How this real estate broker found second wind in his jazz music career
Former jazz pianist Peter Ng once performed alongside big names like Frances Yip and Anita Sarawak. But he gave up his musical journey for a stab at real estate, and found success. Now, at 64, Ng is back on the scene with a new venture in Dempsey Hill – jazz lounge Maduro.
As a young boy, Peter Ng’s parents made him take classical piano classes. Having this structure forced upon him made Ng not feel any particular affinity toward music throughout his childhood. Not until the age of 16 when he began fiddling with the piano again, did Ng feel that spark. “A friend asked me to be the stand-in pianist in his band,” recalled Ng. “That was the moment.”
Ng taught himself jazz and pop through experimentation, and at the age of 18, started earning his keep by making his way around the local gig circuit. Within a decade, Ng found himself improvising on the ivories while revered songbirds of his generation – the likes of Frances Yip and Anita Sarawak – belted out their most popular tunes in Singapore’s top live music institutions. Think the iconic Tiara Supper Club in Shangri-La Hotel and the Westin’s glamorous Palm Grill.
Ng recounts these magical evenings with a joyful glint in his eye. He wasn’t under any pressure. He was just a boy having fun doing what he loved – “with no ‘A’ Level cert or university degree!” he added.
That was in the 1970s and 1980s. Ng, now 64, sports a crown of grey but still walks with a spring in his step.
“After playing in all the top [music venues], I sat down one day and thought to myself: ‘I need a stable job’,” Ng disclosed. After trying his hand selling advertising for magazines and trading commodities, Ng found his calling as a real estate agent for HRL Properties selling shophouses in Emerald Hill, Mohamed Sultan and Telok Ayer.
He liked that this was a niche market, and how at the time, shophouses were undervalued. Studying market cycles and taking advantage of them made Ng a pretty penny. "You could buy [a shophouse] in Emerald Hill for S$200,000. Mohamed Sultan shophouses were going for around the same [price]." This knack for calling the market brought him success not only in Singapore but also in Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia.
The early 1990s saw Ng relocate to London. Arriving at an opportune time with a market ripe for picking, Ng joined the firm Michael Elliott and quickly managed to broker the sale of a refurbished hotel. Subsequently, the firm was awarded sole agency for a sizeable residential property, Kensington Green.
Ng soon became known as the go-to guy for London property dealings among some of Singapore’s elite. Beyond the British capital, Ng also brokered the sale of Hong Kong’s JIA – Asia’s first Philippe Starck-designed boutique hotel – which went on to form the stepping stones of Singaporean restaurateur Yenn Wong’s legacy.
In 2010, having made a decent profit from selling a building in Farringdon, central London, Ng decided to treat himself. He purchased what he had dreamed of owning for a long time: A Steinway & Sons piano, which he promptly shipped back to his home in Singapore.
Having developed a taste for the good life in London’s private members’ clubs such as 5 Hertford Street and The Arts Club, Ng yearned to recreate a similar experience in Singapore – an unpretentious atmosphere with just the right amount of exclusivity, where deals are made, secrets traded and cigars and fine whisky indulged in. This led him to set up Robusto, a private cigar bar in Orchard Road, which just passed its first decade mark.
DOUBLE OR NOTHING
In 2019, Ng was presented with the opportunity to take over the floor above all-day French bistro atout in Dempsey Hill. Faced with a blank canvas, Ng dreamed of creating a tranquil, sophisticated jazz bar and listening lounge.
It’s intriguing that an astute trader would start a business with an uncertain turnover in a high rent district. “Many jazz bars fail,” Ng stated candidly. “But when I saw the beautiful setting in [Dempsey Hill] and imagined classical music playing inside, I knew I wanted this.”
Artists needed an audience, Ng reasoned, and businessmen needed places to hold meetings. Many jazz musicians whom he had performed alongside rallied behind his jazz bar idea.
On its opening weekend, the likes of Jeremy Monteiro, Joanna Dong, Alemay Fernandez and a litany of other celebrated local musicians sang and played their hearts out at Maduro, a Spanish word that means maturity and refers to the sophistication that comes with age.
Shuttling back and forth between London and Singapore every two months – he runs Michael Elliott Asia here – Ng’s vision is for Maduro to be a venue for both high-stakes negotiations and laid-back jam sessions.
What about the fateful Steinway, the acquisition that led to the second resurgence of his musical career?
“It’s not here [in Maduro], but you can come to my house to see it,” Ng laughed. “I wouldn’t leave it here to let anyone and everyone bang on it.” Instead, he leads us to a Yamaha piano that has been played by the who’s who of the local jazz scene.
Ng starts playing Memory from Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats on the Yamaha. But instead of belting out its accompanying lyrics, he serves up a few anecdotes of wisdom. In summary: You can play beautiful music with just two fingers if you can sing the tune; if you make a mistake, pretend you meant it as a jazz note and just go with it; know when to sustain, lighten and weight your actions. “When people expect something, like for you to return to a particular note, play something slightly different instead. This leaves a lasting impression, like the lingering sensation in your mouth after a spicy meal.”
Ng also just finished recording a seven-track album, titled Journey with my Friends. “My friend and Golden Horse Award-winning producer Ricky Ho happened to be free at the time, so we sought out to record a thank you note to all my friends.” He gave out the CD to his friends and associates, asking for a donation to charity in return.
One particularly memorable track from the album is Ng’s rendition of Fiddler On The Roof, in which he sprinkles several jazzy accidentals, before transcending into the very jovial, contemporary pop-sounding and universally recognisable major scale notes of If I Were A Rich Man (written by Zero Mostel, but made a household tune by Gwen Stefani). He shared that the song is dedicated to his hardworking Jewish business partners in London, with whom he has broken bread in their homes.
Another song from the album, which Ng dedicated to no one in particular, is Cinema Paradiso. “It’s a beautiful film. I like this movie and this song very much because it’s about a boy who makes it on his own and eventually comes back to the cinema he once frequented,” he explained.
In a sense, it’s very much a metaphor for his own experience.