Sense of place is elusive in Singapore. Concepts like community, heritage and authenticity have all too often taken a back seat to progress, growth and efficiency — in some instances being obliterated all together. While this prosperous city-state has made great strides in recent decades in restoring and preserving historic facades, rarely have the intangible aspects — the way of life within the walls — survived. However, if you take the time to walk along the undulating, elegantly covered footpaths of Emerald Hill Road, located off Singapore’s most famous thoroughfare, you can still come palpably close to a residential community whose collective and contextual memory have remained intact for over a century.
Since last year, I have divided my time between Singapore and Bangkok — two cities that can seem like fundamental opposites. When I am in the ‘Garden City’, I embrace everything about it that is in stark contrast to the ‘City of Angels’. I enjoy the calmness, the orderliness, the lush greenery, the Swiss-like functionality of it all — but this also makes me appreciate the colour, the chaos, the grit and the glamour of Bangkok. In many ways, Singapore is as dynamic, as Bangkok is vibrant — a clear distinction that becomes more and more apparent to me as I shuttle back and forth between these vastly different metropolises.
When I am in Singapore, hardly a day goes by that I am not walking up or down the covered terraced sidewalks of nearby Emerald Hill Road. Due to the frequency with which I make my way through this tiny community nestled between the sleek, modern, glass and steel buildings that towers over it, I have come to observe much about the residences that line the area, as well as their inhabitants. Despite the scale of the development surrounding it, Emerald Hill remains very much a living, breathing village in the heart of the city, where the people and places that populate the area have roots dating back in an unbroken line to Singapore’s earliest days of urban expansion.
I first came to know Emerald Hill many years ago because of the handful of bars that populate the heritage shophouses of Peranakan Place, where the entrance to the community intersects with the shopping belt of Orchard Road. I imagine that this is how many people (both local and foreign) first become acquainted with the area. In addition, there are also those who make an effort to stroll up the road during daylight hours to see the famous shophouse facades that make up the majority of the built structures on Emerald Hill. Because the three streets that comprise the area (Hullet, Saunders and Emerald Hill) are no longer through roads, this has created a quiet, calm village feel with very low traffic, allowing visitors who explore by foot to comfortably do so from the middle of the road, providing a more ideal vantage point to view the beautiful shophouses.
But look a little closer, beyond the fluted columns, the ornamental corbels, the decorative tiles and the colourful window shutters and you will discover a diverse and surprisingly open community that has evolved from it’s original, predominantly Peranakan roots into one that is multinational and populated with designers, consultants, bankers, academics and art collectors — whose lives can readily be glimpsed through the pintu pagars (a half-height outer door that acts as a ‘fence’ providing ventilation, security and partial privacy) when the front door is left open. It is these swinging doors — some finely carved, gilded and incredibly ornate — that affords passersby a sense of openness and welcome that is rarely experienced in an area as exclusive and desirable as Emerald Hill.
Walking through the neighbourhood, I often see familiar faces of residents, coming and going from their homes. Locals can easily be identified because they tend to be the ones walking with pets, or shopping bags, and of course they are not facade gawking with their phone cameras in hand — they are most often the people who make use of the arcaded footpath (also know as the five foot way) that runs almost the entire length of one side Emerald Hill Road. The term “five-foot way” is derived from the minimum width of the covered sidewalks as prescribed by Singapore’s founding city planners in regards to the overhanging canopy, roof extension or projected upper floors. These roofed, continuous walkways are commonly found throughout Singapore’s historic districts but Emerald Hill is the only place left where it is still primarily residential, with low foot traffic, on a gentle incline, with an elegantly curving street shaded by trees. There is a very functional aspect beyond the aesthetic to the five foot way, as anyone living in a tropical country will attest to. Those colonial planners knew what they were doing — the design is highly suited to the climate, providing protection from the sun and the rain — which is precisely why I started using them in the first place, once I got past my own facade gawking.
The true delights of the neighbourhood however, are not the ornate frontages, but what lies behind them and between the walls. Through the pintu pagars you can see into many different lives. I often feel I’m channelling Howard Carter as he peered into Tutankhamun’s tomb — seeing ‘wonderful things’. Each house reveals its own treasures — beautiful antiques, art works, some contemporary, some classical, some minimalist and some not so. Behind the houses are access pathways that offer even more revealing glimpses into the lives of the residents. Mini edible gardens, outdoor cooking and laundry areas — the smells and sounds of life are less staged, along these quiet back alleys than the Instagrammable house fronts.
