Two years ago, when Seah Liang Chiang didn’t have enough money to build his dream 10-bedroom home in Johor, where he owns land of half an acre, he decided to build a weekend retreat instead.
“In many Hollywood movies I watched, there was always a beautiful home in the mountains. Even Tony ‘Ironman’ Stark, who owned a futuristic Malibu mansion, spent time in his lakeside cabin in Atlanta. I remember wanting to own a house just like that!” he says when we meet at Shipping Container Hotel No 1 at JTC Launchpad @ one-north.
So he acquired a shipping container — out of 17 million shipping containers circulated globally every year, 12 million are unused and 500,000 discarded — for RM5,000 ($1,600) and got it kitted out within half a year with basic amenities for another RM30,000. One morning, while enjoying coffee on the patio, he started thinking about how he could share the joy of living off-grid with others. It culminated in Shipping Container Hotel, which opened in January this year.
Every unit is remodelled from a 40ft shipping container with dimensions of 12m (length) x 3m (width), and comes with a bedroom, dining area, living area, kitchen, bathroom and patio, as well as air-conditioning and water heater. Its design was adapted from his home in Johor — the former IT entrepreneur taught himself interior design with a software he’d downloaded from the Internet — but with quality fittings to make the experience more comfortable.
Seah is clearly pleased with the results, as he points out two queen-sized Murphy beds — one in the bedroom and the other in the living area — that fold away to reveal work desks. He shows us the bathroom too, and urges: “From its door, you can look all the way right to the other end, and you never feel crammed in!”
But it is the kitchen he is proudest of. “I love to cook so this is very important to me. I chose this hob and hood… [opens one cabinet] there are pots and pans here, cooking oil, microwave… [opens another cabinet] and this is the built-in fridge. Oh, and if you are in the mood for a barbecue, there’s an electric grill to use outside!”
Of the last he is particularly serious about. To get approval for the business, he spent a year trying to meet different guidelines from 10 government agencies, among them SCDF’s fire safety regulations, hence the smoke detector and fire alarm. Even though this hotel was meant as a temporary structure, the same safety codes for fixed-structure hotels also apply. But Seah isn’t complaining; on the contrary, he believes such stringent standards stand his business in good stead. He is working towards getting the Shipping Container Hotel recognised first as a hotel, then as the world’s smallest-sized hotel, and finally the world’s largest hotel chain.
With the hotel running at 100-percent occupancy these days — “Sorry, we must wrap up at 3pm because guests are checking in” — he is “surprised” and “blessed”. “When Covid-19 struck and the hotel had to shut, I thought to myself, no one is coming, sure die. But as it turns out, Singaporeans are loving this as a staycation!”
If breaking barriers requires an imaginative streak, Seah has it aplenty. But this stems in part from his appreciation of our natural environment. “By blending in and leveraging on the natural environment, our hotel can create a seamless experience for guests. I always encourage them to go outdoors and explore the surroundings; go swim, check out the garden, try out the neighbourhood eateries!”
And Seah has only just begun. He is working on a double-storey luxury pop-up container hotel that he hopes to launch next March. “I’m very excited… there will be rooms on the upper storey and an island kitchen on the ground storey. I think I can fit in a spiral staircase… Oh, where is it going to be? Sorry, I can’t tell you!”
The story first appeared in the November 2020 issue of A Magazine.