SINGAPORE: It is barely past 10pm but at the table next to ours, a young man in his early 20s is already somewhat inebriated.
We are at Capital Kitchen, the pop-up restaurant the Zouk Group has converted its chic Capital lounge into just a few months ago.
It is a Thursday night and the space, which can hold 100 people under current social distancing requirements, is running almost at capacity.
The scene is a far cry from the heaving masses that used to pack Zouk’s dance floor but that buzzy, clubby vibe is nevertheless a welcome change from the sombre atmosphere that has descended upon Singapore this year.
Dancey pop and R&B music play at a very sedate volume while coloured lights paint trippy swirls on the overhead screen. We nosh on fried Mala chicken skin and truffle fries. Somewhere in the lounge, someone pops a bottle of champagne.
READ: Commentary: I miss my regular bar – but I accept I might never get to return, even after circuit breakers are lifted
CHANCE AND FUN
After accidentally knocking a glass off his table, our neighbouring diner notices us elder millennials glancing over with amusement and gallantly offers our party of four a round of whiskey.
In the days before COVID-19, we probably would have accepted, made small talk and gone on to share our drinks.
But this is 2020 and we are in the midst of a pandemic.
So, all of us, including our slightly sloshed new “bro”, take great care to maintain a safe distance during our brief exchange, largely gesticulating from afar. We politely decline his offer.
In all honesty, my goal in heading down was to try the elusive Insta-famous Paparch cheesecake on Capital Kitchen’s menu, not meet new people.
But this young man’s friendly gesture in this watered down version of a club reminded me just how integral the social element is to the experience, even if from a distance.
It brought back warm memories of sweeter times. It was such fun to table hop, bump into friends and just be around others.
In my twenties, I used to wake from a disco nap at 10.30pm, just in time to arrive at a club at the fashionable hour of midnight.
Now, by 10.20pm, most of us are already making our way out of Capital Kitchen, politely giving way and moving in an orderly manner, in compliance with the current restrictions.
There was also no jiving on any dance floor that evening, only people nodding to the music in their assigned seats, in clubs that are more dining than discotheque.
Still, if this is what “clubbing” is in this new normal, I will take what I can get.
A HARD-HIT INDUSTRY
It’s unclear what will be left of the nightlife scene after this coronavirus finally blows over. While restrictions have been gradually easing in Phase 2, most dance clubs, discos, karaoke bars and others in the nightlife industry remain shuttered.
Many owners should be lauded for their shift towards F&B and in finding new, creative ways for people to bring the clubbing experience home.
A number of mega clubs, including Marquee and Zouk offer livestreams of their DJ sets. Other venues have rolled out cocktail and drinks delivery services for stay-home imbibing.
Yet, despite such efforts to pivot, a recent poll by the Singapore Nightlife Business Association (SNBA) shows less than 10 per cent would survive in end-October if the closures persist.
The SBNA, which has about 320 members, has therefore raised concerns surrounding the impact of an uncertain, indefinite reopening timeline and requested for help to tide over this period.
They have put forth reasonable suggestions, including quicker clearance for applications for licenses and changes in venue use so more clubs can pivot towards F&B.
Another proposal is to extend current drinking hours until midnight, beyond the current 10.30pm while ensuring customers socialise responsibly.
This suggestion got me thinking: Might it be worth considering how to gingerly open the envelop to give more clubs that have successfully pivoted a stronger fighting chance of surviving this pandemic?
Taking baby steps in that direction would be in line with Singapore’s overall posture to ease restrictions on larger group activities including exhibitions, performances, religious gatherings and weddings in gearing up for an eventual Phase 3 re-opening.
I’m also less certain how much revenue nightlife venues make from delivering drinks and the clubbing experience to homes in general.
Prancing around a living room to a virtual DJ set while wearing headphones so as not to disturb neighbours as my pets silently judge my antics just does not quite cut it.
While it is fun having five friends over for drinks, that Thursday night reminded me of that alchemy of serendipitous encounters (even from a distance) and escapism that clubs offer the young and the restless, which cannot be replicated at home.
TAKE BABY STEPS TOWARDS OPENING
Despite concerns extending operating hours where people are drinking could create new coronavirus clusters, I would argue the recent spate of F&B outlets penalised for flouting various safe management measures during the day show bad behavior isn’t confined to after dark.
Rowdy scenes around the world have given the nightlife industry an unfair rep. While there are occasional cases of bad apples, I see the vast majority of people drinking at numerous establishments here generally do a good job of self-control.
Perhaps the approach could be to come down hard and let enforcement deter violations when restrictions are eased. The series of shutdown orders this past week has sent a strong reminder to operators of the punitive costs of errant actions.
Under COVID-19 regulations, hefty fines, even jailtime, could be imposed on offenders.
Restaurant and club owners know they have to play ball. Most will spare little expense in ensuring customers do not step out of line when the resulting penalties, not to mention being named-and-shamed in news reports, could kill business and lose customers.
Just look at how swiftly the SNBA took charge to establish a code of conduct, after unruly crowd behavior saw the shuttering of one Holland Village eatery.
In my experience, disco-turned-eateries have also stepped up crowd control. While we were at Capital Kitchen, some diners who began blatantly mingling across tables found themselves surrounded by bouncers and ejected from the premises within minutes. Clearly, nobody messes with club security.
And there are scores more safeguards to separate groups of people that can be put in place – including table dividers, plastic sheets and even robot bartenders – if we do extend operating hours.
MISSING THOSE DAYS OF OLD
Everyone understands the need for a cautious and gradual reopening, especially businesses that involve a lot of social interaction. It is in our collective interest to ensure infections don’t spike, and we don’t inadvertently shoot ourselves in the foot and have to re-impose restrictions again.
But it would be a shame if the pandemic puts a permanent end to our nightlife scene altogether, should more businesses be forced to shut down because of they cannot wait out this indefinite limbo.
Clubbing in Singapore has a shared experience across generations.
Gen X-ers still reminisce about the now defunct Sparks, Venom and China Black discos in the 90s, while millennials like myself would throng the likes of Butter Factory and Filter at Nanson Road in the noughties and Gen Zs have a soft spot for Cherry Discotheque and Canvas Club.
And of course, we all have Zouk in common.
We still look back on those halcyon days with some nostalgia, imagining we might return one day to relive such carefree occasions again.
TAKE BABY STEPS TOWARDS OPENING
It may be a long while until clubs can fully reopen when close body contact and socialising with strangers are the antithesis of a safe reopening. Perhaps only the mass distribution of a vaccine will allow any form of communal dancing to be resumed.
But can we push the envelop safely - for that day when the world is finally ready to boogie again?
For now, the memory of that tipsy youth who offered us whisky from afar will have to do.
It’s not quite clubbing but it is clubbing in a coronavirus situation, which certainly means something in these times of social distancing.
Karen Tee is a freelance travel and lifestyle writer.