Heightened Alert, club culture in Singapore, and surviving the pandemic: An interview with A Phat Cat Collective

Heightened Alert, club culture in Singapore, and surviving the pandemic: An interview with A Phat Cat Collective

It’s Groundhog Day for clubs and nightlife spots in Singapore, pivoting (yet again) amidst Phase Two Heightened Alert.

Back when Singapore had entered Phase Three in the final days of 2020, and several nightclubs had metamorphosed into food/beverage serving establishments as opposed to their modus operandi as nightlife harbours, it seemed that the return to manic boogieing and club-raving, whilst still on interim freeze, could've been a whiff or two away.

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Relaxation of regulations in May this year also whistled optimism when the audience size of live performances was expanded, albeit with DJ sets still inextricably left out. 'Back to Live' as well as Baybeats further signalled a lingering return, with socially distanced audiences and cautionary management for crowd control. And while nightspots like Zouk are able to rehash their space into aerobic spaces or multi-purpose venues, other establishments have sought to turn their dancefloors into kitchens, bringing in local food operators, curated in-house menus and slinging pretty cocktails to satiate partygoers’ appetites.

All that came crumbling on 14 May, when measures had to be tightened as community infections took a turn for the worse.

Speaking to Joshua Pillai, co-founder at A Phat Cat Collective on their nuance to pivot, and the lingering helplessness of the situation at hand, it seems that the inevitability of the situation behoves adaptability, though the toll it's taking on businesses and the nightlife is disheartening  - something which we touch on during our chat.

Q: Here we are again. What were your first reactions to the abrupt but necessary measures put in place for Heightened Alert?

A: Panic and déjà vu. It has definitely been a big curveball as we had to adjust our seating from 8pax to 5pax groups shortly before that, and with less than 2 days lead time (measures were announced on Friday for implementation on Sunday), we had to quickly contact all guests who had upcoming reservations and make refunds to those who have made deposits. We’re definitely in a stronger position this time around to face the Heightened Alert compared to a year ago, but we had been shut for 9 months in 2020 due to the regulations and we’re still in the midst of getting our footing. We understand how necessary the measures are, but at the same time it was a big blow to the morale.

Q: Pivoting from an entire nightclub operation into one where you’re strictly serving food and drinks is already pretty daunting. Now that that’s gone for the time being, how else are you trying to pivot (again)?

A: We will be doing cocktail and food deliveries and takeaway for both NINETEEN80 and Rails, along with our food partner CHIX Hot Chicken. We had briefly done alcohol delivery last year, so we’re in a better position as we already had some groundwork laid out this time.

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Q: Prior to this, we seemed to be returning to some semblance of a new normalcy. Despite nightclubs not being able to host DJs/parties, guidelines were put in place for live performances, places were populated with footfall, and that feeling of inevitability for nightclubs to reintroduce dancefloors was still faintly on the horizon. How optimistic were you before the updated measures?

A: For us, being able to restart NINETEEN80 and finally open Rails after being delayed for a year was an assuring sign that we could move forward in the new normal, boosted with the community cases being very low for a long time. We were optimistic in pushing for more progressive measures such as a later alcohol curfew to midnight and DJing without a dancefloor, even if it seems as though nightlife and parties as we know it would likely not come back for a long time and would likely be very different from what we knew it to be even if it is able to come back.

Q: And what about now - how optimistic are you for your site, as well as others similar to you, for the next month and beyond?

A: It will be inevitable that business would dip, as a cocktail and food delivery business model would not be able to substitute a fully functioning bar-restaurant business model. Rents and overheads remain the same while we have to keep in mind additional delivery and packaging costs. It’s a big pity but we know that if we can pull through and keep spirits high (in all ways) until we are able to return, we can rock it once again.

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Q: Club culture is rife in Singapore, and we haven’t had the opportunity to break a sweat on the dancefloor for a bit. In your opinion, how detrimental has Covid-19, as well as changing regulations, been for the health of our scene?

A: The reality is that the nightlife scene as we knew it is deteriorating drastically as Covid-19 carries on. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a lot of priority placed on nightlife establishments, and the businesses that find it difficult to pivot are still closed. Whether they can weather on and survive till things get better is uncertain because there’s no end in sight. DJs haven’t been able to work in this line since March last year, and are forced to take up other jobs in a means for survival.

Q: Lastly, what does the next month, as well as after the restrictions lift, look like for your establishment(s)?

A: Hopefully the climate becomes better and restrictions can lift in time, but when we do, we can’t wait to put a smile to everyone’s evenings again with our cocktails, fried chicken burgers and music!

A Phat Cat Collective
are the minds behind NINETEEN80, a retro discotheque-cum-arcade, Rails, a steampunk lounge-club dishing house music, and Pinball Wizard, an underground hip-hop and gaming escape.

Prior to restrictions, NINETEEN80 helmed the NINETEEN80 DJ School, taught by Bobos The DJ and Ollie' Des. The collective is currently partnered up with CHIX Hot Chicken, pipped as the hottest Nashville chicken sandwich in town (they're pretty damn good), a venture by local singer, actor, and winner of the first Singapore Idol series Taufik Batisah. They're serving up the goods to your doorstep via 'I-MISS-YOU-NINETEEN80 ALCOHOL DELIVERY', which comes with complimentary muruku and party gear on top of their 80s' inspired cocktails, as well as the 'Rails Stay Home Saloon'. 

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