The Singapore government’s 1988 committee on Heritage explained the value of of historic buildings and districts to a fast changing urban landscape: “It is clear therefore that the conservation of buildings, structure and other districts which provide the signposts from the past to the present is critical to the psyche of a nation.”
However, this essay does not find Emerald Hill to be a signpost to the past, rather, it is now seen as a luxury residential neighbourhood.
From an oral interview with Dr Suriani Suratman, a former student at SCGS from 1960-1963, the Emerald Hill stretch was purely for residential purposes with no commercial uses. It would seem that Orchard Road’s influence as a commercial district has diluted Emerald Hill’s original use as a conservation area even with its conservation status.
In the 1994 Newton Planning report by URA, Emerald Hill was stated to be “an area with architectural heritage”. It would seem that URA values Emerald Hill more as a unique site that can draw tourism. This can be seen in the URA shophouse guidelines (1994) where a special paint scheme was developed to ensure homogeneity in the neighbourhood and present a picture of what Emerald Hill was like for the viewing public.
out of place
This essay contends that Peranakan Place is out of place in relation to the URA’s designation of Emerald Hill as a conservation area highlighting its Peranakan history and the then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) aim of having Peranakan Place be a symbol of Peranakan culture in Singapore. Peranakan Place’s current use as a watering hole is far removed from this initial goal.
The Peranakan place, comprises of a row of six two storey shophouses facing Orchard Road, built around 1902. Around that time, Peranakans turned Emerald Hill Road into an ethnic enclave, resulting in their dwellings having an architectural style commonly referred to as Chinese Baroque (Cornelius, 2000). On 1 June 1985, Peranakan Place was opened surrounded by much fanfare and was almost immediately heralded as singnalling the revitalization of Peranakan culture in Singapore (Lim, 2009). Yet barely six years later in 1991, the building was redeveloped again – this time as a modern, air conditioned shopping mall. This land use has continued to today where it is taken up by F&B or retail outlets. The only appreciable trace of its former Peranakan past is in its façade. This highlights the ongoing tension between commercialization and heritage conservation.
Since the late 1970s, Peranakan culture has been a constant point of interest to the general public (Lim, 2009), coming up every few years in plays and in the media. One pointed example is the fanfare the Chinese drama serial Little Nonya generated in 2009.
The Peranakan place, was never meant to solely be a money-raking tourist attraction. This could be seen from the underlying reason why URA choose Emerald Hill to be one of its first conservation areas, with the reason being its past as a Peranakan enclave and the opportunity to develop it as a Peranakan cultural enclave. The URA’s goal in its preservation was for it to be “a conducive area for living and community interactions” (URA, 1981).
The Peranakan Place was originally aimed to be a “living museum” displaying the rich Peranakan heritage, a focal point of Peranakan activities in Singapore, and a place for Singaporeans to learn and experience about their past (Lim, 2009).
This commitment towards authenticity is evident in many ways in the 1980s. For instance, to the URA, knowledge of Peranakan culture was crucial if one wished to be a tenant at Peranakan Place. URA’s decision to lease Peranakan Place en-bloc was undertaken to ensure various aspects of Peranakan culture and activities would be well coordinated. Dr Jenny Lee, a 10th generation Peranakan was selected to lead the new management team. Under this new team, a common theme for the Peranakan Place – “A Day in the Life of a Baba” was adopted (Lim, 2009).
This can be contrasted with current Peranakan place where the Peranakan-ness of Peranakan Place can be argued to only be in its name and façade. Its present tenants include a roast pork shop, a money changer and a bar. For all the well intentioned sentiments of setting aside an area along what is Singapore’s prime shopping belt as a cultural marker, Singapore’s usual efficient sentiments still rule the roost, with market forces being the final decision maker. It can be seen that Singapore is yet willing to place cultural heritage over the bottom line.
Peranakan Place can be seen as out of place in relation to the history of the area because the original intentions of government agents and the local Peranakan community have been lost in its current use. With its current commercial use, it is more linked to the commercial intentions of Orchard Road as a shopping belt than as a physical link to Singapore’s past.
Figure 1 Alley Bar at Peranakan Place
Figure 2 Odd One Out at Peranakan Place
Figure 3 List of original tenants at Peranakan Place
Buildings that have been demolished
What was the narrative or policy behind the demolitions and replacements
Seow Poh Leng’s house, was torn down in 1960 and replaced by an 11-storey block of flats (Lee, 1984). This was the last found record of a building being demolished in the Emerald Hill Conservation Area. Since 1989, Emerald Hill has been gazette as a conservation area, which has prevented buildings from being torn down. There is severe paucity of data regarding demolition work in Emerald Hill. As such, this essay will interpret demolished as a drastic change to the physical fabric of the estate. While not all of the building has been demolished, changes have been made to the interior, its circulation, materials used, that the building has been transformed into a totally different animal even if the exterior has been kept visually similar.
Figure 4 traditional layout and usage patterns of Peranakan houses
As seen in Figure 4, traditionally, Peranakan houses can be split into 3 main areas, the entrance passageway, the family area, and kitchen activities. This is reflected in the placement of furniture and how the spaces were made (Sankaran, 2016).
With the gazetting of Emerald Hill as a Conservation Area, the buildings within this area were subject to URA’s conservation guidelines. This meant that renovation and restoration work within the buildings could be undertaken as long as the front of the building was kept to its original design (URA, 2017). This considerable leeway was utilized to modernize the interiors and transform it to suit the tastes of its inhabitants.
One example of this redevelopment is 97 Emerald Hill Road. According to OH! Open House, there used to be an old kitchen on the ground floor, next to the present-day kitchen, which was open to the elements, and there were cooking stations with fix or six burners and a bathroom or a shower in the area. This was shared by 12 to 13 families who lived in the house. This has been totally changed, as can be seen from Figure 2.
Presently, the interior of 97 Emerald Hill Road has been totally changed, with false ceilings, a new staircase, wooden flooring, a rock garden, and all the trappings of modernity. The feeling inside the space has been totally transformed. Its usage has been transformed as well, from a cramped home for 12 families to a luxury space for one couple.
This is not to say that the former presence of Peranakans in the area has been removed. As seen from figure 3 & 4 where the central airwell and batik motif window shade have been retained.
On the exterior, the design has been kept the same. However, the materials used have not been kept to the original. However, fiberglass reconstructions of original features may have been used to replace those damaged by age. This is done because fiberglass has an almost unlimited life unlike the original bricks and plaster.
Figure 5 26 Cairnhill Road, home of Ecuador born Maria and Swiss born Lorenzo
Figure 6 97 Emerald Hill Road, Home of Neima Sitawi, an Italian fashion designer
Figure 7 97 Emerald Hill Road, central airwell
Figure 8 97 Emerald Hill road, window shad
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