Sonia Ong is building a new hub for art, culture and hospitality. The founder of the Singapore Wellness Association offers Crystal Lee an intimate tour of the baroque house of Little India.
Every house has a story.
The story of 29 Rowell Road is one that its new owner Sonia Ong is piecing together as she spends more time within its old walls. I ask him about his history before visiting the place to find out more. “I can’t give you one,” she replies. “All we can do is speculate.”
“If you google 29 Rowell Road, you’ll find ‘Cheng Fong Signcraft’ at, so we know it had a life of a sign store,” Ong later revealed when we met at home. baroque, which she named after her architectural style. However, everything else in the two-story boutique is shrouded in mystery.
“I walked into the house, saw those beautiful tiles and thought: who was this house? Was it a residence before it became a business entity? We have seen tiles like this in Emerald Hill, but they have more body and are more showy. It looks like the owners who have owned this house for 100 years haven’t done anything about it, and that’s understandable because the rent was probably low at first. The people who took advantage of the low rent probably didn’t have the money to renovate the place, ”she speculates.
Faded and distressed but still visibly ornate – thanks to intensive resurfacing work, those old Peranakan tiles that stretched across the reception floor to the renovated dining room (formerly a kitchen), permeated the home of a mystical and romantic air. Ong also took great care in restoring the shop’s original double wooden door, which had fallen because one of the supporting beams had been destroyed by termites.
“The house had endured tough construction, was abandoned for five years and was falling apart when I took over,” she says. It took months before Ong found someone willing and able to put him back, along with his traditional latches for a pull-up bar. She also had it painted in millennial pink for a touch of modernity. “I was really determined to keep everything in this house,” she adds. “Whatever it is, even if I don’t understand it, I keep it.”
As we move into the dining room, Ong explains his vision for the store: “Baroque suggests arts, culture and opulence. I imagined a house with faded glory a bit like a withered flower and decided to renovate and adorn it with this theme in mind. More simply, it is a versatile event space that aims to bring a multisensory experience to all those who cross its threshold.
For the past seven years, she has championed wellness in Singapore, through the Singapore Wellness Association, which she founded in 2014, her roller ski training and travel company Urbanski, and the Singapore Rollersports Federation, of which she is a member of the board of directors. Acquiring and restoring a store seems like a pivot – a deviation from what she’s focused on – but Ong tells me it’s two sides of the same coin. “The Baroque House is a different dimension from who I am,” she says. “He is
listening to my inner esthete and responding to my love of freedom, bohemia and the importance I attach to authenticity, inclusiveness and humanitarianism.
The Baroque House is still in its early stages, although it has hosted a few events at different stages of its restoration, in part to allow guests to witness and experience its evolution. There was an intimate tea appreciation session at the front desk shortly after Ong received the keys to the shop. She also hosted a few bourbon tastings featuring rare and exceptional bottles in the beautifully decorated dining room.
In addition to being an event venue and a bottle and gourmet shop, the Baroque House will also host a hotel school. “The school strives to provide the best service training to appeal to the 1%,” says Ong. “Our renowned programs come from the best hospitality companies and training schools in the world. Our consultants served and practiced royal protocol. We train butlers, nannies, private crews and personal assistants. We also provide training for individuals and businesses looking for an edge, especially employers of foreign domestic workers who want to improve their home entertainment.
Upstairs, in one of the two rooms, six massive paintings hang from the ceiling and against the windows, while two rest on chairs at the corners. These early works by veteran local artist Jeremy Hiah are part of Baroque House’s permanent collection, which can be viewed by reservation (each ticket costs $ 25 and comes with a glass of champagne). “This series of eight dolls is painted at a different time in his life before he establishes his signature style,” she explains, as I admire the masterpieces. “You’ll notice, however, that its trademark subversion was evident early on. I named the exhibit At the Dollhouse to refer to the dolls and their context.
After presenting Hiah’s pieces, she made me look higher at the exposed ceiling. There, above the beams, a huge floral gable motif. The gable patterns are usually visible on the front of a building, indicating that the Baroque house was part of a larger property and was probably the courtyard. “It was hidden until we hacked the roof,” says Ong. “This house is about 100 years old. It is very possible that the pinion is 150 years old, but we do not know the story. I have been to the archives, and it all remains a mystery.
We move on to the adjoining Red Room, where it exhibits a 200-year-old antique marriage bed. Imposing, curious and incredibly detailed, it was assembled without nails and features two alcoves – a rarity among specimens of this genre. The paintings on the structure are faded but social affairs scenes can still be seen.
Back in the dining room, I wonder aloud about the progress of the restoration of the house. “I know a lot of people think, ‘Is this over?’, And I’m like it’s all the way it is,” she said. “It’s weird to have the house redone and polished. Imagine if I made everything perfect. It is stressful and tiring. I agree. Preserving the design elements that already characterize a space sometimes means leaving them imperfect and unfinished in order to better tell the story of its glorious past.
(All images courtesy of Sonia Ong)
This story first appeared in the December 2021 issue of Prestige Singapore.