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  • Writer's picturePropnex Shophouse Elites

Prime Heritage Play

Updated: Apr 23

"The biggest challenge is working within the conservation guidelines. The costs are generally higher; it is a lot more expensive to restore per square foot within a shophouse than to just build a new building - because there is a lot more complexity, and other than that, in the case of two of our three properties, putting it to a use that it was not originally built for. It is like working with a jigsaw puzzle. But then it is very rewarding to see it turn out actually." Mr Garcha notes that conservation shophouse prices in Singapore have gone up significantly in the past five to seven years because of the scarcity value. "And because of the heritage value, the appeal of these properties continually grows upon people. And I don't see that changing. I still see conservation shophouses as good investments for the long term."


There are about 6,760 shophouses in Singapore gazetted for conservation. They make up the bulk of the nearly 7,200 buildings gazetted for conservation.


"This is no mean feat for a small island and land-scarce city-state with competing land use needs. It is a testament to the importance we place on our built heritage and a holistic urban planning approach," says Teh Lai Yip, senior director, conservation, at the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). She was part of the team led by by Koh-Lim Wen Gin in the 1980s that championed the conservation cause. Mrs Koh-Lim retired as chief planner and deputy chief executive of URA in December 2008.


"Many other cities envy us," says Mrs Koh-Lim. "We are so small, with limited land and yet we can do conservation in a comprehensive way and there's enough critical mass and presence."


Nearly half or 3,320 of the 6,760 conservation shophouses are in the Historic Districts of Boat Quay, Chinatown, Kampong Glam and Little India. "Together as a district or as a street, I think these shophouses enhance the physical environment, the streetscape. Their presence enhances the built environment." For instance, the low-rise shophouses along Boat Quay provide 'urban windows' for the high-rise office buildings behind.


"So for the city as a whole, there is all this porosity, so the built environment as a whole is enhanced. Imagine if all the areas where you see conservation shophouses today were high-rise; there would be no breathing space," says Mrs Koh-Lim.


Architectural historian and anthropologist Julian Davison says: "The shophouse is very much a cultural signifier for Singapore. "A large part of Singapore's identity is wrapped up in its history as a port city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the ubiquitous shophouse defined the urban fabric of the city in that period and continued to do so until the early days of independence."


Post-independence, despite the pressures for redeveloping the city, the authorities managed to safeguard some precincts of shophouses in the Historic Districts.


Says Ms Sai: "Shophouses remind us of our historic background, the immigrants who came here and wanted to have their accommodation and business in the same premises." Ms Sai herself grew up in a shophouse.


Her family used to run a coffeeshop downstairs and lived upstairs. That property was part of a row of shophouses right at the end of Tanjong Pagar and Anson Road - which was later torn down to make way for the container port.


"It was fun growing up in a shophouse. Amenities were just a few doors away. You had a barber shop, a prawn noodle shop, provision shop; there was even a wet market selling pork and vegetables within a shophouse. If you lived next to a pet shop selling birds, you would hear parrots repeating orders being shouted at the nearby coffeeshop in Hainanese."


"A conserved shophouse is like a time capsule. Each shophouse that has been gazetted for conservation brings you back to that era, what the architecture was at that time, the story of how our forefathers lived..."


Some feel however, that certain areas have lost some of that hallowed charm.


It would be timely for the authorities to take a closer look at the tenant mix in certain conservation areas. "Today, there are too many Korean restaurants in Tanjong Pagar; it's like Little Korea."


"Perhaps, URA should adopt some sort of quotas on tenant mix in the Historic Districts to ensure they reflect the heritage of the place. I don't think we want tourists to label our heritage area as Korean Town.


"URA should research to create a balanced tenant mix, and educate owners that the objective of conservation is to show to the world our roots through these shophouses."


In a similar vein, Mrs Koh-Lim says: "For each of these Historic Districts, URA needs to play a more pro-active role in the place management; it needs to review the land-use control instead of just stating a broad category like 'commercial'.


"Perhaps it is timely to review and ask ourselves whether we should narrow down the kinds of trades to allow in these premises. After so many decades now, we should review and retake a new position, if you ask me. If you have the will, this can be done.


"You can have a five-year plan; it may not be feasible to implement things immediately, but gradually, you could encourage the owners and guide them back to retain some of the charm and character of the place.


"But it cannot be back to the 'good old days' for sure because some trades have vanished. Only the viable traditional trades that are still in demand - like medical halls, shops selling herbs, dried goods, traditional confectionery shops, etc - can afford the rentals."


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