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Something Wild in Singapore

Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page P08

I'm lounging in an antique barber chair, my feet propped up on the chromed footrest. No haircut is forthcoming, though. While waiting for my turn with the Malay receptionist, I could have plopped down in an Arne Jacobsen "Swan" chair, a Pierre Paulin "Tulip" chair, a Poul Volther "Corona" (whose elliptical back panels, an in-house prospectus explains, "are reminiscent of the time-lapse photographs of solar eclipses") or a tractor seat artistically mounted like a barstool. Andy Warhol would twitter and faint with delight.

And this is just the foyer of Singapore's Hotel 1929, which Fashionista magazine lauded as "a chic boutique hotel in the heart of Chinatown's long-running red-light district [that] has sent fashionistas into a full state of arousal."

At Singapore's funky-chic Hotel 1929, a chair is more than just a chair: It's a work of art. (Hotel 1929)

Mercifully, no such arousal manifests itself in the young blond German with the artfully gelled pompadour and affected faux Cockney accent who's checking in for two weeks. Equally, I may have looked in all the wrong places, but the only red lights I've discovered in squeaky-clean Chinatown were standing guard over pedestrian crossings. (Then again, I live in in-your-face Bangkok.)

But let's not be killjoys. With its art-deco interior designs wired to ultramodern gizmos, Hotel 1929 may be Singapore's second-funkiest tourist attraction, after the airport. Individually styled rooms, though barely the size of ascetics' cells along corridors so narrow two beer-bellied truckers couldn't manage them side by side, were clearly thought up by someone with a wildly unorthodox imagination.

That someone is Loh Lik Peng, a thirtysomething lawyer turned hotelier who acquired his passion for vintage designer chairs with his first specimen at a London market in 1996. Shortly after the Dublin-born Singaporean opened the hotel's photoelectric doors last year, it became a byword for Hotel Cool with globetrotting yuppies, traveling aesthetes and itinerant snobs.

Each of the 32 rooms, no two of which look alike apart from a curious purple undertone, comes with a glass-walled, mosaic-tiled bathroom, miniature in-room washbasin, LCD TV mounted like an oil painting, broadband Internet, clock radio/CD player, air conditioner and mini-fridge, as well as a distinctive Marimekko bedspread and its own collector's chair. And all of this for only $67 (singles) or $78 (doubles) -- bargains in Singapore, where equivalent amounts generally fetch only a dingy guesthouse hole with peeling wallpaper and frayed carpets.

The pricier second-floor suites ($110 single, $122 double) offer more legroom beyond the standard mirror-enhanced spaces, with drawers squeezed under beds and wall hangers standing in for wardrobes. Both suites open onto private roof terraces and boast an antique cast-iron tub bedside, so you can step out of bed and splash right into a bath.

You won't go hungry, either. True to form in the city-state's antiseptic utopia, Restaurant Ember invites guests with glinting silverware and gleaming wineglasses buffed to a mirror-like sheen. Somewhat discomfortingly, to use the little space there is, tables are lined up in a ramrod-straight row. Only a Louis Poulsen lamp or two betrays the subversive in the regimented atmosphere.

That, and a riot of august-sounding dishes: "deep-fried soft-shell crabs with sweet wasabi aioli" and "braised escargots in cognac served with haricot vert and brioche" for appetizers; "pan-seared Chilean sea bass with edamame mash, yuzu and truffle butter sauce" and "slow-roasted lamb loin with sauteed baby spinach, fleur de sel" for mains.

All around Hotel 1929, vintage photographs hark back to 1929, when the first hotel on the premises came into being through the transformation of adjoining two-story shop-residences. In their sepia immortality, coolies with ponytails pull rickshaws, load wagons and puff away in blissful stupor on opium pipes (this in a mini-state where dropping cigarette ash in public now carries a fine equal to nine days' worth of stay at Hotel 1929).

Yet it's those artsy chairs, which no museum would allow you to sully with your behind, that must be the hotel's biggest draw. A whole line of futuristic Verner Panton chairs in the shape of hearts, cones and twisted lemon peels offer your posterior rare aesthetic comfort. Then there's that groovy old barber chair. I'm still waiting for my haircut, though.

-- Tibor Krausz

Hotel 1929 is at 50 Keong Saik Rd. on the outskirts of Chinatown in Singapore. Doubles start at $78 a night. Details: 011-65-6347-1929, www.hotel1929.com.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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