Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Straits Times : At home in Tiong Bahru

Pre-war conserved apartments in Tiong Bahru have become popular with yuppies who like the area's nostalgic charm

The Straits Times
Life Section
24 September 2011
By huang huifen

Mr Terence Yeung and Ms Bella Koh -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM
Tiong Bahru is where the heart is for designer couple Terence Yeung and Bella Koh.

Mr Yeung, an interior designer-lecturer, and Ms Koh, a fashion consultant, lived in a third-floor unit in Eng Hoon Street for eight years. When they moved house in March this year, it was to a unit just two streets away.

Ms Koh, 30, says: 'We are reluctant to leave this neighbourhood because it is such a convenient location. It has a market and is just a few minutes away from town. It also has a charisma that keeps you here. It has evolved and has so many things happening now.'

The couple moved to a 1,350 sq ft two-bedroom apartment in Eng Watt Street because they had always wanted a ground-floor unit that had courtyard space for their eight cats to roam in.

The courtyard (above) in their new ground-floor apartment is meant to be a space for their eight cats to roam in. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM
The apartment cost more than $1 million and they splashed out a six-figure sum on renovations. Many of these apartments have less than 56 years left on their 99-year lease.

They figure the renovation will save them money in the long run. Mr Yeung, 41, says with a chuckle: 'We designed the house in such a way that it will be better than a hotel or a spa so that we don't have to travel anymore.'

Indeed, in a land-scarce city where space is a form of luxury in homes these days, the clever play of perspectives in this one evokes the feel of a luxe European hotel.

Take, for example, the 2.6m by 2.6m white French doors that separate the kitchen area from the bedrooms. Mr Yeung chose that height to create an illusion of space when entering the area leading to the bedroom.

'The entrance defines the experience when you enter a space. If you enter a narrow door, you will feel that the space is very tight and suffocating, and vice versa,' he says.

The illusion of space is repeated with a 3.2m by 4m six-door, white-washed oak bookshelf, the first thing you see when you walk through the French doors.

Similarly, the door leading to the master bedroom measures 3.2m by 0.9m, giving the sense of entering a spacious suite.

The spa mood is captured in their bedroom bathroom through the use of beige 'travertine' material for the wall, flooring and sink. A rainshower and bathtub complete the experience.

There are also green spaces, too. The airwell next to the kitchen is now a herb garden where Ms Koh can gather fresh ingredients for cooking. Two life-size deer stuffed by a taxidermist complete its wild look.

The airwell next to the kitchen is now a herb garden (above). -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM
Mr Yeung's design agenda was influenced by the building's Art Deco style: 'The interior should have a European feel to complement the Art Deco architecture of the building.'

The aim to return to its roots also saw him reconfiguring the walls and doors of the original plan of the apartment. Yet it remains as functional as it is aesthetically pleasing.

The Straits Times : His and hers sides

The Straits Times
Life Section
24 September 2011
By huang huifen

Mr Vinnie Quek's side of the home that he shares with partner Erica Wong has his toys and books displayed on a long shelf. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM
An invisible line divides the living room of the apartment shared by Mr Vinnie Quek, 37, head of marketing and entertainment at Avalon nightclub in Marina Bay Sands, and his partner Erica Wong, 32.

That line in the second-floor apartment in Tiong Poh Road translates into a 'his and hers' divider.

The left side is where Ms Wong, a brand manager, proudly displays her collection of contemporary art pieces.

Ms Wong's side is adorned with contemporary art pieces by Hong Kong artist Angela Su on the wall (above) and a dinosaur sculpture by Chinese artist Sui Jianguo. --
These include works by Hong Kong artist Angela Su and a striking red fibreglass dinosaur sculpture by Chinese artist Sui Jianguo, which is mounted on a recycled wood piece from an old table left by the previous owner.

The other side is where Mr Quek has his quirky contemporary street-art pieces such as toy collectibles of Godzilla and works by American street artist Kaws, and books displayed in an artistically 'haphazard' way.

A striking cuckoo clock artpiece by German artist Stefan Strumbel sits on the dividing line, and is an allusion to his motive of using the clocks to question cliched notions of home.

