The Founder and Co-Owner at 1880 shares with ShuQi Liu about mortality, empathy and his obsession with conversation.
“This capitalist thing, it’s getting out of control. We are insanely lucky to be right here.”
Leonie’s lunch crowd is buzzing. Nestled within 1880, a private members’ club along picturesque Robertson Quay, the Timothy Oulton designed bistro is a haven for game changers, tastemakers and collaborators.
Within seconds, I spot familiar faces amongst a breezy, cosmopolitan, well-travelled demographic. Veteran journalist and broadcaster Teymoor Nabili at the bar, Singapore Repertory Theatre’s Gaurav Kripalani seated by the windows, and venture capitalists tapping on their MacBooks in the lounge area, just to name a few.
Filled with natural light, Leonie’s daytime vibes merge well into a refined dining experience. Posh yet accessible, rich grained leathers and exotic marble tops are tastefully contrasted with dimmed crystal lighting and burnt timber arches.
As I turned my attention to a cleverly curated menu, Marc Nicholson, the Founder and Co-Owner at 1880, skips over.
“What’s going on with you?” he casually slips in the question. Marc isn’t just asking out of courtesy. Speaking with a Canadian drawl, his voice is crisp, enunciation clear. He is genuinely taking an interest in what I do, and spends the next few minutes getting to know me.
A celebration ensues. “Excuse me,” Marc apologises. He stands up, walks to the next table, and sends his best wishes to the birthday man. I observed their brief exchange. Marc was direct, open-minded and welcoming. He could turn a conversation into an erudite discussion, which puts a smile on anyone’s face.
As he returns to our table, the waiter comes over to take our orders. Helmed by Executive Chef Colin Buchan, the menu is nutrition packed. “I’ll have a Ceasar Salad, as is.” Marc articulates. “Low on the sauce. It’s light for me today.” he stresses.
Condolences for your Dad’s passing, I began. It was the first time someone close to Marc had passed away, and the funeral had just concluded in recent days. “It is incredibly lucky if one thought about it,” says Marc.
“The sad part was easy,” he continues with a sombre expression. “Dad was 87. Kind. It was for the best, having suffered from Alzheimer’s, descending into oblivion, if you like. I’m not sure what life is if you don’t have a memory.”
A long pause takes over. Then, Marc lits up again. “If you can’t remember from one minute to the next, I don’t know what you are. What’s the definition of that? Interesting, right?” he quips.
Launched in October 2017, 1880 provides an avenue to learn, challenge, share and innovate in an unmatched setting. Offering a refreshing private members club experience, it is focused on inspiring greatness with the convergence of diverse minds. And it all started with Marc’s father.
“I am in a period of reflection, I guess,” contemplates Marc. “My Dad wasn’t sure what life meant. Whether he was successful or not. I told him that he made a tremendous contribution towards humanity, just by hosting the salons.”
Since Marc was 12, his parents held weekly salons in their privileged family home. For 36 years and counting, the Nicholson’s Wednesday Night – An Economic and Political Salon, became the inclusive forum for discussing geopolitics, technology, finance, moral and ethical issues.
“It is a massive thing,” explains Marc. “Every week, Dad would chair the salon. It starts at 9pm, and goes on till one o’clock in the morning. There’s a lot of socialising, but very rigorous with an agenda. A protocol.
The beautiful thing is that, it was always an opportunity for various viewpoints. Every aspect of an argument was covered. No stone was left unturned. Whether it was Reagan’s politics, abortion, 9/11, Wednesday Night always happened.”
Lunch is served. I tuck into a generous serving of aged beef pho. Marc slices up the baby gem lettuce, forks the anchovies. I slurp my broth in the quietest, most graceful manner. The noodles glistened. I catch Marc picking on croutons, barely eating his salad.
“Here’s the point. All of that, led to this,” he admits. “My Dad’s contribution was to bring different people together, have them chip away at their own dogma through civil discourse. In an open and trusting environment, my folks did it with a generous spirit. I think it leads to world peace if you really get into it.” says Marc with a smile.
“If you can’t remember from one minute to the next, I don’t know what you are. What’s the definition of that? Interesting, right?”
Turning introspective, Marc shares that demand for intellectual engagement is far outstripping supply. “The purpose of 1880 is to inspire conversations and to change the world. I worry the most about what we are doing to push ideas around. It’s not easy to engage a whole audience. We don’t want to be binary, but to be multi-faceted. It has to be a debatable topic, a point of contention. If it’s controversial, that’s even better.” he elaborates.
So what makes a good conversation? I probed. “Trust, openness, politeness and humility. It’s not to say, you’re right, I’m wrong. There’s so many points of view. The underlying factor is to listen, and be able to speak.
The really important thing is, intimacy. By that, I mean you get to be vulnerable. I’m going to expose myself to you, I’m gonna trust you not to hurt me. And if you have that bond, it’s easier to form a friendship. That’s what warms your heart.” says Marc.
At this point, we exchange meaningful looks. It was the first time I got up close and personal with a humanitarian at heart. Marc’s choice of words was precise. They unravelled a curious philosopher.
Have you always been open to conversations? I inquired. Marc frowns, scrunches up his forehead. Intense concentration takes over his being.
“There was a point I needed money at 16, so I went to work at a suicide hotline, take calls from people who wanted to kill themselves,” he reveals.
“It was pretty intense. Once a month, I would do a shift from midnight till 8 in the morning. People are wasted. Lonely. On drugs. It was the worst period. But I walked through these callers’ thought processes: what kind of pills are you planning to take? Do you have a gun? How do you kill yourself? What you really learn, is empathy. That’s the foundation of civil society.”
I segued into my next question: in three words, describe your relationship with 1880. Marc stews on his response. “Aha!” he exclaims, then lets out a slight chuckle, as if to say how unbelievably simple, yet difficult it is to answer. “Father, brother, son.” Marc states.
I look him in the eye, searching for a long answer. “What I meant is, 1880 is like my baby. I feel very parental towards it. It is also the place where I have a ton of friends. And that’s why I say, brotherly. As a son, I think I am here to learn an awful lot. I don’t like to not be here, quite honestly. There’s so many wonderful people, from all walks of life.”
I end by asking Marc if anything scares him. He scans the air and reflects on today’s realities. “This capitalist thing, it’s getting out of control. We are insanely lucky to be right here. We can debate what card, what phone we want. And we can ignore poverty, get so intensely wrapped up in competition, the pressure to succeed. It’s getting worse, not better. That’s a big issue.”
Images by 1880 Members Club
ShuQi Liu is the Editor and brainchild of Doyenne.sg.