By DIANE SLAWYCH, Special to QMI Agency
SINGAPORE -- Skyscrapers may dominate the skyline of Singapore, but fortunately there are still plenty of examples of traditional architecture in the country sometimes called the Garden State.
The "shophouse" is one standout. Introduced in the 1840s by immigrants from southern China's Guangdong province, these colourful two and three storey structures are found throughout Singapore, including in the ethnic neighbourhoods of Little India, Chinatown and Kampong Glam.
A traditional shophouse had a business on the ground floor and living quarters above, and was characterized by a gabled roof, shuttered windows, "five-foot way" (a sheltered passage for protection from heavy rain or hot sun) and sometimes elaborate exterior ornamentation. Today, restaurants, bars, boutiques, a museum and even a hotel are all located in renovated shophouses. Here are a few worth checking out:
In the heart of the culturally vibrant Muslim neighbourhood called Kampong Glam, a group of nine dilapidated shophouses were recently restored and converted to a 64-room boutique hotel, which last year won an architectural heritage award.
The original arches and columns, and Malay and Chinese decoration typical of 19th-century Singapore were retained. The five-foot way and back alleyway were carefully reinstated and landscaped, and new courtyards were added so the building could be naturally ventilated. Check thesultan.com.sg.
The hotel site dates to 1828, when the British designated it for use by the local sultan and the Muslim community. Today the area is a pleasant place to spend a few hours, whether shopping for textiles and straw goods on Arab St., or grabbing a bite to eat on palm tree-lined Bussorah Mall, which leads to the golden-domed Sultan Mosque.
Many landmarks can be found along the Singapore River including Boat Quay, a row of restored shophouses converted into chic restaurants, bars and shops. The orange-roofed three-storey structures were a hive of commercial activity in the 1860s when the river was the economic lifeline of Singapore, but the opening of new hi-tech container ports farther up the waterway in the '60s led to the area's decline.
After a revitalization project, Boat quay is bustling with life again. One popular activity is a short narrated river tour on a "bumboat" -- the sturdy, low-slung vessels that were once the main transport for commercial goods in Singapore.
You'll pass landmarks such as Old Parliament House, the landing site of Singapore founder Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the Merlion (the famous half mermaid, half lion sculpture), the Asian Civilizations Museum and the former General Post Office, which was transformed into the beautiful Fullerton Hotel.
Located in three restored shophouses, the Chinatown Heritage Centre is an excellent museum that 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.
Visitors hear about the personal stories and struggles of former tenants of 50 Pagoda St. -- from the tailor and his apprentices to the Samsui women and the coolies. Their cramped, dark and noisy living quarters have been authentically recreated; each floor housed as many as eight cubicles, and tenants shared kitchens and baths.
While there, it's worth exploring the lively neighbourhood with its souvenir stalls and temples, or take the free Chinatown walking tour (2 p.m. daily, except Sunday) that leaves from the centre. Check chinatownheritagecentre.sg.
To experience life as a local, have breakfast one morning at Ya Kun Kaya Toast (there are several in Singapore). We visited one of the original cafes at 18 China St., which is in a shophouse at Far East Square.
Breakfast at the eatery, founded by Loi Ah Koon in 1944, includes coffee with condensed milk, two soft-boiled eggs (locals add dark soy sauce and white pepper) and the signature toast with homemade kaya spread. The exact recipe is a secret, though ingredients are a combination of coconut milk, eggs and sugar, cooked slowly until thickened.
Walls are adorned with posters that tell the history of Ya Kun Kaya Toast, which is now run by Loi Ah Koon's son and has expanded into other countries.
NEED TO KNOW
For more information, visit the Singapore Tourism Board at yoursingapore.com.
This story was posted on Sun, February 10, 2013
More HeadlinesLuxury hotel at 2,000 metres to open in Oman
Bowled over by Thailand
Singapore makes a splash
48 hours in historic Penang
48 hours in Bangkok