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The Five Foot Way, Singapore

29 June 2015

Many Singaporean entrepreneurs are turning their backs on the high-rise glitz and glamour of the business district and returning to their downtown roots, where a revival of the nation’s colourful architectural heritage is taking place...

Shrapnel shards of pastel paintwork reflect haphazardly in the glass panels of a Singapore office block. A neon-lit uptown boulevard gives way to a labyrinth of alleys where fringed Chinese lanterns and wrought-iron lamps throw eerie shadows into tunnel-like walkways.

Singapore’s glitteringly modern skyline has become instantly recognisable, but look closer and you can still find a city that has evolved through the years. Perhaps even more so than the great colonial institutions, the humble shophouses are the roots from which the far-reaching branches of Singapore’s multi-cultural business network has sprang throughout the world.

Many Singaporeans are now working together to ensure that these roots will never be allowed to decay. “Shophouses give us a sense of the culture in an area,” says Patrick Phoa. Uncle Vintage, as he’s better known to his Kampong Glam neighbours, is sitting among an unimaginably eclectic jumble of antique and collectible treasures that spills out into covered walkway outside his shop on Sultan Road. The Heritage Shop has become a Singaporean institution that counts the Emir of Qatar among its recent customers.

“When shophouses are cleared to make way for high-rise developments we lose a certain sense of belonging. As a people from a mix of cultural backgrounds, a sense of belonging is particularly important to us.”

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) – the entity in charge of town planning – has officially declared many of the city’s remaining shophouses deserving of protection as “historical sources of delight and nostalgia”. Back in the late 1980s the URA put its money where its mouth was by restoring no less than 32 shophouses in a deliberate attempt to convince the private sector just how attractive these conversion projects could become.

“There are now about 6,500 in Singapore that have conservation status,” says Teh Lai Yip, Senior Director Of Conservation at URA. “Some are only available to Singaporeans but most shophouses in historic districts, such as Chinatown, Kampong Glam and Little India, are zoned for commercial use, and can actually still be owned by foreigners.”

Earlier this year The Straits Times reported that a shophouse in Chinatown’s Pagoda Street was sold to an Indonesian businessman for more than US$15 million (US$2,600 per square foot). As demand has risen the average price has escalated in the last five years from US$1,160 per square foot to more than US$2,500.

Take a leisurely walk around Little India, Kampong Glam or Arab Street and you’ll still find rows of ramshackle old dwellings; ancient plaster peeling, balconies sagging like the frontage of heavily made-up dowager actresses. Times are changing however and, all over the city, shophouses are being snapped up by forward-thinking boutique firms of designers, artists, lawyers and architects who realise that there is a great future in investing in the island’s picturesque past. Step-by-step the dowdy old actresses are being converted into the starlets they once were.

When Sir Stamford Raffles commissioned the island’s first official town plan in 1822, a major priority was to create different ethnic quarters that would ease conflict within the rapidly growing immigrant population. Chinatown and Little India were created and Kampong Glam was established as a home for Malay and Bugis settlers.

What all these areas shared in common was the shophouse design, which was influenced by the architecture of southern China but laid out along typically regimented British lines. The defining characteristic was the walkway that interconnected the front of every building to provide shade from the tropical sun and shelter during the monsoons. Regulations stated that this walkway must be exactly five feet wide and even today Singaporean locals call the ubiquitous covered footpath ‘the five-foot way’.

As the city became more densely populated the five-foot way itself became workspace for a variety of street-traders including barbers, scribes, fortune-tellers and traditional healers. Some shophouses became the clan houses of secret Chinese associations and others were registered as officially sanctioned illicit dens.

By 1923 there were 423 government-run dens in the city, distinguishable by their crimson coloured doors. Corner shophouses, where the walls could be knocked out to provide extensive seating areas, became sought-after as eateries. Many of these places are still thriving today: Kampong Glam Café is still so popular that you can rarely find a table; Nan Hwa Chong fish-head steamboat place on North Bridge Road has queues that stretch down the street almost every evening; and Usman Restaurant remains the best Pakistani eatery in Little India.

Some shophouses were converted into places of worship like the beautiful Thian Hock Kang temple on Telok Ayer Street, which is dedicated to Mazu, the goddess of wayfarers. At the time it was built (circa 1840) it stood on the waterfront at the point where junks arrived, and for thousands of Straits Chinese this would have been the first Singaporean building they entered. (Telok Ayer is now a long walk from the shoreline; in the last 50 years Singapore has grown by 20 per cent as land has been reclaimed from the sea.)

By the late 1950s a great many shophouses had simply became doss-houses where up to 120 labourers would take shifts to share sleeping mats. Buildings were divided and then sub-divided into the tiniest of cubicles as the squatter population escalated towards 400,000. After independence in 1965 Singapore’s priority was to try and improve living conditions, and hundreds of shophouses were demolished to be replaced by so-called High Density Buildings (HDBs).

Just as there is a trend to move away from high-rise office space, so many tourists are choosing local-quarter boutique hotels over the big names of Orchard Road. The Sultan Hotel in Kampong Glam is a lovingly restored city block of nine shophouses (and a wonderful building that was once an Islamic printing house) that has been converted into spacious suites. Mood-lighting, air-con and flat screen TVs seem to fit seamlessly with beamed ceilings and jalousie shutters.

“The purchase process took almost five years,” says Charmaine Ong, The Sultan’s manager. “The owner had to individually purchase each shophouse unit from private owners to fulfil his dream of having a complete shophouse compound for the hotel. No effort was spared in the conservation of the architectural features of the buildings and the renovation took a further two years.”

Legend has it that there’s a secret underground passageway somewhere under the lobby that leads to what was once the sultan’s residence (one imagines there must have been a few moments during those seven years when the Sultan Hotel’s determined owner wished he had a similar escape route.)

Chinatown’s 79-room Naumi Liora is another heritage hotel where the delightfully uneven corridors betray the fact that these were all independent shophouses built at different times by owners with different needs.

“Recent years have seen increasing numbers of boutique firms switching to shophouses for commercial and retail spaces because they like the traditional feel and the ability to inject modernity into these type of spaces,” says Kunal Pawa, a young Singaporean, who has converted the interior of his family’s three-storey Little India shophouse into an attractive zen-industrial co-working centre known as Workhouse (ourworkhouse.com).

“I’ve seen so many positive developments in Little India over the last few years that when I decided to start Workhouse I knew that I wanted it to be here, to be a part of that change.”

“Most of Little India is a primary conservation area,” explains Pawa, “so there’s not much that can be done on the external facade of the buildings from a design perspective. Also, there’s less availability here than in other areas since many of the shophouses are owner-occupied rather than rented out to tenants. There’s definitely growing enthusiasm for shophouses here though; people are becoming more aware of the limited availability and architectural beauty.”

Just as the island’s founders sought a way to build for the future, it seems that many of Singapore’s most forward-thinking entrepreneurs are now realising that it could also pay to invest in the past.

Where to stay: How to indulge your shophouse obsession while in Singapore

Sultan Hotel (thesultan.com.sg) at 101 Jalan Sultan in Kampong Glam is the perfect place to stay for anyone with an interest in shophouses. B&B rates for Standard rooms start from US$113 and Signature rooms start from US$166

Naumi Liora (naumiliora.com) is a charming old shophouse renovation project close to the heart of Chinatown. Room prices start from US$105. The same owners also boast the rather chic Naumi Hotel (naumihotel.com). Doubles from US$234 B&B

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