Anchor Image: Cynthia Chua, the founder of Spa Esprit Group, is often touted to have the “Midas Touch” in business — but her business’ beginnings were definitely not gilded in gold.
No business owner, especially one with 17 lifestyle brands, should look as relaxed as Cynthia Chua.
But here she sits, eyes twinkling, voice at a singsong pitch, talking about how having fun is the secret to success. It’s practically criminal. But even if the 47-year-old looked her age, you would still feel her exuberant, child-like energy emanating from that pore-less face. It’s a face everyone wishes they could have, not just because it looks so fresh, but because it’s one that has known a lifetime of joy.
Her ventures reflect her bubbly approach to life. The founder and chairman of the Spa Esprit Group and Wonderscape Holdings has built a portfolio of beauty and F&B brands that are quirky, stylish and fun. Her flagship Spa Esprit, which she launched in 1996, eschewed the conventional, softly lit, beige-everything spa aesthetic and predictable menu in favour of eclectic interiors and cheekily named, sometimes unorthodox, treatments. (Its latest Super Vibrator treatment involves energy readings and Tibetan singing bowls.)
Chua carried that momentum into launching Strip, Browhaus and We Need a Hero, demystifying personal grooming with humorous marketing campaigns. But the beauty space wasn’t enough to contain all of Chua’s ideas. So in 2007, she opened House, which houses a spa, bar and restaurant in a 35,000-sqft space on Dempsey Hill. What followed was a string of F&B launches that include cocktail-driven concepts like Tippling Club, speciality coffee cafes like Forty Hands and Common Man Coffee Roasters, and environmentally conscious restaurants like Open Farm Community and Noka.
Words like “Midas touch” and “lifestyle empire” are often associated with Chua’s wonderland of outlets, but it wasn’t strictly planned. Many people strive for success so they can have fun with their hard-earned riches, but chasing the fun first was what led to her triumphs.
“I wanted to be a soyabean milk seller,” Chua says of her childhood dream. “When I was 10 years old, I spent hours playing with a sink filled with water, pretending to sell cups of soyabean milk to invisible customers. That’s probably where my imagination grew.” If she had grown up in a system that valued imagination over pragmatism, one can only wonder how much sooner she would have transformed Singapore’s lifestyle landscape.
“I was quite mainstream. I did well in school, so I thought I should be a banker. I studied economics and statistics in college — which, in retrospect, I realised was completely against my grain — and my first job was with UOB,” she recalls. “I was there for six to eight months, and I completely hated it.” Having a structured, cookie-cutter life, as it turned out, was not for her.
While her goal was never to make money, her brief stint as a real estate agent, where she earned enough to start Spa Esprit, proved just how good she is at it (“I could buy a condominium when I was 23!”). Instead, her mind was constantly wandering — though not idly — and ultimately rested on questions to which no one here had the answers yet.
“How can I break the taboo of Brazilian waxing? Why is it that I can find 10,000 types of facial masks but I can’t ﬁ nd a single vulva mask? Why are Australians drinking such great coffee but we’re stuck with oily, sugary robusta coffees with people thinking sour flavours are bad?” She answered these with her own take on waxing salons, coffee bars and, most recently, the launch of Two Lips, the world’s first luxury intimate care range for the vulva.
Unorthodox ideas come from unorthodox minds, and Chua’s approach to most things aren’t what most would consider to be within the realms of normalcy. Not long after the opening of House, another F&B idea was already brewing, and Chua acted on it by giving Australian bar owner Matthew Bax a call after reading an article on him. “He was like, ‘Who are you? Just drop me an email.’ So I wrote him a poem,” she says, giggling. “It was about Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, sitting in a big forest or something like that. I can’t write business English, so I wrote about how I wanted to create a nexus where like-minded, beautiful and creative people could get together and talk, and how we, in turn, could express our passions through food.”
As we now know, that nexus became Tippling Club. Bringing people together has always been a big part of her concepts, but it’s not just because she’s naturally personable; interactions are a source of inspiration. She once ran into Bill Murray on an Orient Express train ride and, after drinks with the actor, Wes Anderson and Kate Moss, came home with a new marketing tagline for Tiong Bahru Bakery. “French people say ‘la baguette’ but Singaporeans will say ‘baguette, lah’ so I used that, and the caption: ‘Never lost in translation’. I thought it was funny.”
