. The public saw such shops as mere product movers, and that swashbuckling, fly-by-night reputation spread to the fledgling Adelphi electronics mall. It was not an auspicious start.
“We did not want to be associated with this kind of reputation,” says Ryan Ng, partner of X-Audio located outside the Adelphi in another part of Singapore. “We looked at some units [in Adelphi] but finally decided to open up elsewhere.” That was almost ten years ago. Thankfully, the devil-may-care attitude seems largely a thing of the past. The specialist audio shops are now professionally run, with proper demo set-ups and an orientation towards serving customer’s needs.
“We believe customer relationships are the most important,” declares Ron Ong, proprietor of long-standing Coherent Audio located on the fourth floor of the Adelphi. “Someone may come in and listen to the same system five times, then decide to buy something else. We are happy for him, that he found something he wanted. We don’t look at it as having lost a sale. We see it as having gained a friend.”
This kind of consumer-oriented selling seems to permeate the rest of the Adelphi. It is a welcome change from the old days where a customer basically walked into a shop, asked for something, paid and left with the goods. To be sure, there are still shops in Adelphi (and elsewhere in Singapore) that still consider themselves “traders” as opposed to ambassadors of an audio brand. Traders are gradually finding themselves in the minority, which is good news for the Singaporean audio consumer.
“It is good to have many brands under one roof,” according to Ryan Ng. “When someone comes to Singapore, he knows he can go to Adelphi and see and hear many different equipment. That gives him a lot of choice.” And choice, or the freedom to exercise it, forces dealers to differentiate themselves primarily in the way they treat their customers. There is, of course, still an element of competition involved, despite shops selling their own particular brands. By and large, though, the competition appears healthy. Some shops even manage to cross-sell. A shopowner (who shall remain anonymous) admitted that being located in such close proximity, shops occasionally buy products from one another, making smaller margins each, but retaining customer loyalty in the process. In the end, the customer gets what he wants, and the dealers make the sale. Everyone’s happy.
In land-scarce Singapore, the price of rent only seems to go in one direction – skywards. Commercial rents in the prime shopping areas can exceed $15 Singapore dollars (SGD), per square foot (psf). Outside the city, rents are not cheap either. Bukit Timah Plaza, located at one end of Bukit Timah Road - the other end stretches approximately 12 kilometers towards Rochor Road where the aforementioned pair of Sim Lims are found - is already charging $8 SGDs (psf), for a second floor unit. In comparison, and given its excellent location, the Adelphi actually appears to be pretty reasonably priced, at least on the higher floors. The question is – how long will that window of arbitrage last?
Almost in answer to this, a private property management company had recently bought up a number of shop units in the Adelphi. Exactly how many, no one seems to know for certain. Speculation was rife about what the new owner wanted to do. Elsewhere in Singapore, there had been one or two precedents where tenants were intentionally forced out en-masse by a new landowner who raised rents to exorbitant levels. Was this going to be the Adelphi’s fate? Would this mean audio aficionados would need to traipse around the island for their hi-fi? Would this spell the end of the grand old dame’s second lease of life?
Dealers are no wiser than the public, but there seems to be a glimmer of hope. “We know that [the company] recently sold some fourth floor units to private individuals,” Ron Ong confides. To me, the ‘private individual’ transactions spell good news. It indicates that there is no one particular direction in which a single landowner wishes to go, and in turn that means, for the time being at least, the dame will retain her reputation as the island’s specialist audio mall. However, this also means less certainty with regards to the price of top floor leases. My obsession with fourth storey rent is not just a quirk – it is the benchmark for the entire building. Traditionally, the higher floor rents are the cheapest. If they go up, then the law of falling dominoes dictates that rentals down below must go up sequentially. Many dealers, especially those on the ground floor, are anxiously watching the developments with badly-chewed fingernails.
“If prices go up beyond $10 (SGD) per square foot, I may have to reconsider my options, or downsize a bit,” a fourth floor shop owner admits. “Much as I would like to remain in Adelphi for sentimental reasons.” In the end, it’s all about business. It looks likely that the grand dame will lose her attractiveness if owners start overcharging and dealers begin to look elsewhere for alternative digs. Leases for some major shops on the top floor will be expiring in the second or third quarters of 2013, so the next few months will prove crucial.
Matters are not exactly being helped by the well-publicized proliferation since mid-2010 of “health spas” that have sprung up in the basement, some of which have been alleged to offer more than whatever is officially on the menu. Whether their presence affects the image of the old dame remains a matter of controversy. A certain Mr Lim, the owner of an audio shop on the first floor, was reported in the local media as saying that he did not mind their presence nor did they affect his business. “They (the spas) make the centre more lively,” he said. Others demur, claiming that many of them do not have the requisite licenses under Singapore law to carry out medical treatment such as acupunctural massage or chiroprody. Such lack of medical qualifications does not appear to worry audio enthusiasts too much. None of the local audiophiles I spoke to seemed to mind these spas to any extent, many even venture to say that their existence adds some prurient spice to the mix, echoing Lim’s views.
No one knows. But one thing is for sure. Whatever happens to the Adelphi in future, you can be sure she will continue to exude confidence and savoir faire in her own special way. The grand old dame has gone through many glory days, and many tribulations, and has come through unscathed. As 2013 dawns and America narrowly avoids that dreaded fiscal cliff, things in Asia and around the world should begin to look up. And that’s the way that the old dame has always greeted the challenges of life – with a positive, flexible and open-minded attitude. Perhaps we can all learn from her. Audiophiles are nothing if not opinionated, but so as long as we remember the dignity with which the Adelphi weathered and still continues to weather the storms around her, we will all go a long way together. In the process hopefully we will have some fun, learn from one another, and live and let live.
THE ADELPHI TODAY