JForte to refresh Mosque Street with new F&B, hotel concepts

/ EdgeProp Singapore
November 13, 2020 6:00 AM SGT
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SINGAPORE (EDGEPROP) - Jason Lee, chairman of JForte Group of Companies, wants people to know that Chinatown, particularly the Mosque Street area, is bustling, especially from 5pm on Thursday evenings and into the weekend. This is despite Covid and safe management measures in place.
“Every night, business is very good,” he says, pointing to the crowd at the Jazz Bar restaurant and the adjoining Whiskey Bar at The Southbridge Hotel, which belongs to father and son proprietors, known as “Mr Khoo, the elder” or “Mr Khoo, the younger” by staff.
The Southbridge Hotel, which occupies the corner shophouses at 208 and 210 South Bridge Road, also fronts Mosque Street. The 47-room hotel has been approved for staycation, and “Khoo the younger” says it appeals mainly to “those who like to eat and drink”.
Jason Lee of JForte Group (right) with the elder Mr Khoo, proprietor of The Southbridge Hotel (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
Khoo purchased the pair of 999-year leasehold conservation shophouses at 208 and 210 South Bridge Road for $13.388 million a decade ago, based on a caveat lodged then. At that time, the first level of the corner unit was occupied by a coffeeshop and a nightclub occupied the other unit, while the upper levels were leased out as offices. Khoo decided to convert the upper floors into hotel rooms, and cater for F&B on the ground floor. Hence, The Southbridge Hotel opened seven years ago, together with the Jazz Bar Restaurant and Whiskey Bar.

‘Almost every shop is an eatery’

“In recent years, a lot of eateries have sprouted up,” says Khoo. “If you walk along Mosque Street, almost every shop is an eatery.”
The myriad of F&B outlets along Mosque Street range from Momma Kong’s, a local seafood restaurant famous for its crabs, Togi Korean Restaurant and Jang Won Korean Restaurant, as well as Chinese restaurants such as Dating Fish and Chong Qing Grilled Fish. Other Chinese restaurants along the street include Lao Dong Bei, serving northern Chinese cuisine; Si Wei Mao Cai, famous for its Sichuan steamboat; and Chuan Garden Steamboat, also a hotpot restaurant.
JForte Group’s Lee with the younger Mr Khoo of The Southbridge Hotel (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
There are, of course, some of the more conventional shops, for instance, Tai Thong Cake Shop, famous for its traditional cakes and pastries; as well as Bee Cheng Hiang Bakkwa, located at the junction of Mosque Street and New Bridge Road. “Most people immediately think of bakkwa when they think of Chinatown,” says JForte’s Lee. “But you can buy anything in Chinatown, not just bakkwa.”
Incidentally, Lee is also famous as the one who sold his Good Class Bungalow to UK’s richest man, James Dyson, for $50 million.
Lee’s hospitality and project management arm, JL Asia Resources, owns and manages The Porcelain Hotel, which occupies a row of five 99-year leasehold, shophouses at 46 to 50 Mosque Street. The 138-room Porcelain Hotel was put up for sale by tender in February for $115 million, or $830,000 per key. The tender exercise, conducted jointly by CBRE and Edmund Tie, closed on March 27.
Lee of JForte intends to divest 48, 49 and 50 Mosque Street, while converting 46 and 47 Mosque Street into a high-end Japanese fusion restaurant (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
Since then, Lee has had second thoughts about divesting his entire portfolio at Mosque Street. “After Covid, we have to change our minds about everything,” he says. “With Covid, Singaporeans can’t travel out of Singapore, and they can’t stay at home for too long. They need to find a place where they can relax, relieve stress and enjoy themselves.”
As such, he intends to convert two of the intermediate shophouses at 46 and 47 Mosque Street into a high-end, fusion restaurant offering both “Japanese hotpot” and yakitori. Instead of a main dining hall, there will be private rooms for diners, each with their own individual air-conditioning unit, to minimise concerns about infections, Lee adds. He intends to focus on a “Japanese hotpot” concept as Mosque Street is already “a hotpot paradise” with many Chinese hotpot restaurants, he adds.

Limited supply of shophouses

Perhaps it has come full circle: Back in 2009, when JForte’s Lee chanced upon the four-storey conservation shophouses at 48, 49 and 50 Mosque Street, the ground-floor units of 48 and 49 were occupied by Paradise Group’s Taste Paradise Chinese restaurant. “The business was very good,” he recalls.
Introducing F&B into the ground floor units will enliven the that stretch of Mosque Street (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
Lee decided to buy the three shophouses as it was an opportunity to “buy a piece of history”. “Chinatown is very different from the rest of Singapore,” he says. “There’s only a limited number of shophouses in Chinatown.”
He purchased the three corner shophouses at 48, 49 and 50 Mosque Street for $20 million, according to a caveat lodged in October 2009. The purchase was made jointly with beauty and wellness centre operator, Mary Chia Holdings, whose CEO is Lee’s wife, Wendy Ho. The joint-venture company, Hotel Culture, is a 51%-owned subsidiary of Mary Chia Holdings. The 84-room Porcelain Hotel opened in February 2010.
Over a year later, Lee purchased the two neighbouring shophouses at 46 and 47 Mosque Street from CTC Tourism Holdings, owner of travel agency CTC Travel, for $12.37 million, according to a caveat lodged in December 2010. This added another 52 rooms to the inventory, bringing the total number of rooms at Porcelain Hotel to 138 today.
One of the hotel rooms at Porcelain Hotel today (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
In 2018, Hotel Culture sold the three shophouses at 48, 49 and 50 Mosque Street to Lee’s JL Asia Resources for $64.8 million.
JForte’s Lee is now toying with the idea of a new concept for the hotel. Prior to Covid, the occupancy rate at Porcelain Hotel had averaged “over 90%” for the past 10 years, he says. “In the future, we must find a way so that we don’t just rely on tourists. I want to think of a concept where at least 30% of the business will cater to locals — young couples who want to spend the weekend here.”

