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Close Up Meet Ashish Manchharam, The Man Breathing New Life Into Heritage Buildings

Meet Ashish Manchharam, The Man Breathing New Life Into Heritage Buildings

Meet Ashish Manchharam, The Man Breathing New Life Into Heritage Buildings
By Hong Xinyi
By Hong Xinyi
April 11, 2018
With his new venture Ann Siang House, property developer Ashish Manchharam hopes to spark another neighbourhood renaissance.

Ashish Manchharam’s recipe for creating buzz is deceptively simple: take a beautiful heritage building in a central location, and add modern conveniences and novel tenants that draw the crowds. His four-year-old company, 8M Real Estate, brought New York cocktail bar Employees Only to Amoy Street and rehoused indie club Kilo Lounge at Tanjong Pagar Road, injecting these heritage enclaves with new life. 

Thanks to his family background, Ashish also has a unique perspective on gentrification—that sometimes controversial phenomenon where unique urban neighbourhoods lose their original character as new entrants start to attract a more affluent crowd. His great-grandfather arrived in Singapore from Gujarat, India, in 1908. For the next few decades, his family traded textiles throughout Asia from their base here, buying several shophouses in the Kampong Glam area for their business operations. Born in a shophouse on Bussorah Street, Ashish grew up playing cricket in the alleyways of Haji Lane. “The neighbourhood had a very kampong feel,” the father of two reminisces. “The evenings were quieter because there were more residential homes then. But it hasn’t changed a whole lot. It’s just vibrant in a different way now.”

(Related: Which 7 Fashion Brands Are Restoring Heritage Buildings?)

He had a front-row seat for observing this new vibrancy. In the late 1990s, young fashion designers keen to launch their own boutiques started inquiring about leasing Haji Lane shophouses owned by Ashish’s family, which were then being used as warehouses. Once these types of tenants moved in, the sleepy street began to draw a whole new crowd. “Within 10 years, that whole stretch had become an alternative retail spot,” says Ashish. “What I learned from that experience was that we were able to influence the character of the area and create a destination because we had control over a significant portion of the tenant mix." 

He has applied the same approach to the 31 conservation shophouse properties under 8M, which he founded after clocking over 12 years at a global real estate services company. We are chatting within the premises of his latest venture, a four-storey 1920s shophouse that relaunches this month as Ann Siang House. The 20‑room property is not his first foray into the hospitality sector—8M’s Base Residences at Hong Kong Street launched in 2017. Nor will it be his last—renovations kick off this year for a row of recently acquired Keong Saik Road shophouses.

(Related: 1880's Marc Nicholson On Building A Community)

With these developments, Ashish wants to “blur the lines between a hotel and an apartment accommodation”. In Ann Siang House for instance, “you get all the comforts of a hotel setting, but it feels more like home”, he explains. “It’s flexible enough for both short and long stays, and you feel like you’re living in your own space rather than someone else’s.”

With an interest in conservation properties that is both personal and professional, it is probably not surprising that Ashish has a more positive take on the impact of gentrification. It can bring new energy into a neighbourhood, he believes. “Before we took over five shophouses on Amoy Street, Beng Hiang restaurant had been there for 30 years. It was a great establishment, but at the end of the day, the owners recognised that this was not the location for them for the future and felt it was a good time to move out.”

(Related: "I’m Just Not That Interested In Growing An ‘Empire’," Says Unlisted Collection's Loh Lik Peng)

The way he sees it, fresh new concepts entering heritage areas succeed because they meet existing consumer demands. “While I understand the conundrum of gentrification, if I wasn’t doing it, the next person will. Hopefully, we’re doing it in a way where we’re still conserving the heritage of that area, and helping visitors to discover what the neighbourhood is all about.” 

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