Words with Federico Asaro

People | Written By, NOW!Singapore | May 9th, 2017

Hotelier and restaurateur Federico Asaro has lived in Asia for the past 40 years, working in the diving business before opening a series of restaurants and boutique resorts in Malaysia and Singapore. Under his Samadhi brand, he now oversees four stand-alone restaurants and three resorts, with more expansion into Thailand planned in the near future. Dedicated to converting old and interesting structures into beautiful luxury retreats, inspired by his travels around the region, he has just launched his newest property in Singapore, Villa Samadhi. This 20-room boutique hotel is set in a converted colonial black and white bungalow in Labrador Park, offering a remarkable escape from a traditional city hotel, minutes away from the CBD.  We met up with him for a chat at Tamarind Hill, the group’s popular Thai restaurant, which sits adjacent to the hotel.

Federico Asaro - Belum Rainforest

How did you first discover the Labrador Park Area?
A friend of mine had heard that I was looking for somewhere interesting to develop in Singapore. He knew I was looking for a black and white property and he stumbled on this area. I was based in KL at the time so I came down to take a look; the rest is history.

What is the history of the hotel building?
It was built to house a military garrison in colonial times and then was used as a half-way house for young male offenders for a while but was then pretty much forgotten and left to ruin. While we were rebuilding, I was looking for carpenters, which was very hard, but eventually I found an old Chinese uncle. When he came round, he said that he lived here in the 1950s when he was released from prison. It had been abandoned for a good 20 years – there were trees growing out if it and one side had collapsed. There was no electricity, no water, no nothing. All the utilities had to be put in – even the registered address was wrong so we had to reregister it. It’s possibly one of the only houses in Singapore that had been completely forgotten. The renovation itself took two and a half years but the whole process took much longer as we had to deal with all the separate government agencies that cover the national parks, heritage buildings, construction, etc. It was not a listed building, but after we had submitted all the plans, I think it became one! It’s still not listed but we had to follow all the restrictions usually meant for listed buildings. So this meant it took longer than expected.

Jungle Walkway (II)

How does the hotel differ from its original structure?
The conservation part of the project was not much of a problem because from the start I wanted to restore the outside of the building to its former self. The room partitions, particularly downstairs, are new as there were only two large rooms on the second floor and no rooms downstairs except for the entrance. There was no real ground floor, just the pillars of the structure, so we’ve added eight rooms downstairs and converted the two large rooms upstairs into another eight rooms. The four larger rooms behind used to be the common shower rooms and the house’s main kitchen.

Was it a similar experience renovating Tamarind Hill?
Tamarind Hill took eight months to convert because I had no original plans to work with – they didn’t exist. As it was previously a spa, the tenants had built lots of walls and partitions. So I decided to chip away at the walls and everywhere I found old bricks I left them in tack. If I found new bricks, I knocked them down. I did the same thing with the ceiling, so we now have these great original high ceilings.

Tamarind Hill Singapore (Restaurant Facade Evening)

Where did you source the artwork for the hotel and restaurant?
I have been collecting artifacts and antiques from around Indochina for the past twenty years or so and I display a lot of them in both premises. I like the fabrics used by the hill-tribes along the borders between Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and China. We had a beautiful Buddha statue planned for the lobby of Villa Samadhi but unfortunately we weren’t allowed to export it out of Thailand so it’s now in Chiang Mai awaiting the opening of our project up there.

What were the main challenges of renovating Villa Samadhi?
The biggest challenge here was finding the workmanship to be able to restore the building. Finding craftsmen in Singapore was hard – people don’t really work with old wood here anymore so they don’t have the necessary skills. They don’t carve or chisel so I had to dismantle things, like the louvered windows, and send them to Malaysia. I had to pay tax to get them in, and once the work was done, pay GST to get them back in the country, so it was quite an operation. I also had to go out looking for wood in Malaysia that was the same type and from the same period. So all the wood we used here is from houses that were 60-80 years old. I then had to bring in carpenters from Thailand to help with the assembly and then had to deal with all the quota challenges that exist here. So it wasn’t easy!

Tamarind Hill Singapore (Outdoor Dining Area)

What sort of guests will enjoy staying at the hotel?
Our guests are predominantly travellers, more than tourists. Each one of our properties is different but the experience is the same, so we are very much experience-driven properties. For the first few weeks after we opened we had a lot of local ‘stay-cation’ guests but now we are attracting more international guests, with an average stay of three to four nights. We’re attracting people who are looking for somewhere a bit different to your usual city hotel and true travellers who are looking for more than just a bed for a night. We want to be a base from which to explore not just Singapore but the whole region. From here we do tours into Malaysia – our Travels with Samadhi department offers day trips to Malacca and we have overnight trips to Tioman. We want to give the guests the feeling of being on holiday the moment they arrive in Singapore, which is not always possible in a busy city hotel. It’s so quiet and peaceful here that guests will hopefully treat Singapore as a holiday destination in its own right and not just a stopover on the way to somewhere else. Our villa in KL has a similar feel – even though it’s only a 15-minute walk away from the twin towers, it’s surrounded by jungle in one acre of land. With a large swimming pool and no guestroom under 60 square metres in size, it feels much more like a resort than a city hotel.

How do you find living in Singapore?
It’s nice to be in a country with structure, a clean environment and no safety concerns – a place you can walk down the street and not have to worry about disappearing down a pothole!

Hotel Facade (Day I)

What would you recommend your guests to do while they are in Singapore?
I like the old parts of Singapore like Arab Street and Haji Lane so I’d recommend they explore those areas. I also love the old buildings around Joo Chiat and Katong in the east. I’m also looking forward to visiting Pulau Serangoon (Coney Island) where I believe there’s an old house once used by the family who invented Tiger Balm.

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