Row of refurbished units in Geylang has been home for decades to expatriates. By Mike Ives
BY the time Lisa and Michael Johnson moved to Singapore in 2011, they were tired of living in high rises. The American couple, both senior executives in financial services, had spent a total of 12 years in Tokyo, Shanghai and Mumbai. Their apartments in those cities, though comfortable and secure, were high above any street-level ambience.
The Johnsons were thrilled to learn that some shophouses, which are narrow buildings with interior courtyards, were being restored in Geylang, a low-rise area east of Singapore's central district. They raced over in a taxi and put on hard hats to tour one of them. They signed a two-year lease within a few days.
Built in 1929, they were restored over the past three years by several Singaporean architecture firms.
The shophouses' renovation story began in the 1980s, when a group of investors began to buy the properties along the street, paying about US$1 million for each one, said Low Seow Juan, a Singapore lawyer and one of the principal investors. The consortium later invested US$30,000 to US$50,000 per unit for minimal renovations, he said, and attracted expatriates as their tenants. For more than a decade, each of the properties rented for about US$3,000 to US$4,000 a month, he said.
About five years ago, when some of the initial renovations were wearing out, the owners considered knocking down the shophouses and building condominiums, said Mr Low, who developed a love of vintage properties while in college in Melbourne, Australia. But the 2008 financial crisis made the project financially untenable, and Mr Low and his partners decided to take a more creative approach.
In early 2010, they hired Karen Tan, the founder and managing director of Pocket Projects, a creative development consulting firm in Singapore, to help give the shophouses a contemporary makeover. Ms Tan, who later commissioned eight architectural firms to redesign the interiors, said that the budget for the second round of renovations was roughly US$600,000 per shophouse.
Mr Low said that he let the architects renovate the interiors as they wished, with the instruction that the sites needed to be "very rentable". Also, he wanted to ensure that the units had generous wall space to display art, something that is unusual in run-of- the-mill Singapore apartments but desired by the group's tenants, who mainly consist of well-travelled expatriates. Mr Low said that he told the architects: "This is going to be a fun project, so let's all have fun together."
The architects, he added, "took it all in good spirit because they felt that this was a nice, collaborative project".
From the outside, the shophouses still look as they did in the 1930s, with colourful wooden shutters and pastel bas-relief decorations that highlight the off-white exteriors. But the interiors now feature contemporary design elements.
The Johnsons' home, for example, has a prominent spiral staircase that the architect Han Loke Kwang said he installed to divide the rooms and to make an architectural statement. There also are small ponds at the base of the staircase and in the kitchen, which is separated from the entrance and living room by sliding glass doors. But the 3,068 square foot home has plain walls, some of its original wooden floors and other simple touches that Mr Han said contributed to the overall design theme.
"I made my aesthetic very honest, kind of raw, industrial," said Mr Han, principal architect at the Singapore firm Hyla Architects. "And I did that because I saw the original shophouses also had a very honest function and utilitarian aesthetic internally, even though they are quite decorative externally."
The Johnsons say that the home is ideal for entertaining, no matter that they need a ladder to open their wine-glass cabinet, or that one of their guests - a financial executive from New York - fell into the circular pond at the base of the staircase. "She looked down and thought it was a slight step," Mr Johnson explained.
The whitewashed living room also is perfect for displaying some of the eclectic art and furniture they have purchased in more than eight countries, Mr Johnson said. And the kitchen courtyard, which is partially open to the elements in the traditional shophouse style, puts them in closer touch with Singapore's tropical climate.
The property came with a few quirks that the couple did not anticipate. For example, the living room's corners are not uniform - each is slightly more or less than 90 degrees - which presented a challenge for a worker whom the Johnsons hired to cut their carpet in half so it would better fit the space. And the wooden floor of the master bedroom, which overhangs the street, has a peephole that allowed previous tenants to see who was knocking on the front door. "If you didn't want to answer, you didn't," Mr Johnson said with a laugh.
The Johnsons say that they love the shophouse and the neighbourhood, even if some of their colleagues struggle to understand why they live in an area that is widely considered a red-light district. It is less than 20 minutes by train or bus from their downtown offices, and they have established a rapport with some of their neighbours, including a man who sells Chinese medicine out of his shophouse and another who drives a taxi.
During the summer, their 18-year-old son, Branch, visited from the United States. He started college in the United States this autumn, but his parents are staying - they recently signed a second two-year lease.
"It gets better," Mr Johnson said of the shophouse. "And it was good to begin with." NYT
Source from Business Times