Open an upmarket gastrobar in Cambodia? She's the Singaporean who dared

Open an upmarket gastrobar in Cambodia? She's the Singaporean who dared

Entrepreneur Nicole Chiang is one of a number of Singaporeans venturing into unconventional places such as Cambodia, Laos and Kazakhstan to do business, as profiled on the new series, ‘Going Places’.

Cheap beers, upbeat discos and fuss-free beer gardens are what you'd expect of a night out in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. But this Singaporean entrepreneur has opened up a new class of bar - an upscale lounge complete with a gentlemen's dress code.

PHNOM PENH: When Singaporean Nicole Chiang first uprooted to Cambodia five years ago with her husband, she was living the good life as an expatriate wife – spending time in massage treatments, spas and tea with her new friends.

She soon found herself bored with that life, however - and along with two business partners, decided to open the first upmarket lounge in the heart of Phnom Penh. It targets the affluent, a risky venture considering the fact that Cambodia is one of the poorest nations in the world.

She sunk some of her savings (enough to buy a condo there, she reckoned) into the project, and quickly found herself grappling with language differences, young, inexperienced staff and poor levels of service.

When you first come here, it’s exotic, it’s a different country and everything is romanticised. Then you go through a phase where you work with people, your staff, partners, and it’s a different culture.

“Initially you do get frustrated because we think differently. There are some things that we take for granted as Singaporeans - what we think is common sense, may not be for other people,” she said.

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Training her service staff at The Bodleian.

The 43-year-old is among a growing number of Singaporeans who have boldly pushed themselves out of their comfort zone, travelling to off-the-beaten-track countries to work and set up shop, as a new series Going Places discovers.

In May this year, Ms Chiang opened her lounge and gastrobar The Bodleian, which comes with a separate premium VIP room furnished with intimate lighting, lush leather seats and vintage-styled posters to cater to the well-heeled.

Prior to that, she was helping her husband set up his office in Phnom Penh. She and her Singaporean businessmen friends had lamented the dearth of more intimate venues in the city where they could relax and network, aside from the usual karaoke joints, discos and VIP rooms in upmarket restaurants.

“We are like a clubhouse without a membership. We were confident to start this because we already had a network of people who did need a space like this,” she said.

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There were some initial sceptics like culture and arts journalist Mark Tilly who wondered whether such a high-brow concept would succeed in this poor country.

“It’s limiting yourself to a very specific clientele, that of the international business community which can fluctuate from time to time,” said Mr Tilly.

There are just as many stories of failure as stories of success here, in terms of people setting up bars.

The venture has done reasonably well in its first few months, with a clientele that includes expatriates from Japan, Korea, China, east Europe and United States. Ms Chiang recognises Cambodia’s potential as a developing country where many are keen to network for business opportunities.

“We will not be expecting a full house every night, or people walking in all the time. What we want is the quality of the customers, not so much the quantity,” she said.

Watch: Her ups and downs (2:43)

Initial challenges included adapting to the local culture, and grappling with language and communication differences.  She also realised that her expectations, and that of the locals, were very different.

(But) through the years, I also learnt that as a foreigner, I have to respect and understand how they work here. And then only from there, can I find a way to be successful.

“Because there’s no point in trying to just implement the way I think and the Singapore standard. We have to find a way to work with how they think, and then we can get to where we want to be,” she said.

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"We have to find a way to work with how they think," said Ms Chiang of adapting to local ways. 


The series Going Places features other Singaporeans such as Mr Jeremy Choong, 38, who is running his own coffee plantation in Paksong, Southern Laos, despite having no prior knowledge about growing or roasting coffee.

There’s Mr Ashraf Bakar, 29, who has a goat farm in Mersing, Malaysia and is trying to sell 100 goats before the upcoming Hari Raya Haji.

Mr Sean Lee, 44, recently launched an al fresco restaurant in Bali. His ambition is for it to be the best in Seminyak but he's facing a lot of competition from the countless restaurants and bars in the area.

Ms Renee How ventured to remote Kazakhstan to work on the first aquaponics (which combines growing fish and plants) greenhouse, with the goal of helping local farmers grow produce all year round.

Series producer Gosia Klimowicz said she was struck by how ambitious and driven these Singaporeans were, and their unconventional ways of thinking.

It takes a special kind of person to choose a different career for yourself, leave the comfort of your own country and see where the adventure takes you.

“It was very exciting and inspiring to catch a glimpse of what it takes for them to overcome the challenges and work towards achieving their goals,” she added.

Ms Chiang’s husband, entrepreneur Mr Arizuan Arshad, 45 – who has noticed more Singaporeans heading to Cambodia to work – said that Singaporeans have a reputation for acting on their ideas, thanks to the country’s education system.

 “I think the Singapore passport also opens a lot of doors,” he said. “People welcome that red passport you carry because you represent stability, honesty, money, and I think most importantly - the ability to execute.”

Watch the first episode of Going Places here.

Source: CNA/yv