Tag Archives: chinatown

These Shophouses

had me at hello. Although that’s true for most shophouses as far as I’m concerned. But Bukit Pasoh Road is something else with its row of spectacularly bejewelled mid-20th century buildings that have been painstakingly refurbished by the URA (Urban Redevelopment Authority).

Bukit Pasoh

“They have it all, don’t they?”, said our guide alluding to the ornate architectural style of these shophouses called Late Shophouse Style or Late Straits Eclectic Style that became popular between 1900 – 1940s. Of all the six different architectural styles China town’s shophouses can be grouped into, this one is the most spectacular with decorative stuccowork on everything from architraves, cornices and pilasters to even brackets, dramatic iron grilles of the balconies, wooden louvered windows and so much more.

Bukit Pason Shophouses

As a part of the ongoing Singapore Heritage Fest 2016 (29April – 15 May),  URA had organized a heritage walk in Chinatown in collaboration with the Friends of the Museum, focussing on the Bukit Pasoh Area. We started a little after 9 am from the URA building on Maxwell Street, passed by the Maxwell Food Centre and the Fairfield Methodist Church, then crossed the road towards the imposing Jinrikisha Station on the opposite, walked along Neil Road, across Duxton Hill and finally reached Bukit Pasoh Road around 11. Along the way, we stopped at several junctures to hear fascinating stories about the architecture and history of these places from our guide who seemed incredibly adept at bringing the past alive.


A section of Bukit Pasoh Road as seen from the roof top of Gan Clan Singapore.

If no one was minding the scorching May heat, it was because of her muscular narrative chops . “Why do you think these shophouses have backlanes?, she asked and matched the blank stares with another interesting fact.”..so the night soil collector could visit each night and discreetly pick up the buckets filled with waste from each house without disturbing the owner”. Judging from the look of surprise on the faces followed by immediate relief considering our much advanced living conditions, I guessed there would be newfound admiration for flush toilets at least within this group of participants.


My painting at the ‘Sketches of Da Po – Old and New Chinatown’ exhibition at Gan Clan Singapore

“Bukit is a Malay word for hill and Pasoh stands for Alibaba pots (earthenware pots) “, said our guide. Apparently in 1846, Bukit Pasoh was recorded to be 1281 feet in elevation and was home to many 19th century kilns that produced these pots used in homes to store water and rice. This street was also home to many clan associations (which were basically societies that helped 19th century immigrants from China to settle in Singapore and find their footing) , some of which still survive today and in one such building on 18 Bukit Pasoh Road called Gan Clan Singapore (formerly known as The Gan Clan Association) there’s an art exhibition happening on the 4th floor where one of my sketches is sharing space with many beautiful pieces of work, all based on the theme Da Po – Old and New Chinatown.

The exhibition is open from 10 am till 5pm, until 18th May (Closed on 14th May and Sundays) and is interesting to visit because there’s an incredible array of drawing styles on display, sometimes of one particular building or scene, proving how different people perceive and express the same things differently.

Don’t leave without trying the scrumptious blueberry muffin with chia seeds at The LoKal cafe just round the corner, at the intersection of Bukit Pasoh Rd and Neil Road. Here’s the sketch –


The LoKal Cafe







Kindness of Mr. Potato Head

It so happened that on a bright sunny, excruciatingly hot and humid morning, a bunch of sketchers descended on Keong Saik Road and captured the five-footways of its shophouses for three hours of intensive sketching.

Easels were set up, field chairs were pulled out, pigments, palettes, brushes, pens, pencils, charcoal, mounds of Artist grade paper and large plastic mugs of water appeared. Rolls of kitchen towels and packets of tissues were kept by the side. Sunscreen was rubbed, sunglasses were donned and stretchy UV protecting sleeves were worn on arms. Wide brimmed hats and baseball caps crowned every head.

Potato Head Folk

The 1939 Art Deco building with red border on the left houses Potato Head Folk – a burger joint on Keong Saik Road

And while we braved through the day, observing, sketching, painting and spurring each other on beads of sweat trickled down our backs and bloomed on our foreheads. In the absence of breeze, not a single leaf or a strand of hair moved. The air’s oppressive stillness clung the clothes to our bodies, forming dark, damp patches.

But then just as the morning turned into afternoon and became increasingly heavy with languor, respite came.

I was at the intersection of Keong Saik and Teck Lim Road, sketching this iconic pre-war building with bright red borders  when I saw a uniformed staff of Potato Head Folk – a burger joint that replaced the famous 75 year old Tong Ah Eating House- approach us lugging a bucket filled with green glass bottles.

Shophouses along Keong Saik Road

Preserved shophouses along Keong Saik Road – one of the prettiest section of Chinatown, Singapore

“Here, have one”, she said handing me a chilled bottle of mineral water. I may have snatched it and gulped its entire content down my parched throat before thanking her. ‘No worries. My boss saw you’ll sketching in the heat, so he sent these’, she added and moved on to other dehydrated souls.

The weather continued to be gruelling but Mr. Potato Head’s benevolence had already injected vigour into the listless air. We picked up our brushes and marched on.