Indeed, Mr Quek and Ms Wong's new 1,003 sq ft home, which cost about $800,000 plus another $100,000 to renovate, is anything but cliched.

The gates of the house are painted coral pink, while the door is in a contrasting emerald green. The doorknob is a leg of the same table used for the red dinosaur.

But the striking hues stop at the door.

Ms Wong wanted the place to have a modern Scandinavian theme, so the colour palette of the living room is mostly white. However, in a corner of the living room, a Victorian antique chair from Canada and a small Moroccan coffee table are juxtaposed against contemporary artworks.

Similarily, in the kitchen, 48 Peranakan floor tiles break the European focus.

The walls of the house were also reconfigured. They have been either removed, added or moved to create the desired spaces for the living room and bedrooms.

The remains of a wall that separated two bedrooms in the living room is now a statement piece in the middle of the living room. The cuckoo clock is mounted on this chipped pillar.

This juxtaposition of his and hers, old versus new, and colour contrast gives the home an electrifying personality, which acts as a mirror to the colourful characters of its two owners.

'We had a lot of fun designing, and I think it really comes out through the kooky yet inviting character of our home. It is still an ongoing project. I am excited to see how it will evolve over the years,' says Ms Wong.

The Straits Times : Picture-perfect apartment doubles as office

The Straits Times
Life Section
24 September 2011
By huang huifen
Olive green and mustard yellow walls complement the retro-themed living room, which is accented by colourful and funky furniture pieces. Further in, a piece of the apartment's original window grille hangs from the ceiling, and with five lightbulbs dangling from it, makes for a unique light fixture. -- PHOTO: TINYDOT PHOTOGRAPHY
Blink and you might miss the appropriately named Tinydot Photography.

The wedding photography business is inside a residential apartment that has been converted into a home office.

Apart from laminated wood borders around each of the three windows, there is nothing indicating that the ground-floor unit in Chay Yan Street is actually a functioning office.

As with most of the other residential apartments in the pre-war estate, the door leading to Tinydot is tucked into a stairwell next to the apartment.

Mr Seah Yu Hsin, 40, one of three partners of Tinydot, decided to move his rented office from Sago Street to a residential apartment in Tiong Bahru last month because he wanted a more permanent office space.

The nature of his business also meant that he did not require a retail front.

Also, one of his partners, Mr Jerald Zhan, 28, a bachelor, plans to stay overnight in the office when they put in late nights.

Mr Seah lives in a condominium in West Coast with his wife and two children aged five and nine. The third partner is photographer K.C. Wong, 37.

Having grown up in the early 1970s, Mr Seah loves how Tiong Bahru brings back memories of those years.

He wanted to convert the 930 sq ft three-bedroom apartment into a space that is liveable yet exudes a quirky, old-world charm. He spent about $35,000 renovating the apartment, which cost just under $1 million.

His interior designer, Mr Victor Chua of Viz Interior Artist, did this by removing two walls of one bedroom and turning the space into the main living room.

Here, clients can relax on a three-seat earth-tone fabric sofa while they view their photographs on a television. To add a quirky look to the space, the central wall is covered with cement and layered with cultured stones to look like a brick wall.

Quirkiness continues on the ceiling. A piece of the original window grille hangs from the top with five lightbulbs draped over it, making for a unique light fixture.

Upping the fun factor are posters of works by artists such as Andy Warhol, wall decals and ornaments including two giant Hershey's chocolate-syrup bottles.
Vintage cameras and a typewriter (above) are displayed in the apartment. An iPad has been inserted into an old Macintosh computer, so that customers can view pictures on it. -- PHOTO: TINYDOT PHOTOGRAPHY
The office, which was once a bedroom, had its walls replaced with tempered glass for an open-concept effect.

The kitchen is now a pantry where meetings can be held over a cuppa. The walls and island counter are made of cement to give a raw effect reminiscent of the 1970s.
The kitchen is now a pantry (above), and it comes with a cement island counter for a raw effect. -- PHOTO: TINYDOT PHOTOGRAPHY
With so many different looks at every turn, it is no wonder that Mr Seah has difficulty deciding his favourite spot in the office. 'I love every part of the place because in each of them, I can find something that allows me to sit back, relax and take the time to reflect on things.'