Divestment, reinvestment

Having owned and managed Porcelain Hotel for the past decade, JForte’s Lee feels it is time to offload the property. He has now placed just the three shophouses at 48, 49 and 50 Mosque Street on the market for sale by expression of interest, with CBRE as the exclusive marketing agent. They make up 84 rooms of Porcelain Hotel. The asking price is $68.8 million, which translates to about $820,000 per key, or $2,985 psf based on gross floor area of 23,041 sq ft.
A potential buyer of Porcelain Hotel could consider carrying out extensive renovations, including amalgamating some of the smaller rooms to create a lifestyle boutique product (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
JL Asia Resources is open to the possibility of a sale and leaseback arrangement, with an offer of 3.5% gross yield for four years, as well as selling with vacant possession, says Clemence Lee, CBRE senior director of capital markets.
The new buyer has the flexibility of converting the ground-floor units at 48, 49 and 50 Mosque Street for F&B as well, notes CBRE’s Lee, while the upper floors can be converted for use as offices, commercial school, lifestyle or fitness studios, or even serviced apartments.
The last transaction in the Mosque Street area is for the shophouse at No. 34, where Momma Kong’s restaurant occupies the ground floor. It changed hands for $8 million in February this year. One street away, another intermediate shophouse at 31 Pagoda Street fetched $16.25 million in October last year. The ground-floor unit was occupied by Dim Sun Inc by Crystal Jade, which has since been closed.
The Southbridge Hotel, with the Jazz Bar Restaurant and Whiskey Bar on the first level, is located at the junction of South Bridge Road and Mosque Street (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
Elsewhere in Chinatown, four shophouses at 265, 267, 269 and 271 South Bridge Road were sold for $54 million to property investment and development firm, 8M Real Estate, at the end of December. Formerly known as Eu Yan Sang Building, it was built in 1910, and housed the first Eu Yan Sang traditional Chinese pharmacy. The flagship store of Eu Yan Sang still occupies the ground floor.

Hotel segments

No doubt, there is a wide variety of accommodation options in the vicinity, ranging from the high-end offerings such as Far East Hospitality’s exclusive boutique hotel, Amoy Hotel at 76 Telok Ayer Street, and UOL Group’s Parkroyal Collection Pickering, to the economy/budget segment, such as Hotel 81 Chinatown. The higher-end hotels are likely to be achieving average daily rates above $200 per night, while the economy range are looking at $80 a night or lower, observes Teo Junrong, CBRE associate director of hotels, capital markets.
Teo sees “a significant market gap within the spectrum for a lifestyle brand that can cater to aspiring new travellers willing to pay a premium for a product and location, even though the room sizes may be slightly smaller”.
Chinatown Business Association has ramped up its marketing efforts and outreach to locals since August 2020 (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
A potential buyer of Porcelain Hotel could consider carrying out extensive renovations, including amalgamating some of the smaller rooms to create a lifestyle boutique product, adds Teo. Such boutique offerings could appeal to brands similar to Moxy by Marriott or a Mama Shelter by Accor, he reckons. “Some of the up-and-coming Japanese lifestyle brands which are known to be very space efficient may be suitable too.” An example is The Lively hotel brand by Japanese developer, Global Agents. Teo forecasts that such an end-product could achieve average hotel room rates in the range of $170 to $180 a night.
Even a minor refurbishment and a rebranding could lead to an uplift in room rates, reckons Teo. “The property hasn’t had a major renovation in almost 10 years,” he points out. Hence, it’s time for the property to be refreshed. In this scenario, the hotel room rates are likely to be in the $130 to $140 range, adds Teo.
“As the vendor is prepared to do a short-term sale and leaseback, the incoming investor is able to assess the market further with the security of a rental income while it works towards realising the future plan,” he notes.
Chinatown is surrounded by these three big markets and food centres such as Chinatown Complex Hawker Centre, Hong Lim Market and Food Centre as well as People’s Park Food Centre (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)

Reaching out to locals

In addition to the bars and restaurants in Chinatown, JForte’s Lee says one attraction for visitors and tourists alike is Porcelain Hotel’s proximity to cheaper, hawker fare at the wet markets and food centres such as Chinatown Complex Hawker Centre, Hong Lim Market and Food Centre as well as People’s Park Food Centre. “Chinatown is surrounded by these three big markets, and people love that,” he says.
In fact, Chinatown Business Association (CBA) has ramped up its marketing efforts and outreach to locals since August 2020, according to a statement by CBA in response to queries from The Edge Singapore. “These include merchandise and services from businesses with interesting offers for Singaporeans from food-themed activities [to] talks covering cultural and heritage topics, [as well as] TCM wellness to peranakan tiles workshops.”
Once the first-level shop units at Porcelain Hotel are converted for F&B, “it will bring vibrancy to the Mosque Street locale”, says CBRE’s Lee. “This will further cement its popularity as an F&B and lifestyle destination.”
JForte’s Lee says: “My idea is to make it more fun for Singaporeans to visit our new hotel and F&B concept.”

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