It is 3.30am on a Saturday night in 2014 and the main room at Zouk in Jiak Kim Street is packed. The beat to a popular Electronic Dance Music (EDM) track drops and the crowd goes wild as the strobe lights flash. Nights like these were routine for clubbers like me in my early twenties, when we spent weekends downing sour plum shots and traipsing through the club’s interconnected rooms. Like the generations before us, Zouk was where we came of age.
Singapore’s oldest nightclub is the birthplace of the city’s dance music scene, and has hosted some of the world’s biggest names over the last few decades, from trance legend Paul Oakenfold to EDM favourite Hardwell. The former warehouse space was also a hotbed of underground music; in the ’90s, it was the stomping ground for alternative musicians like Grace Jones and esteemed local personalities like the late tabla player M.S. Maniam. “It was an institution where people grew up. It’s seldom that you’ll see a club with a multi-generational purpose,” says Andrew Li, CEO of Zouk Group.
For nearly 25 years, Zouk remained an indomitable nightlife destination. Things were shaken up when it underwent two transformations: The first was its 2015 acquisition by Genting Hong Kong, and the second its 2016 relocation to Clarke Quay after the lease expiry of its Jiak Kim premises. Last year, it was sold to Tulipa, a Malaysian firm owned by Lim Keong Hui, the heir of Genting Hong Kong.
Today, Zouk has ventured far from its roots, attributable to an ongoing nightlife shutdown, and a rapid and recent expansion. The man at the helm has transcended the brand way beyond nightlife to encompass dining and fitness concepts. The 39-year-old Andrew has been leading Zouk Group for six years now, steering the ship through stormy weather, even expanding the group’s reach abroad during the pandemic.
“It took us five years to do what normal companies do in 10 years because we’ve grown so exponentially,” says Andrew. Yet, despite the vision and ambition necessary to drive the Zouk brand, he has never been one to chase career goals.
Born to a Malaysian mother and a Hong Konger father, Andrew is the middle child in the family of three boys. His formative years laid the foundation for leadership. After attending an international school in Hong Kong, he was sent to a boarding school in the UK.
He likens the initiation ceremonies to the stories of bullying in Enid Blyton books. When he became captain of the judo team, he looked out for others. “It allowed the juniors under me to gain self-confidence in themselves and not get picked on.”
After graduating from Durham University, Andrew entered the world of hospitality as a graduate management trainee. At the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, he got a reality check when he worked in the housekeeping department. It sowed the seeds of his management style early on.
“It was impactful as I learnt how everybody is needed to make an ecosystem work. The respect you give people at the bottom should be equal to that for people at the top.”
Later as chief operating officer of Prive Group Hong Kong, he was poached by Genting Hong Kong in 2015. By the end of that year, the opportunity for the Zouk CEO role came up.
A new era
Andrew recalls how he did not want to take media interviews when he first joined: “Lincoln Cheng (Zouk’s founder) is a legend who is known as the godfather of nightlife in Asia. It felt disrespectful to do interviews then because he was a huge figure who took a chance on music and on many DJs when no one knew who they were.”
With time, Andrew forged ahead with Zouk’s new vision that differed from Lincoln’s. He set his sights on optimising the club’s new Clarke Quay home and the opening of American burger chain Five Guys.
These changes were fraught with challenges. Educating the public that Zouk was no longer just a nightlife brand was one; the other was revamping the group’s internal structure. He explains: “It was a family- run company then. Professionalising it with new processes was difficult. I came in as an outsider and had to convince some who had been there for 25 years. It was not easy.”
In the last five years, Zouk has undergone tremendous changes, which Andrew says has been disruptive to staff. The pandemic’s nightlife shutdown only exacerbated the obstacles. “When you used to have 3,000 people in and out of your doors, and now you have just 20 to 30, you can’t sustain the number of staff you used to have.”
Andrew struggled on a personal level with all the restructuring. He recounts how emotional he was about making the difficult decisions and had even threatened to resign, citing how unfair the retrenchments were to staff.
It was his executive coach that changed his perspective: “He asked how my resignation would help those left in the company. I reflected on it and realised that sometimes you have to take the emotion out of these decisions.”
The real Andrew
With such a hectic, high-pressure job, Andrew finds ways to let off steam – and they are neither alcohol- nor nightlife-related.
He runs, spins and cycles, and also meditates every day. If you need further proof of his athletic tenacity, he also participates in Ironman 70.3 competitions, which are long-distance triathlon races.
He applies that same discipline to his nutrition and has been doing intermittent fasting for a few years now – necessary to counter his massive appetite which he satisfies with his own cooking. The self-professed amateur master chef can rattle off a long list of his kitchen experiments, which include fish stews and pastas.