The Straits Times : Find it hard to save money?

The Straits Times
Life Section
24 September 2011
By huang huifen

Dr Anu Menon and Mr Sumana Rajarethnam (above) -- ST PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN
Walking into the dining hall of Dr Anu Menon and Mr Sumana Rajarethnam's home is like entering a loft apartment.

Designed to be the main area of the 1,350 sq ft two-bedroom, ground-floor pre-war unit in Guan Chuan Street, it evokes an old-world charm befitting the Tiong Bahru neighbourhood. This is particularly evident in how the hall's main wall has been stripped of its plaster to expose red bricks for a down-to-earth feel.

A natural-tone teak table, paired with a wooden bench, sits on a cement floor which is reminiscent of that in an old-school canteen.

Dr Menon, 30, a paediatrician at KK Women's and Children's Hospital, fell in love with Tiong Bahru's nostalgic charm when she visited the area six years ago. Hence she and Mr Rajarethnam, 34, an economic analyst, were keen to find a home in the estate when they got married last year.

They bought the apartment shortly after marrying, but rented it out for six months while they sourced design inspirations. In the meantime, they stayed at the house of Mr Rajarethnam's parents in Woodlands.

Renovation work began in May and they moved in last month. They declined to reveal the price of their home but say the renovation cost 'close to a six-figure sum'.

New, old residents get along
To reflect the neighbourhood's nostalgic feel, Dr Menon wanted the home furnished in an old-world style. 'I like places that remind me of old Singapore. So I told my interior designer to give the place an old feel.'

That was the approach used by Mr Eugene Yip from design firm Otherwise for the dining room. 'The exposed brick wall and cement floor retain the old-world charm of the estate,' he says.

But there are quirky touches, such as works by photographer Brendan Fitzpatrick that showcase a Star Wars character doing a range of migrants' work in the master bedroom.

A row of red and white coffee cups hangs over a striking red kettle in the kitchen. The colour pops up again in a red spiral staircase, an original feature of the apartment, next to the dining hall that leads to a study area.

The spiral staircase (above) in the apartment of Dr Anu Menon and Mr Sumana Rajarethnam has been painted red so that it adds an element of surprise. The dining hall's main wall has also been stripped to expose the red bricks beneath. -- ST PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN
Mr Yip also reconfigured the apartment's layout, removing another staircase and parts of walls to give a more open concept. The couple's bedroom beside the dining hall used to have a flight of stairs but he removed it. Now, an 80cm platform extends from the room to create a small balcony overlooking the hall.
 The couple love their home, and not just for the design.
A signature piece, the 4.2m ficus lyrata (above) at one end of the dining hall frames the balcony of the master bedroom. The space below the cantilevered platform has been converted into a shallow pond filled with pebbles and garden ornaments. -- ST PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN

Mr Rajarethnam says: 'The neighbourhood is important to us. We love that there is a mix of people who live here. Some have been here for a long time, while some have just moved in. But everyone gets along, and is estate-proud. That is the very attractive and distinct part of Tiong Bahru.'

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Straits Times : Keeping alive a vanishing trade

National Heritage Board exhibition to showcase 18 old-style provision shops

The Straits Times
11 September 2011
By Kezia Toh

Mr Goh Wee at his provision shop Hup Seng in Tiong Bahru. He says his customers buy fewer things now than before - a bottle of soft drink, compared with sacks of rice and milk powder in the past. -- ST PHOTO: TERRENCE LIM

They were a fixture in the old days: pulley tins that provision shop owners used to keep spare change.

These days, however, cash is usually kept under lock and key - a sign of the changing times.

Mr T.T. Lin from Tian Kee provision shop in Dakota Crescent near Mountbatten is one of those who have taken this precaution.

'As more people move in and the usual crowd disappears, the level of trust between neighbours goes down, which is why we need to guard against thieves,' he said.

The 80-year-old has been running his provision store in the sleepy neighbourhood for more than 50 years.

Changes such as these, along with the dwindling number of such neighbourhood shops that were once a familiar sight in any residential landscape, spurred the National Heritage Board (NHB) to embark on a project to document them.

Part of the board's Community Heritage Series, which captures important elements of heartland heritage, the research project will cover 18 old-style provision shops.