Craig Road beauties

A sure shot way to fire up the creative engine is to just throw myself at Chinatown. It works every time, irrespective of how deep a rut I’m in. This neighbourhood with its rows of beautifully conserved shophouses in varied architectural styles is an incessant source of delight and creative inspiration. When you watch the encroaching high rises craning their neck from above, you realise that this wonderful anachronism is the result of deliberate choices made in its favour.  Sure the rumble of tourists’ feet wandering these streets sound like ka-ching to the exchequer, but for people like me – this is where we come to chase our muse.

So when a sketchwalk was arranged at the intersection of Craig and Neil Road, one Sunday morning, I left my hearth and home to be in the company of these beauties :

InItaly Bar and Restaurant

InITALY Bar Ristorante on 38 Craig Road

I don’t know how the food fares at this eatery, but this building is an eye candy. I was only wondering, what if a Chinese fortuneteller had told Dr. Montgomerie who owned the 13 hectare nutmeg plantation around Craig Road in the 19th century, that one day, Spaghettini with caviar and chives will be rolled out from an exquisitely designed shop house standing at his property? Would he believe the soothsayer? The kind surgeon probably would’ve accused him of hyperbole.

Antique shop with cheeky signage

Antique shop with cheeky signage

Walking further down Craig Road, Tong Mern Sern Antiques Arts and Crafts Shop with its cheeky signage enticed me enough to make a stop. My friends had exactly ten minutes to spare till lunch, so I had to make my fingers work crazy fast on the sketchbook, leaving me no time to cross the little road, go inside the shop and ask the owner about their tag line, so it doesn’t haunt me till death. I still don’t sleep okay.

Neil Road architecture

This was sketched at the intersection of Neil and Craig Road

With a belly full of nimble dumplings, I came back for one last sketch. But before I leave, you must know that with Dr. Montgomerie’s passing, his nutmeg plantation was auctioned off and eventually fragmented into building lots that were leased off to wealthy Chinese developers. Craig Road and nearby Duxton Road and Duxton Hill were constructed, which in the following years became the living quarters of the poor and depraved. This posh locale with ridiculously high rent and property prices that we see today emerged with constant development and urbanisation over the last fifty years.

So, instead of rubbing shoulders with opium addicts and gamblers, I have a Korean tourist bending over my sketch and excitedly poking at the second building from left. Yes my good man, it is Hongdae Korean BBQ, now calm down, will you?


Looking up at windows


I have always been fascinated by windows, although I wonder why? If I’m carrying my art paraphernalia, more often than not, I’ll seize the opportunity of sketching them. And thankfully, there are plenty of alluring windows across the world to keep me busy, from contemporary sleek designs that are minimalist and functional to traditional, ornate and decorative ones with superfuous embellishments.

For example the woven bamboo windows in Japan, Gothic windows, stained glass windows, casements, tilt and turn windows in the West, classical chinese windows, louvered windows in  tropical countries or Arab world’s projecting oriel windows enclosed and carved with exotic wood latticework. Some are functional while others are pieces of fine craftsmanship.

But then, could it just be the physical attributes – shape, colour, form, design that render windows as interesting subjects and make them sketchworthy? I reckon, my fascination is beyond the superficial. There must be something deeper.

Besides their make which is anything but monotonous, windows assume a character often borrowed from the environment they are in and evoke an immediate sense of place. Like these louvered windows of Straits Chinese shophouses in Singapore’s Chinatown (in the picture above) which by themselves are interesting no doubt but when laced with a string of red lanterns around their neck, during the ongoing mid-autumn festival, they look bright eyed, coiffed and spruced up. They seem to be rejoicing, perhaps singing a happy song!

Bordeaux Window

In addition to the ethos they live in, windows also assume a character that is refracted by the souls that live behind them, open and close them or peer through them, which could be anything from cheerful to doleful, nifty to sloppy, careful to negligent and is left to the imagination of the onlooker like me to interpret in a hundred ways.

Like this window in Bordeaux, south of France (in the sketch above), that caught my eye not just because of the ornate Gothic architecture encasing it and the filigreed balcony though both make it an attractive subject but because of the colourful pinwheel spinner that separates it from others in the same building. The pinwheel lends it the character of being cheerful, lighthearted, playful, romantic perhaps; and it hints at a story that is open for speculation. Did a little girl tie it there when she was playing in the balcony? or was it relegated as a window decoration by the old man whose grandchildren forgot to pack it in when they left? Maybe the newly weds who just moved in, bought it at the village fair and put it there? I would never know but I adore the touch of mystery that tickles the mind.

windows 3

I’ve seen windows with clothesline slapped across their chests with pinafores, socks, drawers and vests fluttering in the sun, while many have potted plants and flowers set outside them, or a handcrafted easter egg, a gnome, pair of toads, an wooden owl or a fiery crystal dragon resting on their sil – all lending character, telling stories, making them fascinating to absolute strangers. Some windows have gnarled black cables criscrossing their face while some share a patch of rampant vegetation growing from the corner of a drainpipe running alongside. Sometimes on a chilly winter evening the sight of a half drawn lace curtain inside a glazed casement window, hinting at warm bodies moving unsteadily lets you believe in possibilities as many as your mind can conjure.

Perhaps that is why I am fascinated by windows because not only are they attractive in their own right, they don’t impose on your imagination as rigid unflinching objects, rather feed off it as volatile subjects arousing a multitude of sentiments in each one of us who looks at them with a different eye and that is enough for a creative person to pick up a pen and sketch them pronto.

windows 4