Time and time again, Andrew reminds us that he is not the nightlife head honcho we pictured. “I’m very introverted,” he says, “and being intoxicated helps me be the life of the party.” He estimates that 80 to 90 per cent of his club-going is for work; networking with DJs and big spenders is par for the course.
“There are expectations of what a Zouk CEO should be and you see that on my public Instagram account.” His account, which was verified the day of our interview, features photos of parties and him with celebrities. To separate his personal and professional lives, Andrew also has a private account where he posts about his exercise routines and his dog, Toro.
Whichever Andrew you meet, it’s clear that he prioritises family. While his younger brother is based in Hong Kong along with his parents, his elder brother moved to Singapore at the beginning of 2020 with his wife and children. This is the first time that the two brothers are living in the same country. His mother had recently left after a nearly year-long visit. “Having both my mum and brother in the same country as me was amazing.”
Toro is also repeatedly mentioned in our interview and Andrew calls her the love of his life. The friendly poo-shi (poodle and shiba inu hybrid) with over 700 followers on Instagram delights us all at the photo shoot and visibly softens Andrew’s serious demeanour with her presence.
Looking back, Andrew’s biggest career regret is not rejuvenating ZoukOut early on. He cites Coachella as the perfect balance of art, food and music, with Jakarta’s We The Fest and Genting Highlands’ Good Vibes as regional equivalents. Lamenting how ZoukOut had not evolved, he says the festival should have included live acts.
“Every time we did something, the other festivals would be two steps ahead of us because they had bigger domestic markets. The Ultra Music Festival also cannibalised the scene. These things made ZoukOut a hard concept to make money.”
His dream is to turn the whole of Sentosa into festival grounds, with each beach relegated to a stage, and hotels and Universal Studios Singapore part of the experience.
Into the future
Despite ongoing nightlife restrictions, the group is pushing on and has just launched Japanese speakeasy Here Kitty Kitty and omakase restaurant Sushi Ichizuke. Both are venues for our cover shoot.
At Resorts World Las Vegas, the Zouk Nightclub and its sister outlets are thriving. “It has taken us 30 years but we’ve finally arrived in the West. It’s amazing to see an Asian brand doing well and playing against the big daddies of the entertainment universe.”
Zouk Nightclub opened on a sold-out weekend with A-list headliners while the outdoor Ayu Dayclub kicked off with a star-studded celebration that featured Miley Cyrus. The Zouk Group also operates dining venue Fuhu, RedTail Bar, and a multi-eatery named Famous Foods Street Eats that spotlights Southeast Asian street fare including Singapore hawkers such as Boon Tong Kee and Springleaf Prata Place.
Andrew’s vision for Zouk Group continues to diversify: “Six years ago, we had Jiak Kim, a multi-concept nightlife brand. Now, we are across three continents and are multi-vertical with cocktail bars and fitness concepts. We can no longer consider ourselves just a nightlife brand.”
When I ask how he will preserve the soul of Zouk that is held so close to the heart of its nostalgic fans, he answers: “Ask me what the DNA of Zouk is, and I would always relate it to the sense of community and connection. Nothing is more gratifying than contributing to people’s memories, especially as the world feels upside-down now.”
He adds that clubbing will always traverse generations – even for the Gen-Zs – as he believes everyone has an innate desire for connection. For all the ways the pandemic has accelerated technology and its adoption, cloud clubbing is not one of them. “Live-streaming is no fun. A DJ needs to play off the energy of people in front of him. People want to connect.”
Each of Zouk Group’s outlets across the world aims to deliver that energy and social experience. “Everything that we’ve done is vibe-y, from Sushi Ichizuke which is interactive with pumped-up music, to Five Guys where staff are open to chatting with you. I’m taking that energy and pushing it to Vegas as well.”
With his 39th birthday coming up, Andrew reflects on how his younger self would not have pictured his current life. “I thought I’d be married with kids by now, but if I was, who knows if I would be here? You can’t put a time limit on your life goals.”
He doesn’t see himself leaving the Zouk Group any time soon. “I’ve invested six years of my life in this company and I want to take it to where it can go. I trust in the process.”
FASHION DIRECTION JOHNNY KHOO | ART DIRECTION AUDREY CHAN | PHOTOGRAPHY ALECIA NEO | FASHION STYLING JACQUIE ANG | GROOMING KEITH BRYANT LEE, USING BOY DE CHANEL & SCHWARZKOPF | VIDEOGRAPHERS HYLMAN SUWANDI | VIDEO PRODUCERS CRYSTAL LEE & NAFEESA SAINI | LOCATIONS HERE KITTY KITTY & SUSHI ICHIZUKE
This story first appeared in the Nov 2021 issue of Prestige Singapore.