They include one established in the late 1920s in Joo Chiat Road and another in the 1930s in Changi Road.

These 18 were chosen because they have remained relatively unchanged over the years.

The project aims to capture this vanishing trade for the next generation of Singaporeans. A travelling exhibition based on archive materials and newspaper reports and featuring photographs and collectibles will go to community clubs, libraries and schools in December.

The Singapore Provision Shops Friendly Association now has fewer than 150 members, compared with about 1,200 in the 1970s.

Customers have deserted them for supermarket chains, convenience stores and minimarts, which offer a greater variety of products and comfort shopping in an air- conditioned environment.

Those who continue to patronise the provision shops buy fewer things, said shop owners.

Said Mr Goh Wee, owner of Hup Seng provision shop in Tiong Bahru: 'Even if I have 100 customers a day, so what? They used to buy sacks of rice and milk powder, but these days, they come in just for a bottle of soft drink. Small things.'

But some still doggedly persist in running their business.

Mr Lin is barely able to cover the cost of his rented space, which is about $1,000 a month. His four children - in their 40s and 50s - also tell him not to labour any more.

But for him, this is not hard work. 'For me, a happy retirement is like this, where I can chat with my neighbours when they come to the store, so that I don't feel lonely,' he said.

Cultural studies academic Liew Kai Khiun, also a committee member of the Singapore Heritage Society, praised NHB's move, but said that it would not help traditional provision shops stay relevant.

'Devoid of their historical functions and contexts, these shops would merely be reduced to tourist and educational exhibits of a bygone era.'

He added that it is more about the spirit of these shops - which foster neighbourliness and community, as compared to more impersonal retail outlets that are homogenising the social landscape.

He has suggested that the Government offer tax incentives and cheaper rent to these shops in the heartland, to keep the culture going.

Former president of the Singapore Heritage Society Kevin Tan is keen for the exhibition to be a family event.

He said: 'Provision shops are a part of community life because it is in the neighbourhood, so families should get together and go, instead of it being a school excursion.'

And most of the time, people treasure only what is disappearing.

'It is like with the KTM railway's closure - people become curious because that sense of loss is more immediate,' he said.


'This trade is dying out'

Guan Hin provision shop in Tiong Bahru, which opened in 1955, is run by Madam Tan and her husband. They used to have 100 customers a day in the 1980s, but their business has halved. -- PHOTO: HAN FEI

Time seems to have stood still at Guan Hin provision shop in Tiong Bahru.

Cans of food line the floor-to-ceiling wall shelves with sliding glass doors. A vintage Smith electric clock and even a non-working rotary Bakelite telephone sit in a corner of the 56-year-old store.

Owners Ng Heng Lin, 82, and his wife Tan Koy Eng, 74, have seen business slow to a trickle in recent years.

While they used to have 100 customers a day in the 1980s, business has since halved. They can still cover the cost of running the business, since they own the shop space.

So the pair are still clinging on to the shop and do not mind the long hours - the store is open daily from the late afternoon to the wee hours of the morning.

Madam Tan said: 'I will work for as long as I am able to, because staying at home just to eat and sleep is much worse.'

Keeping active is a priority for both, that is why they enjoy the dynamic nature of buying and selling.

But the couple are resigned to the shop shutting its doors for good once they retire. Their three children are university graduates and do not wish to take over.

'I know that young people do not want to take this up because they would want to have their own professional careers, which is why this trade is dying out.'

The Straits Times : The disappearing 'mama shops'

The Straits Times
11 September 2011
By Yuen Sin

Remember the days when you used to pop by the kiosk at your void deck to pick up a quick snack or some groceries?

Such standalone kiosks, affectionately known as 'mama shops' (mama stands for 'Uncle' in Tamil), have weathered the times since they started out as wall stores along shophouses in the 1950s.

Selling sundry goods and traditional sweets, they have been hailed as icons of Singapore's architectural landscape and part of the nation's collective memory.

But like provision shops, these wall stores, too, are fast disappearing.

When they were introduced into housing estates by HDB in the 1980s, they used to dot the precincts as numerously as every fourth block.

At their peak in 1983, there were about 600 such shops. Low demand from prospective operators has resulted in that number dwindling to about 380 kiosks in the past five years.

