Exclusive Singapore wine club closes as ultra-rich shun flash for discretion

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A Singapore private club known for catering to wealthy Chinese clients has shut down as ultra-rich residents of the Asian financial hub increasingly opt for discretion over conspicuous displays of wealth.

Circle 33, located inside a former colonial residence on Scotts Road in the swish suburb of Orchard, has closed its doors after failing to renew its lease last year, according to three people familiar with the wine club’s situation.

The closure of the club, which was launched in 2021, comes as sales of luxury goods such as watches, cars, high-end apartments and golf memberships have tumbled in the city-state, according to industry experts, and as Singapore authorities are increasing scrutiny of family offices in the wake of a record money-laundering scandal.

Last August, Singaporean authorities arrested and charged 10 people — all with links to China — in connection to a $2.2bn money laundering and fraud investigation, the largest in Singapore’s history. Police also seized assets including luxury properties, cars, designer handbags, gold bars, cash and cryptocurrency in raids across the city.

In the wake of the probe, authorities have turned a closer eye on Singapore’s most affluent residents, visiting auto dealerships and real estate groups and warning in October that luxury assets including cars, watches and handbags may be subjected to anti-money laundering controls.

Private bankers have also tightened due diligence processes for new clients, leading to longer waiting times to open accounts and set up family offices.

Circle 33, which was famed for its extensive wine menu with prices that ran into six figures, came to symbolise the flow of wealth to Singapore during the pandemic, especially from super-rich Chinese fleeing draconian restrictions in mainland China.

Co-founded by Zhang Tao, the co-founder of restaurant review site Dianping, and backed by Chinese business figures such as Min Fan, co-founder of travel group Ctrip, Circle 33 gained notoriety by attracting high-flying executives from China, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, according to multiple people who frequented the club.

“It was printing money but members stopped going after it was spoken about in the media and earned a reputation,” said one person who visited the club on multiple occasions.

Another person close to the club said Circle 33 did not make enough money, forcing the owners to decide against renewing the lease.

On a recent visit by the Financial Times, there was no sign of Circle 33 at the villa on Scotts Road save for terracotta statues in the garden.

Jade Koh, who is listed as the general manager of Circle 33 on LinkedIn, declined to comment. The club does not have a website and its Google listing said it is permanently closed.

While the money laundering investigation, which Singapore police said had been in progress for years, was announced after Circle 33’s quiet closure this summer, the scandal has swayed the city-state’s wealthy to avoid flaunting their privilege, especially as the cost of living rises.

“The economy is not as robust,” said Aaron Goh, a high-end events planner for eXposure Entertainment, who has observed a drop off in demand for personalised parties over the past six months.

Lee Lee Langdale, owner of Singolf Services, a club membership brokerage, said that prices had been rising “until the money laundering case in August” thanks to demand from foreigners, especially from China. “Since then it has been really quiet,” she said.

Golf clubs have also begun more strictly examining suspicious payments, she added, while membership prices have come down, with joining fees at Sentosa Golf Club falling from about S$950,000 to S$850,000 (US$709,000-US$635,000).

Say Kwee Neng, a car industry consultant, said sales of luxury and super-luxury brands had also come under more scrutiny, on top of a targeted tax rise introduced last year.

“Anecdotally, I heard stories of how the authorities were visiting authorised dealers for Porsche, Ferrari and Bentley,” he said. “Specifically they wanted to know why more detailed background checks weren’t conducted by the dealers to ascertain the source of funding for these people of interest.”

Higher duties have also contributed to a fall in luxury home sales in the second half of last year, according to real estate industry experts.

“The high-end market fuelled by foreigners was already softening due to higher stamp duty costs,” said one real estate agent specialising in foreign buyers. “The laundering scandal was the nail in the coffin.”

This post was originally published on Financial Times

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