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From Country Club to Co-Working: Singapore’s Members’ Clubs Enter the 21st Century

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In Singapore, modern and retro co-exist in surprising ways. Giant electronic trees light up the night in fuchsia; metallic durians adorn the waterfront; the Singapore Flyerrevolves amid a high-tech skyline. Yet distressed bumboats still ferry visitors past candy-colored shop houses — and Colonial-era members’ clubs still enforce dress codes more suited to 20th-century St. James’s than the tropics.

It’s a curious world, the land of the traditional Singapore members’ club. Brokers support a flourishing trade in memberships, both private and corporate. Multinationals offer expat executives passage to leafy enclaves like the Tanglin Club (established 1865), the Singapore Cricket Club (founded 1852), or even the Singapore Polo Club (a newcomer as of 1886), for all the world as if the sun never set on the British Empire. But today a new breed of club, catering to the Soho House generation rather than the Brooks’s Club vintage, is springing up — and they come with facilities as diverse as yoga studios, gyms and screening rooms.

Lion City lifestyle veterans Raj Datwani and Alex Chew opened Madison Rooms in 2016 in a former Masonic hall on Coleman Street. “We have a lot of business customers who would use our restaurant, Bacchanalia, for more than just eating,” Datwani says. “We had people who would use it for a meeting space, block out rooms for presentations, use it for events. We feel that any major city needs something like this, and we didn’t understand why Singapore didn’t have one, since the need for a business club was there.”

Madison Rooms has already hosted speakers including tennis icon Martina Navratilova and F1 star Nico Rosberg. With his members spending half their time out of Singapore, Datwani has built relationships with a network of clubs around the world.

“For us, if we opened this five years ago, I think the reaction would have been totally different,” says Datwani, who arrived from New York City in 2010. “Singapore has really become a global city and the expectation of what you get when you come here is very much that of any global city. As people from Singapore have also traveled the world more and more, that expectation continues to grow.”

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Private dining room, 1880 Members Club

It’s undoubtedly true that once-sleepy Singapore has gone through some epic changes over the last few years: The Michelin Guide hit town in 2016, while the city has grown a world-class cocktail scene. International expectations are firmly borne in mind at the new InterContinental Singapore Robertson Quay, a sleek waterfront hotel designed firmly with the 21st-century business traveler in mind — not least in its 24-hour Club InterContinental lounge. The exclusive lounge’s long list of amenities includes daily breakfast, afternoon tea and evening cocktails; complimentary use of The Study, a private room, for one hour per stay; and priority reservations at the hotel’s restaurants.

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Marcello bar, InterContinental Singapore Robertson Quay

Just steps away, Canadian Marc Nicholson has launched his 1880 members club amid 22,000 square-feet of space replete with opulent details like a table carved from a 1.5-ton slab of Madagascan crystal. A 15-year Singapore resident and serial entrepreneur, Nicholson was living in London when Soho House shook up the scene, and initially put his motivation very simply: “I just wanted to hang out with cool people. That was my itch to scratch.”

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Members’ lounge at 1880

Yet delve a little deeper and Nicholson is a man with both vision and mission. In 1982, his parents, David and Diana, started what is today a Montreal institution, Wednesday Night, a reinvention of the 18th-century salon as informal suppers with a theme, bringing together people as diverse as pro-death-penalty politicians and individuals who had been wrongly convicted to converse, inform and perhaps even change minds.

It’s a role Nicholson considers more important than ever as civil discourse, national and international, is increasingly polarized into social media bubbles. “The vision of 1880 is to inspire conversations that change the world,” he says. “We’re keen that we bring together a wonderfully diverse group of people who have a shared interest in making an impact and doing good.”

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Outdoor terrace, 1880

Unusually, the club, which currently has around 360 members, all of whom are personally interviewed before admittance, is centered around the needs of women — and that goes deeper into 1880’s DNA than the cosmetics of a spa and yoga offer. “When you say a club is built for women, it really comes into its own,” Nicholson says. “When my wife travels to Bangkok, she won’t necessarily go to the hotel lobby bar and have a glass of wine by herself, so she’ll wind up in the hotel room FaceTiming her kids and maybe watching a movie.”

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Singapore Milk Punch cocktail, 1880

The right club can change all that. Nicholson sees 1880 appealing particularly to South-East Asia’s myriad nomadic — yet well-heeled — professionals, offering the chance for a seamless segue into a group of like-minded people centered around an activity.

Should the Tanglin Club’s myriad groundskeepers fear redundancy? Most likely not. Since Stamford Raffles first laid the foundations of a modern and more worldly Singapore, the utterly traditional and bracingly new will continue to coexist: tech start-ups in shophouses, bumboats in the shadow of skyscrapers and whatever comes next.

To experience the underground country club scene in Singapore, consider booking Club InterContinental at InterContinental Singapore Robertson Quay to enjoy an exclusive experience, from complimentary afternoon tea, evening cocktails and canapes at the exclusive Club InterContinental lounge, with a dedicated Club InterContinental team and personalised service throughout your stay.

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