INTERVIEW: Ah Joo Of Soek Seng 1954 And His Passion For Vintage Bicycles
Having spent his life painstakingly restoring Rolls-Royces, Porsches and Mercedes, Ah Joo recognised the attention to detail in old bike frames and found a new way of expressing his talent for renovation.
I catch sight of Ah Joo between the floor pan of a suspended Porsche Speedster and the rear fender of a stripped Karmann Ghia. He has the enthusiastic handshake of a mechanic; solid, callused and oily. We circumnavigate his workshop slowly, partly because every inch is taken up with components of bikes and cars. But mainly because he is fully immersed in talking about his passion: restoring classic bicycles.
Ah Joo started off restoring cars, a skill gleaned from his father who established Soek Seng in 1954 (Soek being his father’s name, and Seng meaning ‘success’ in Hokkien). In the 1950s and 1960s, cars were built by hand and had characters; maintaining and restoring them took care and precision. Ah Joo considers it an art form and vintage-car restoration is his main business.
But a few years ago, 59-year-old Ah Joo discovered a new passion, at the OCBC mass cycle event in Singapore. Seeing a classic old bike for the first time was love at first sight. Having spent his life painstakingly restoring Rolls-Royces, Porsches and Mercedes, he recognised the attention to detail in old bike frames and found a new way of expressing his talent for renovation.
His first bike was a Colnago Mexico purchased from an ardent collector, in need of a careful restoration. Today, he has a huge and dazzling array, from British-built vintage Hetchins made in the 1930s, to modern understated classics such as a beautiful red hand-built Richard Sachs that Ah Joo rides on a regular basis to the delight of local hipsters. He doesn’t make money from bikes; cars are his bread and butter. Bikes he buys and renovates purely for the pleasure of bringing them back to life.
A large proportion are from Europe with several Colnagos, Cinellis and Looks. They are emblazoned with the names of famous Tour De France legends such as Roger De Vlaeminck and Bernard Hinault. Singapore is not the sort of place you’d expect to find a hoard of classic race bikes, especially not hidden away in a nondescript industrial estate specialising in car repairs. “I don’t care about how much money they are worth,” Ah Joo beams, “but every one has a story.” He points to an ugly blue-and-yellow LeMond hanging at the end of a row. “That bike was the first bike in the history of the Paris-Roubaix to have front shocks.” Greg LeMond didn’t quite pedal it to victory in 1992, but he and the bike made a huge impact on cycle racing.
“When I get into something, I’m quite obsessive,” he continues. “One is never enough, 10 doesn’t tell a story; 100 is the start of a real collection.” Interspersed through the rows of steel classics are some unusual gems, such as a pristine Kirk Precision; a die-cast magnesium frame, heralded as a new wave of bike design in the 1980s.
When asked to pick out his favourite, he points to each bike in turn and gives a reason why that particular battle-scarred frame is important to him as a collector. “That Hitchens over there with the curved seat stays is a classic. This Colnago has a special clover-leaf top-tube with eight sides — isn’t it beautiful?” To hear Ah Joo effuse about an object that is so overlooked as a legitimate collector’s hoard is disarming. Singapore is renowned for magnates and entrepreneurs, not enthusiasts — especially ones that show scant regard for profit.
Ah Joo feels that hiding these charismatic bikes in an industrial unit is a shame, so he has recently opened a café in Singapore to display his favourites. “I want people to see the bikes, it’s me giving back something, I don’t think it will make me rich.” Soek Seng 1954 Bicycle Cafe is strategically placed along a popular cycling route and will undoubtedly become a favourite stop-off for lycra-clad weekend warriors. In pursuing his passion for restoration, Ah Joo has unintentionally found himself as an unlikely hero for cycling in Asia. He has been interviewed by Thai television and features on Rapha’s website showcasing cycling industry artisans. He seems a little bemused by the recent attention but is glad that his bikes are being admired.
Soek Seng 1954 Bicycle Café Is located at MAJ Aviation Building, 80 Seletar Aerospace View, Singapore.
Jody Chapman is designer and managing Director at Seventy Seven Design, a superyacht design and project management company based in Singapore.