Off the busy and lively streets and as much an ubiquitous part of Singapore’s urban landscape as shophouses were, the back lane often took on a life of its own in that Singapore seem almost to have forgotten about. The back lane, besides being a hangout for hoodlums and a centre for undesirable activities, as is often depicted in popular culture, were also where children played and where honest tradesmen conducted their businesses. Unsanitary as they may have appeared to be, the best makan (food) around could often be found from makeshift food stalls set up in the back lane – the back lanes close to Rex Cinema with nasi padang, chendol and Indian rojak to die for, comes immediately to mind.
Despite being associated with the shophouses that characterised urban Singapore, back lanes came into being after many of the shop houses were already up. Shophouses were initially built back-to-back and it was only following an amendment to the Municipal Ordinance in 1909 that back lanes came into being and back lanes had to be retrofitted at the back of existing shophouses in a massive scheme starting from 1910 which went on well past the end of the war. The scheme to part of the backs of shophouses was seen as a necessity not just to provide much needed access for fire-fighting between the tinderboxes of the overpopulated shophouses, but also to allow for basic sanitation to be provided .
The back lanes which were to eventually allow space for water to be piped and sewer lines to be run, initially made it easier to conduct the unpleasant business of nightsoil collection (which actually went on right up until 1987). As compensation for land lost due to the back lanes, the Municipality reconstructed the backs of the affected shophouses and the spiral staircases which served as secondary exits and fire escapes we see at the backs of shophouses today were added in as part of the reconstruction.
Back lanes do exist today, in the many places where shophouses have survived – over 6000 shophouses have been conserved on the island with large clusters of them found in areas such as Tanjong Pagar, Chinatown, Katong/Joo Chiat, Jalan Besar and Geylang. While there are a few that still are alive in one way or another, most are silent and devoid of the life we would once have seen in them. The back lane however is still a place I often find myself wandering in – many have a lot of character as well a sense of mystery about them, and they are often where, despite the air of silence which now hangs over them, much colour, texture and a few little surprises, missing on the overly sanitised streets of Singapore, can still be found.