All 10 stores that The Sunday Times interviewed said it is hard to keep afloat amid rife competition from chain stores.

Mr Sheik Duad, 41, who helps his uncle tend the Faizal & Jahabar Store at Block 175 Toa Payoh Central, said: 'In those days, where can you find a 7-Eleven in the housing estates? They were all available only in the city.'

His store, a stone's throw away from a Cheers outlet and a FairPrice supermarket, has been around for 40 years.

While some have modernised their shops, they are still a class apart from chain stores, which are able to reap economies of scale.

iEcon, for example, started from a group of provision shop owners who banded together to do central purchasing of stock and upgraded to minimarts. It made its mark in heartland neighbourhoods as early as 1982. There are now 100 of such iEcon stores, with 90 per cent operating in HDB estates and three of them in void decks.

7-Eleven entered the heartland in 1984, and about a third of its 550 stores are located in heartland estates, with 3 per cent in void decks.

Cheers, which has over 80 standalone stores, says 35 per cent are located in HDB estates. There are also four void-deck stores.

Another factor is the changing demographics of the old estates where these stores are mostly located in.

At Hoe Peng Kiosk in Shunfu Road, Mr Ong Hoe Peng, 50, said business has been getting worse in the 20 years the store has been around.

He said: 'A lot of my customers used to be neighbourhood kids but now it's mostly old people who live around here.'

Yet, owners staunchly cling on to the model of business that has served them over the years. It is the human touch, they say.

Take Mr Toh Yew Ghee, 41, who has operated a store at Block 222 Toa Payoh Lorong 8 for 13 years. Having interacted with residents there for many years, 'we're now like friends and sometimes they'll joke, call me 'handsome'.'

Delivery services are also available - without additional charges.

Mr Stephen Neo, 47, a senior executive, is also appreciative of the fact that things can be bought on credit.

'I can just grab a drink from the fridge even though I don't have money with me, and the owner will say no problem, pay another day.

'They are friendlier and there is also a sense of trust and closeness.'

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Straits Times : The business of 'keeping provision shops alive'

NHB project to document heartland culture will cover 18 old-style shops

The Straits Times
8 September 2011
By Kezia Toh
Guan Hin provision shop in Tiong Bahru, which opened in 1955, is run by Madam Tan and her husband. They used to have 100 customers a day in the 1980s, but their business has halved. -- PHOTO: HAN FEI
EIGHT owners of traditional provision shops recently had an unusual request from 'customers' - an interview.

The request came from staff of a research firm appointed by the National Heritage Board (NHB), which is documenting this slice of Singaporean life as part of its Community Heritage Series.

The project will cover 18 old-style provision shops, including one established in the late 1920s in Joo Chiat Road and another in the 1930s in Changi Road.

The researchers will also dig into the archives and old newspaper reports, and use information from the Singapore Provision Shops Friendly Association.

Said Mr Alvin Tan, director of heritage institutions and industry development at NHB: 'We want to document our heartland heritage for the future generation of Singaporeans who may not be familiar with this, so that they can relate when their parents share memories from the past.'

Modern-day supermarkets, convenience stores and minimarts are threatening to bring down the shutters on the old operators. One telling fact - the Singapore Provision Shops Friendly Association now has fewer than 150 members, compared with about 1,200 in the 1970s.

Its secretary Tan Bock Heng, 72, used to run a provision shop in Jalan Sultan, but closed it in 1995 when the landlord took over the space.

He said: 'After my generation, traditional provision shops will disappear and we know it. Even if we were to promote ourselves to draw customers, where would we get the funds to do that?'

At one old-time outlet, Guan Hin provision shop in Tiong Bahru, owner Ng Heng Lin, 82, said he and his wife Tan Koy Eng, 74, will continue as long as they can.

They had 100 customers a day in the 1980s, but business has halved since then.

Madam Tan noted that while customers used to buy cans of dried food by the box, they now opt for just a few cans.

Their three children, all university graduates, do not want to take over the shop, which opened in 1955.

NHB plans to curate an exhibition based on the research findings, photographs and collectibles donated by shop owners and the association. The exhibition will be held in community clubs, libraries and schools in December.