insight - Singapore’s Shophouse Treasures
Written by Mark Eveleigh for Oryx in Singapore
From their humble beginnings as the simplest of trading places, Singapore’s iconic shophouses are becoming the architectural treasures of the Far East. Mark Eveleigh reports.
Patrick Phoa is better known to people in his Singapore neighbourhood as ‘Uncle Vintage’. ‘Uncle’ is a common term of endearment in these backstreets, and ‘Vintage’ relates to 60-year-old Phoa’s absolute infatuation for the unique historical charm of Singapore.
“I’ve been collecting antiques and vintage stuff – almost everything you can think of – from around this region for most of my life,” he says. “My shophouse has been a fixture of the evocatively named Kampong Glam (Glam Village) for the last 22 years, although the building itself is a part of an architectural tradition that goes back hundreds, if not thousands, of years.”
Uncle Vintage is sitting at his desk among a jumble of what he calls his ‘stuff’ (the collection is so wonderfully eclectic that no other word is possible). The tiny shop is crammed to the rafters with everything from old sepia photographs to commemorative crockery, from maritime memorabilia to vintage cameras and 1950s toys. The Heritage Shop is in an old shophouse in one of Singapore’s quaintest quarters. Kampong Glam actually got its name from a type of fish that was once sold by the Malay fishermen who lived here. A mile away in Little India voices ring out in Tamil, and down in Chinatown it will be Chinese that is heard, but Kampong Glam is one of the few sections of Singapore where you still hear Malay spoken by almost everybody.
Traditional shophouses like that of Uncle Vintage, however, are so much a common denominator of all these traditional areas that they are now realising extremely high prices as Singaporean icons. All over the city these charming buildings are being converted into fashionable premises for businesses with a taste for vintage design flair.
Yet these old buildings invariably had humble beginnings as basic functional shops with one or two storeys of simple living quarters above. The shop was always set back from the road while the house on the upper floor projected over to form a covered walkway that would offer shade and shelter from tropical downpours. Sir Stamford Raffles’ celebrated town-planning regulations of 1822 – later adopted in colonial cities all over the Far East – stipulated that the covered walkway must be five feet wide and, even today, Singaporeans often refer to their pathways as ‘the five-foot way’. Of course, as is the case with Uncle Vintage’s Heritage Shop, the five-foot way frequently just provided extra space for still more ‘stuff’.
Up until the mid-1800s, shophouses remained simple utility affairs. The majority of Singapore’s early settlers came from China’s Guangdong and Fujian provinces, and they brought aspects of their local architecture with them. Buildings in southern China were traditionally taxed according to their frontage on the street so it was natural for these arrivals to respect the long, narrow floor-plan that remains a defining feature of shophouses of every type. Over the next century the settlement boomed and second-generation Singaporeans began to carve an enviable lifestyle while still remembering their Chinese roots. The simple kopitiam (coffee shops) and gedung (go-downs) continued to thrive, but the most celebrated townhouses began to evolve into Modernist mansions, rococo residences, and what Julian Davison called in his wonderful book Singapore Shophouse “Baroque extravaganzas that would have raised a few eyebrows even in 17th-century Rome.”
“Shophouses are a familiar sight all along the Straits of Malacca,” says Kampong Glam business-owner Gabriel Soon, “but in Singapore they’re a living part of our heritage. We continue to build the skyscrapers that have made our city famous, but its vital that we protect these old buildings too.”
Soon and his Chinese wife Cindy are the owners of The Tang Dynasty Spa, a wonderfully sprawling establishment that occupies three renovated shophouses on Northbridge Road. The spa received the coveted Singapore Award for Excellence for 2013: one would hope that it was awarded not only for the quarter’s finest spa facilities but also for the tasteful way in which the owners are preserving this iconic building.
Just around the corner from the spa you find the classical white facade of the Sultan Hotel, which occupies an entire city block of Grade A conservation shophouses.
“We had to buy many of the shophouses individually, so it took five years for the purchase to go through,” says Charmaine Ong, vice-CEO of The Sultan. “It was worth it though. Modern travellers and Singaporeans are realising that areas like Kampong Glam and the traditional shophouses are a dying breed, and everyone is trying his best to maintain the laid-back, bohemian, and uniquely Singaporean feel of Kampong Glam. The project has been a labour of love for us, and we feel blessed to be able to give something back to Singapore's rapidly disappearing architectural heritage.”
Similar projects (although there are few so ambitious) have been a boon to many of Singapore’s old quarters. Many businesses are starting to turn their backs on the glitz and glamour of the high-rise city centre for a more down-home rustic feel (albeit with that typical Singaporean elegance) in the Chinatown neighbourhood of Tanjong Pagar. TP, as its known locally, is the increasingly chic Singaporean equivalent of London’s Soho or New York’s Greenwich Village. Two neighbourhood shophouses here recently went under the hammer for an asking price of almost US$14 million.
There are vestiges here of a Singapore that has long gone – the old Jinrikisha Station where TP’s trishaws once congregated, and Jalan Kreta Ayer (Water Cart Street) but times are changing fast. In Craig Road, for example, you see shophouses occupied by The Straits Wine Co., an advertising agency, a solicitors’, and an Italian bistro sharing a single block with the Singapore Buddhist Free Clinic, a shophouse that was converted into a Chinese temple, and a bric-a-brac shop with an arrestingly honest sign: “We buy junk and sell antiques. Some fools buy, some fools sell.”
From coffee shops to food courts
The ground floors of shophouses were typically designed as business areas, but these could take many forms. In the homes of richer merchants the front room would sometimes be an office rather than a shop, and in even more celebrated circumstances it might become a reception room. Some shophouses were converted into temples, while others were opened up completely so that they could become kopitiam, as coffee shophouses are still known in Singapore. The name derives from kopi (Malay for ‘coffee’) and tiam (Hokkien for ‘shop’) and in itself reflects the diversity of clients that these communal meeting places often attract. The owners of larger kopitiam often sublet posts around the central seating areas to other stallholders (producing dim sum, fish-head curry, laksa...). In this way the shophouses gave birth to Singapore’s modern food courts.
Humble beginnings to historical gems
The Sultan Hotel at 101 Jalan Sultan in Kampong Glam is the perfect place for anyone with an interest in shophouses to stay. This wonderfully evocative boutique hotel occupies no less than nine two-storey shophouses and an old Muslim publishing house, all tastefully converted in to hotel, restaurants, reception areas, and even a jazz club and rooftop bar, while at the same time respecting the integrity of the buildings themselves. The celebrated Raffles Hotel over at 1 Beach Road is justly famous as one of the world’s best hotels. From similarly humble beginnings as a beach bungalow where rooms were rented, this Singapore institution features a large arcade that, with its covered walkways and simple uniformly elegant shopfront façades, doffs a hat to the shophouses of Chinatown.