Preserving Singapore’s Historical Shophouses
Shophouses are trophy properties in Singapore. Our experts explain how to scout around and what to invest in.
What is the importance of preserving our past with regard to historical buildings? From shophouses to black and white houses, two experts share their views about conserving historical buildings in Singapore; and the importance of preserving heritage and educating the next generation.
Simon Monteiro, Associate Vice President, List Sotheby’s International Realty, and Dr Julian Davison, author of Singapore Shophouse, and heritage archivist for Shophouse Club both share a kindred spirit for preserving historical buildings in Singapore. Davison is an architectural historian and author of books such as Singapore Shophouse and Black & White — The Singapore House 1898-1941. PALACE magazine found time to dig into their minds about the importance of conservation.
How did your passion for history and Singapore’s built heritage come about?
Simon Monteiro (SM):
I have lived by the mantra “Life is lived forward but understood backward”. My journey collecting historic artifacts began when I was just eight years old and I would join my dad every weekend to visit “Sungei Road Thieves Market”, Singapore’s largest flea market in the 1960s.
I loved uncovering rare gems of Singapore’s history from stamps to coins, antiques, watches, and historical letters. Also, I started collecting manuscripts and letters, before also, buying indentures that led me to create my first museum — The Singapore Land Museum.
I am lucky to have found a mentor in Dr Julian Davison, who shares my passion for history. Together, we have bought over 400 letters and manuscripts to document the history of Singapore’s land development. I now own some of the rare documents on Real Estate Land Indenture and Property Wills that date to 1795.
Dr Julian Davison (DJD):
My love of history came from my mother. She wasn’t an intellectual in any sense, but she was interested in the world around her. When she first came to Singapore in the late 1950s the very first thing she did was to find out as much as she could about her new home. Before long she knew the names of all the plants and trees in the garden and the birds that perched in their branches. She read voraciously and indiscriminately — not just natural history, but history too. And she also got to know something about people she rubbed shoulders with on her expeditions downtown. Chinese and Malays, of course, but also Javanese and Singhalese, Arabs and Punjabis, Tamils, Bengalis, and all the other ethnicities that make up Singapore’s plural society. A Romantic at heart, she fell in love with her new home — what I call “old school Singapore” — and in time she passed her enthusiasm on to me; before I became an architectural historian, I was an anthropologist.
As for architecture, well that came from my father who was an architect. In the 1950s he worked for the Singapore Improvement Trust, the forerunner of today’s HDB during the British era — I live in one of the buildings he designed back then. Subsequently, he went into private practice as one of the founding partners of Raglan Squire & Partners (RSP) in Singapore, today’s RSP. My father also started a practice in Kuala Lumpur, which is where I spent most of my childhood. Naturally, architecture was part and parcel of everyday life, the stuff of conversations around the dinner table, and so on. Often, when he went on-site visits on a Saturday morning, he took me with him, so I knew how buildings were put together from an early age — the smells of sawdust and freshly-load concrete are very evocative of my childhood!
Why didn’t I become an architect myself? I remember very clearly my father saying to me one day: “Julian, if you like architecture, don’t make it your profession. I’m a 90 per cent businessman these days. All I do is go around shaking hands and making deals — I hardly design a thing! If you love architecture, keep it for a hobby.”
Can you share with us your joint collection of historical documents?
Simon’s the collector and I am the archivist. The bulk of the collection comprises land deeds and I like finding out about the people whose names appear in these documents and the buildings that are being bought and sold. Some of them are very interesting indeed. For example, Simon once purchased a land indenture relating to a plot of land that was being sold by Sultan Ali, the second Sultan of Singapore. The history behind that yellowing piece of paper was quite fantastic! It went all the way back to Raffles’ original treaty with Sultan Hussein (Singapore’s first sultan) and the royal entitlement of Kampong Glam that was part of that deal.
Simon, you have shared that Shophouses are like “Time Capsules of Singapore”. Could you elaborate on this?
The architectural features of shophouses showcase the many cultural influences across different eras, and these buildings have a storied past that provides us with a narrative of Singapore’s history where life and work intersected.
Are there examples of interesting stories behind specific shophouses in Singapore? Do you mind sharing some of these stories?
Not every shophouse has an interesting story behind it, but then again, a great many of them do! One story that I remember finding quite intriguing was the “Six wives of Mr Choo Eng Choon”. Choon lived at No. 88 Amoy Street, in a townhouse that was designed for him by the architectural practice Almeida & Kassim, who specialised in designing Chinese-style homes for rich towkays at the turn of the last century. Choo was a very wealthy individual — he is described in the newspapers as a “landed proprietor” and a “millionaire” in an age when the latter term really meant something. Singapore-born, he had made his fortune in Saigon but returned to Singapore to live out the last years of his life in the land of his birth. Choo, however, is one of those men who are, perhaps, more famous in death than in life, his name forever being associated with the celebrated “six-widows” legal case, which dragged on for many years after his demise.
Were there times when a shophouse’s history sealed the deal for the buyer? What part of its history piqued the interest of the buyer?
In 2011, I sold a pair of adjoining conservation shophouses on Neil Road in Bukit Pasoh to a prominent European family office. They were particularly keen to know about the building’s historical origins, where it was one of Singapore’s oldest architectural firms Swan & Maclaren earliest works, known for other notable historical buildings like Raffles Hotel and Stamford House. The provenance of the shophouse ultimately sealed the deal for our client’s purchase. Subsequently, the building is now recognised as a historic landmark, where Goethe-Institut Singapore has been a long-time tenant.
Why do you think Singapore’s built heritage matters for HNWIs (High Net Worth Individuals)?
HNWIs want to own a piece of Singapore’s history, an asset class that is coveted by many and hence has the prestige of ownership akin to valuable fine art and luxury watches. Many investors see the importance of owning conservation shophouses for wealth preservation, with plans to pass them down to the younger generations.
For anyone looking to invest in a shophouse — what considerations should they keep in mind?
Like all real estate investments, location is key, but the opportunities for adaptive reuse should be taken into consideration. Shophouses capture the depth of Singapore’s history and roots and the exponential rise of prices in the last decade is a testament to their investment value.
I usually encourage my clients to buy at least a pair of adjoining shophouses, where there is more flexibility to work on redesigning the interiors. There are three different types of conservation shophouses – commercial, residential, and mixed commercial–residential shophouses. Commercial shophouses are the most highly coveted of the three, as there are no restrictions for foreigners to buy these, whereas, for the other two, there are specific limitations, and extra additional taxes to consider for residential properties. Additionally, for conservation shophouses, investors need to understand that when it comes to renovation and restoration works, there are specific approvals that need to be sought, where building facades and structural elements also come into consideration.
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