A lot of insights can be gained from travelling, but for Chua, curiosity trumps the miles clocked.
“There are people who travel and don’t pick up on anything,” she notes. Zipping around the world and managing glamorous spas and restaurants make for an enviable life. But what we don’t see is the hard work that goes behind all those fancy meals and massages. During Spa Esprit’s early days, Chua would stand outside Cold Storage distributing flyers, enticing customers with $5 manicures and later encouraging them to try waxing services.
“My Midas touch is better explained as tenacity. Passion is not enough. People think they’re passionate about opening cafes, but try working in one for two days and very soon you’ll see that passions die.”
Her persistence is fuelled by a fierce competitive streak. “When I opened Forty Hands, someone wanted to poach my staﬀ. When they refused the offer, that person said, ‘Tell Cynthia to go back to beauty. She’s rolling in money — what does she know about food?’ So when people challenge me, I tend to think they’d better shut their mouths,” she recalls with a laugh. “And not long after, I made The Straits Times’ Power Players list in 2013 for my F&B outlets.”
Chua isn’t driven by a need to be the best, but a need to be better. “I’ve never feared ageing, but I am afraid of stagnation. The day I stop learning is the day I die,” she declares. “So when I heard there was a croissant out there that was better than mine, I flew to Melbourne and New York to do a SWOT analysis on their most popular bakeries. I SWOT everybody.”
Thankfully, her singleminded focus on improvement has made her relatively impervious to naysayers. “When I wanted to start Bochinche, people asked how I was going to educate people here about Argentinian food when no one knows what it is, how I was going to find a chef that would be willing to come here, how it’s going to cost so much money and told me that it’s not going to work,” she says.
“When I told my father my plans for Spa Esprit and Strip, he said, ‘I put you through university and now you want to wax pussy? I’m going to throw you out of the house!’”
But the possibility of failure simply doesn’t compute in Chua’s mind. “It’s one of my strengths. I’m able to snap myself out of self-pity and instead focus on the beautiful things around me. Because I feel that when my energies are open, all the pieces fall into place and things have rarely not worked out.”
It’s a powerful brand of optimism Chua possesses, and she takes care to protect it. “When something starts to feel very stressful and difficult, I’m able to tell myself that I don’t enjoy this. I’ve called off partnerships that got too aggravating and acrimonious because I’m very careful about toxic environments.”
On that note, Chua has started to slow down for the sake of self care. “Previously I worked so hard, I’d only have time for one meal a day. Now I eat very well, I go to the florist for fresh flowers, I have massages twice a week, yoga sessions with a private instructor, and I make time for people who matter to me,” she shares. “I used to think about how I could inspire people around me, but I realised that if you don’t look after yourself and end up tired all the time, no one is going to follow you anyway.”
But mellowing out doesn’t mean she’s running out of concepts. She still has a lot of them brewing in her mind, which is what earned her the nickname of “popcorn” since she’s constantly popping with ideas — they’re just less zany and more zen. Looking at her most recent project, a travelling pop-up natural wine experience she calls Drunken Farmer, will give you an idea of the direction she wants to pursue in the future.
“I would never not want to do something new, but perhaps it doesn’t have to involve opening another shop since I’ve done that so many times already. I would like to do a little more with my hands and my mind,” she muses. Her partner’s passion for agriculture has also sparked in Chua a renewed interest in the environment. Noka, for instance, is a Japanese restaurant with its own rooftop garden that was opened in partnership with grow-your-own-food movement Edible Garden City. Her preference for natural wine (made with as little intervention as possible) has led her to overhaul many of her establishments’ wine lists to feature more of that stuff.
“Maybe I’ll publish a book, work in a greenhouse or open a restaurant where I can turn away people I don’t like. Or maybe I’ll buy a village and organise my own live music festival for all my friends,” she considers aloud. It’s anyone’s guess what Cynthia, Queen of the Quirky, will do next. But if there’s one thing we can bet on, it’s that it’s going to be fun.
This story first appeared in the March 2020 issue of A Magazine.