Nothing as it seems: Singapore's worst-kept secret

When in the island city state remember not to judge a book by its cover, writes Robert Upe.

One of Singapore's worst-kept secrets is The Library. Everyone in the know is in the conga line to go to this clandestine venue and now I'm on my way, too, in a taxi weaving through the Chinatown, past red lanterns and sizzling woks. But I don't want to borrow a book, let alone read Bryson, Hemingway, Winton or anyone else while I'm distracted by the evening's sapping heat.

When the driver drops me off at 47 Keong Saik Road, thankfully there's not a bookshelf in sight. Instead, unexpectedly, there is a shop with suits and jackets neatly hanging up. The tailor, Jonathan Chiang, is dapper and friendly and I just know he is dying to get his tape measure around my neck.

But I'm not after a made-to-measure suit any more than I want a library book. Nothing is as it seems here. Despite appearances, this is one of the city's hottest speakeasy-style bars with a zany cocktail list. The Library is a bar that is closeted behind a secret door at the back of Chiang's pocket-sized shop that he has strangely named 1:1.618 X Leong T*. Entry to the bar is by password. I've done my due diligence and I'm confident I have the code to push past the jackets.

You may think with all this "Get Smart" subterfuge that the tailor is a fake but Chiang is carrying on a family heritage in the rag trade. His meticulously cut and hand-stitched bespoke suits start at about $S1800 ($1500). His pop-up shop, there until the end of the year, also acts as a false front for the bar.

Last month, the space was occupied by a barber who specialised in tattoos and previous to that there was a gallery with the sculptures of Japanese artist Satomi Sugimoto. The first pop-up was a library of coffee-table books that gave the bar its name when it opened in September, 2012.

Out of the side of my mouth, I give the tailor's assistant the password - "forever young" - hoping I'm not talking nonsense and that doors will open.

A big smile comes across his face and he asks how I know.

There are a couple of ways to get the password. It is posted surreptitiously on Facebook, or you can go next door to The Library's sister restaurant The Study (formerly Keong Saik Snacks) and ask the staff to reveal it. Or, cheat like I did and ask your hotel's concierge.

The password changes weekly, so don't rely on old tip-offs.

The tailor's assistant swings open the secret door and ushers me into a confusing mirrored chamber, not much bigger than a phone booth. Puzzled, I gingerly touch the mirror in front and it turns out to be another secret door that opens up to the dimly lit bar I have so longed to find.

The Library is cosy and fits no more than 50 people when it is in full swing, after 9.30pm most nights. Like the speakeasy establishments of the Prohibition era, there are wall-to-wall bottles of alcohol on the shelves behind the bar and the atmosphere is dark and moody. The Prohibition speakeasy bars were illegal, but everything here is above board so you don't need to fear a raid by Singapore's police.

The Library competes with some of Singapore's best cocktail places, among them 28HKS, Fordham and Grand, Jigger and Pony, B28, The Cufflink Club and L'Aiglon.

Its soundtrack belts out blues and jazz and later there's hip-hop.

The barman says he was an army regular for seven years but now he looks anything but a soldier, with dyed pink hair, a white tie and pants held up by braces. He is photogenic but photography is frowned upon in this secret retreat. I'm given permission to take a shot but it must be cropped in tight so that barely a speck of the riveted-copper bar and surrounds is revealed.

The new Australian manager, Nicholas Quattroville, says he wants to make drinking fun. "I'm all about silly drinks," he says. "Too many people take drinking too seriously."

Soon, there is horseradish-infused vodka on my lips from a "Bloody Andy" cocktail with roasted tomato and yellow pepper juice. It's shaken and stirred on the spot, and decorated Andy Warhol pop-art style with fruit and vegetables. I follow up with a "Rye N Air", a blend of rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, peach, Campari and absinthe. It's a parody of the low-cost United Kingdom airline Ryanair and comes served in a medicine-style jar in a small ziplock plastic bag with a sticker across it proclaiming "UK Customs Paid".

The idea is to pour the drink yourself, as you may have to do on a cheapie Ryanair flight, but I'm paying a hefty $S23 for this drink, the standard price for all cocktails here.

This is too much fun, but not long into the night I backtrack out of The Library, past the mirrors and the man with the tape measure, and hail a taxi for another adventure in cocktails.

This time it's to the stylish Jekyll and Hyde, a nail salon by day and a bar by night.

The writer was a guest of Changi Airport.

*1:1.618, also known as the golden ratio, is a mathematical formula said to exist in all things beautiful.



Singapore Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Singapore.


To get to The Library, start at

When you have the password take a taxi to 47 Keong Saik Road.

Cocktails $S23 ($19.50), beers and cider from $S15, a big whisky range $S12-$S90; snacks $S7-$S40 from curry spiced nuts through to a substantial grilled rib eye with duck-fat chips. Opens 6pm-1am daily.