Story and photos by Diane Slawych
Twenty-first century developers are not the first to envision purpose-built live/work units.
In the 1800s, Singapore had its own version, called the shophouse, typically a two or three storey building owned by one family who would operate a business on the ground floor and live on the upper levels.
Today, Singapore is a modern city-state with gleaming skyscrapers, yet plenty of examples of its traditional architecture remain. Shophouses, many of them colourfully painted, can still be found in various ethnic enclaves such as Little India, Chinatown and Kampong Glam (Arab Quarter).
Some have been renovated and converted to other uses such as the nine formerly rundown shophouses in Kampong Glam that have been turned into a 64 room award-winning boutique hotel called The Sultan. Elsewhere, at Boat Quay along the Singapore River, a row of restored shophouses are now home to upscale restaurants, bars and shops.
For a trip back in time, there’s nothing like a visit to the museum in the Chinatown Heritage Centre (itself made up of three beautifully restored shophouses), which has recreated the original interiors of its shophouse tenants from the 1950s. They’re furnished with a collection of household and personal items, some of which were donated by the former residents themselves.
Traditional Chinatown shophouses were built between 1840 and 1960. They have narrow frontages 13 to 20 feet wide and 39 to 59 feet deep, and are characterized by a gabled roof and shuttered windows. Some also have elaborate exterior ornamentation.
Shophouses were commonly built in blocks of four to 16 units and a common feature was known as the five-foot way – a covered walkway that offered protection from heavy rain or hot sun. It was a place where children played and adults socialized, and where hawkers and traders plied their wares.
The Heritage Centre tells the story of Chinese immigrants who began arriving in Singapore in large numbers in the late 1800s in search of jobs and a better future.
The personal stories and struggles of former tenants of 50 Pagoda St. — including the tailor and his apprentices, the Samsui women, and the coolies — are illustrated in vivid detail.
Often the shop would double as sleeping quarters for workers at night. On the floors above, where people lived, conditions were cramped, dark and noisy, something that is authentically recreated here. Living quarters were subdivided into seven or eight small cubicles – measuring about eight by eight feet – and rented to tenants who shared kitchens and bathrooms. With such limited living space, it’s not surprising that arguments frequently erupted.
Each cubicle could house up to six people, resulting in some 40 people on one floor. Cubicles located away from the windows were called dark rooms and were the cheapest to rent. Some cubicles were also used for conducting business.
A common sight in old Singapore were the celibate maids — women who took a vow of celibacy so they “could commit to serving their master.” The recreated majies cubicle shows how they would have lived.
The 1950s shophouse was a maze of activities, full of noise and colour. One important architectural feature was the airwell, which let sunlight into the dark interior. As all three levels are connected via the airwell, occupants would often use this area for socializing.
But there were major problems — overcrowding, poverty, poor hygiene and sanitation. For two decades beginning in the 1960s, entire blocks of shophouses were demolished and tall buildings and multi storey complexes took their place to accommodate the growing population.
By the mid 1980s almost all of the residents, hawkers and businesses had been relocated to improved premises. In 1989, Chinatown was gazetted as a conservation area and is now enjoying a revival.
Singapore has radically changed over the years, but fortunately, the Chinatown Heritage Centre and other areas still offer an intriguing glimpse into its past.