The two square kilometres of Chinatown, west and south of the Singapore River, were never a Chinese enclave in what is, after all, a Chinese-majority country, but they did once represent the focal point of the island’s Chinese life and culture. More so than the other old quarters, however, Chinatown has seen large-scale redevelopment and become a bit of a mishmash. Even so, a wander through the surviving nineteenth-century streets still unearths musty and atmospheric temples and clan associations, and you might hear the rattle of a game of mahjong being played.
The area was first earmarked for Chinese settlement by Raffles, who decided in 1819 that Singapore’s communities should be segregated. As immigrants poured in, the land southwest of the river took shape as a place where new arrivals from China, mostly from Fujian (Hokkien) and Guangdong (Canton) provinces and to a lesser extent Hainan Island, would have found temples, shops with familiar products and, most importantly, kongsis – clan associations that helped them find lodgings and work as small traders and coolies.
This was one of the most colourful districts of old Singapore, but after independence the government chose to grapple with its tumbledown slums by embarking upon a redevelopment campaign that saw whole streets razed. Someone with an unimpeachable insight into those times, one Lee Kuan Yew, is quoted thus in the area’s Singapore City Gallery: “In our rush to rebuild Singapore, we knocked down many old and quaint buildings. Then we realized that we were destroying a valuable part of our cultural heritage, that we were demolishing what tourists found attractive.” Not until the 1980s did the remaining shophouses and other period buildings begin to be conserved, though restoration has often rendered them improbably perfect. Even so, as in Little India, the character of the area has had a bit of a shot in the arm courtesy of recent immigrants. As regards sights, the Thian Hock Keng, Buddha Tooth Relic and Sri Mariamman temples are especially worthwhile, as is the Chinatown Heritage Centre museum, and there’s plenty of shophouse architecture to justify a leisurely wander.Read More
Though Singapore has no shortage of striking modern buildings, it’s the island’s rows of traditional shophouses that are its most distinctive architectural feature. Once often cramped and unsanitary, many were demolished in the years following independence, but since the 1980s whole streets of them have been declared conservation areas and handsomely restored.
As the name suggests, shophouses were originally a combination of shop and home, with the former occupying the ground floor of a two- or three-storey building; eventually many came to be built purely as townhouses, but the original name stuck. Unusually, the facade is always recessed at ground level, leaving a space here that, combined with adjoining spaces in a row of shophouses, would form a sheltered walkway at the front (the “five-foot way”, so named because of its minimum width) – hence the lack of pavements on Singapore’s older streets. Another notable feature is that shophouses were built narrow and surprisingly deep. Behind the ground-floor shop or reception hall there might be a small courtyard, open to the sky, then yet another room; this layout can be seen at the Baba House and the Katong Antiques House. Also, shophouses were usually built back to back, with tiny alleyways separating the rear sections of adjoining rows; it’s down one such alleyway that the brothels of Desker Road are tucked away.
Shophouses began to be built from the mid-nineteenth century. The oldest ones are no longer standing, but slightly later examples, which still exist on and around Telok Ayer and Arab streets, for example, feature the characteristic shuttered windows and tiled roofs that continued to be used for several decades. Otherwise, their decoration was limited, say, to simple stuccowork, but by the turn of the last century, the shophouse had blossomed into a dizzy melange of Western and Eastern styles, which both European and local architects enjoyed blending. So-called Neoclassical, Chinese Baroque and Rococo shophouses featured decorative Corinthian columns, mini-pediments, fanlights, a riot of multicoloured tilework and stucco, even curvy gables. Local ornamentations included wooden trelliswork and eaves overhung with a row of fretted fascia boards, both often seen in Malay palaces; Peranakan pintu pagar, half-height swing doors like those in Wild West bars; and Chinese touches such as floral and animal motifs. You can see fine wedding-cake-like rows of shophouses in these styles around Joo Chiat Road in Katong and on Sam Leong and Petain roads at the northern edge of Little India.
By the 1930s, global recession and prevailing artistic trends had caused a swing towards more sober Art Deco and modernist buildings, with simpler, geometrical facades often topped by a central flagpole. Shophouses with so-called Tropical Deco stylings continued to be built in Singapore after World War II, even though Art Deco had become old hat elsewhere, and there are quite a few examples in Chinatown, on South Bridge Road for example.
Boxy 1960s shophouses were the form’s last hurrah. By the 1980s, shophouses had pretty much fallen out of favour as they were just too small to make efficient use of scarce land, though a semblance of the five-foot way lived on in some concrete shopping developments of the time.
As with heritage buildings the world over, today’s surviving shophouses are often but a handsomely restored shell concealing insides that have been totally gutted and rejigged. Many no longer serve as shops, homes or clan houses, functioning instead as bars, beauty salons or offices.
Taking Chinese tea
Taking Chinese tea
At two Tanjong Pagar teahouses, Tea Chapter and Yixing Yuan Teahouse, visitors can glean something of the intricacies of the deep Chinese connection with tea by taking part in a tea workshop lasting up to an hour. Participants are introduced to different varieties of tea and talked through the history of tea cultivation and the rituals of brewing and appreciating the drink. The water, for example, has to reach an optimum temperature that depends on which type of tea is being prepared; experts can tell its heat by the size of the rising bubbles, described variously as “sand eyes”, “prawn eyes”, “fish eyes”, etc. Both venues also stock an extensive range of tea-related accoutrements such as tall “sniffer” cups used to savour the aroma of the brew before it is poured into squat teacups for drinking.