The shophouses and terrace houses in Emerald Hill may run into the many millions of dollars, but life here is not walled off — gates are frequently left open. Residents are often friendly, some can be found sitting on chairs that have been placed beside their respective front doors in the five foot ways — one house famously has a bench with a life size statue of Ronald MacDonald sitting on it. Oftentimes, you will see decorative objects, personal items, ashtrays, umbrella stands, even bird cages. This being Asia, there is often a profusion of shoes strewn out front. If you’re lucky, on rare occasions, friendly residents may invite you inside to take a look, or answer questions about where they live.
A number of the houses have been awarded Architectural Heritage Awards for their sympathetic restorations and also have description plaques telling stories about the original residents and designers of the properties. In some cases, you can still see the interior light wells that are a distinctive feature of the Singaporean shophouse. In Emerald Hill, a few of these atriums remain open to the elements allowing rain and sunlight to fall into an open courtyard pond. Wherever possible, elaborate timber work, dragon headed railings, colourful tiles, floral and animal motifs, as well as the occasional large Chinese characters on wooden signboards are preserved — stylistic elements that are indicative of the Pernakan heritage of the early inhabitants of the area. All these elements now live side-by-side with more modern construction from the Art Deco and Post-War periods, as well as a few luxury high rise developments.
One interesting, relatively recent development to the area as been the adapting of some shophouses into co-living spaces run by professional management companies, which differs from normal apartment flats because residents share the communal aspects of these heritage houses (living rooms, kitchens, etc…). Often, these are beautifully styled studio rooms, all in historic houses that now allow residential accessibility to one of the most exclusive neighbourhoods in the city — a forward thinking concept that adds to the vibrancy of the local population.
The area around Emerald Hill has born witness to much transformation, from its earliest days as gambier and nutmeg plantations, to being dotted with bungalows, followed by the rise of Singapore’s Late and Transitional style shophouses built on subdivided plots as residences for wealthy Straits-Chinese merchants (known as the Peranakans) at the turn of the 20th Century. These Peranakans were prominent in the legal, administrative, as well as cultural sectors of Singaporean society, particularly in music, theatre and entertainment. Although primarily residential, even in its very early days of development, Emerald Hill included a school (the prestigious Singapore Chinese Girls School — a ground breaking institution at the time of it’s establishment), the community was adjacent to a major rail line, the country’s first supermarket (Cold Storage) and even then, Orchard Road was a burgeoning avenue of commerce and entertainment. All these elements can still be found to this day either in their original forms, or existing in a new guise, but still fulfilling the same function.
Place heritage is an essential part of location identity, comprising both tangible and intangible elements. Emerald Hill represents that rare example of a community that has remained a genuine community for well over a century — in defiance of immense market forces and widespread commercialism. This is made all the more remarkable when you consider its location on Orchard, a road drowning in retail and artificial opulence. Aside from the Presbyterian Church, the shophouses of Emerald Hill remain the only existing edifices dating from Singapore’s Straights Settlement days that are still standing on Orchard Road — virtually every other original structure that ever stood on the entire two and a half kilometre stretch of this road has been demolished to make way for progress — living-on only in photographs and memories. In 1985, the Urban Redevelopment Authority announced that Emerald Hill would be a conservation area, the first in Singapore, in order to conserve some of the best examples of Straits Chinese style of dwellings.
I’ve always felt that buildings are like objects, which we often attach emotional links to — there is a soul to them, something beyond the bricks and mortar, an accumulation of life and memories that once they are gone, are irreplaceable. Perhaps that is why I am drawn to Emerald Hill, and its sense of continuity — I appreciate this sense of place every time I walk through it. Although many of the structures on Emerald Hill have been given protected heritage status, it is not only the buildings that convey a link to the past. In 2007, the Emerald Hill Conservation Association, the first conservation group run by home-owners in Singapore, embarked on an ambitious plan to rejuvenate the heritage estate. One element of the rejuvenation involved the addition of over 20,000 plants in a landscaping project done in coordination with the National Parks Board. The association made one special request to pay homage to the history of the area by selecting nutmeg trees to be included among the plantings, yet another living link to Emerald Hill’s past — this historic village, surrounded by modernity — a community whose story continues to keep on writing itself.
Emerald Hill lies just off the Orchard Road shopping district, in the heart of Singapore.
The Footpath Files
Stories from the Streets of Bangkok
Proudly powered by WordPress
Leave a Reply