Coloured corridors

13 11 2013

Conceived by the founder of modern Singapore Sir Stamford Raffles, the five-foot-way was a feature that was stipulated in the Jackson Town Plan of 1822 and is seen today in the shophouses which once dominated the urban landscape of Malaya and Singapore. In Singapore today, over 6000 of these shophouses have been conserved and their five-foot-ways remain colourful spaces through which I often enjoy a walk through. The photographs that follow, are ones from some of the more colourful areas of Singapore in which clusters of shophouses with five-foot-ways, old and new, can be found. More on the five-foot-way and the idea behind them can be found in two of my previous posts, the links to which are at the end of this post.

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Other five-foot-way adventures:





Kaki lima

27 06 2013

The kaki lima or the five-foot-way, is a feature of the shophouse, which was once dominant in the urban landscapes across much of British influenced South-East Asia. Sheltered from the blazing tropical sun and the frequent torrential downpours, they made an ideal communal space, as well as one in which many trades thrived.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Tun H S Lee.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Tun H S Lee.

The five-foot-ways I encountered in my childhood, full of bustle, colour and texture, were ones I found to be thoroughly fascinating. I never did have a dull moment walking along one, even in the evenings – the corridors, even those emptied of life and traders, found other uses. It was common to see bicycles and tricycles parked as well as other clutter. A common sight that we don’t see today is that of the jaga, more often than not an elderly turbaned Sikh man, seated on a charpoy – a wooden framed rope bed, outside the business premises he was to guard. It would also have been, especially in the smaller towns across the Causeway, common to hear a noisy chorus of swallows who built their nests overhead in the corners of the ceiling.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Sultan with a hole-in-the-wall shop still commonly found along many such corridors.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Sultan with a hole-in-the-wall shop still commonly found along many such corridors.

The kaki lima of today, particlarly those we find in Singapore, are much less lively versions of those of yesterday. They are still however wonderful places to explore and can often offer as enjoyable an experience as they might have in the days of my youth, throwing up a surprise every now and again. One area where I did find myself wandering through the kaki lima recently, was around the Jalan Sultan and Jalan Petaling area, in the heart of old Kuala Lumpur, where the set of photographs in this post were taken.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Tun H S Lee north of Jalan Pudu just outside a now quiet textile shop which must have once done a roaring trade.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Tun H S Lee north of Jalan Pudu just outside a now quiet textile shop which must have once done a roaring trade.

The shophouses in this part of the Malaysian capital once contained many traditional businesses. With many abandoned by the organic businesses which had brought much life to them and their sheltered corridors, the rows of shophouses seem to be in the throes of a slow death. It is a sense of sadness that I am filled with finding little reminders of what did once used to be as well as businesses still there for which time has obviously passed.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Petaling. A sign for a tailor shop which has closed reminds us of a time forgotten.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Petaling. A sign for a tailor shop which has closed reminds us of a time forgotten.

In Singapore, with over 6000 shophouses conserved, the more colourful shophouse five-foot-ways are still easy to find even as vast areas of its urban landscape are now populated with modern buildings. The ones around several conservation areas including in Little India, Kampong Glam, Geylang and Chinatown, are still rather interesting. These five-foot-ways were the subject of a contribution of photographs I made to a recently concluded three-month long exhibition on vanishing trades held at the National Museum of Singapore which looks at how spaces some of the early traders were commonly found it have evolved.

Another five-foot-way along Jalan Petaling where the remnants of an "old trade" was spotted.

Another five-foot-way along Jalan Petaling where the remnants of an “old trade” was spotted.

The idea of the five-foot-way as an architectural feature to provided a continuous sheltered walkway and as a space where trades could operate has been attributed to Sir Stamford Raffles who had it stipulated in the 1822 Jackson Town Plan that he oversaw that “all houses constructed of brick or tile should have a uniform type of front, each having a verandah of a certain depth, open at all times as a continuous and covered passage on each side of the street”. It is thought that Raffles’ got this idea from buildings in Dutch administered Batavia he had observed during his time as the Governor of Java, influenced it is suggested by verandahs found around squares in southern Europe. From Singapore, the five-foot-way spread to other parts of South-East Asia.

Watching time slowly pass on a five-foot-way along Jalan Sultan.

Watching time slowly pass on a five-foot-way along Jalan Sultan.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Panggong.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Panggong.





Corridors of Trade

14 03 2013

A feature of the once ubiquitous shophouse is the five-foot-way. The corridors, conceived as shelter for pedestrians, also made an inexpensive space for many a tradesman to conduct business.

A mobile phone vendor along a five-foot-way at Serangoon Road.

A mobile phone vendor along a five-foot-way at Serangoon Road.

The five-foot-way was often what we visited to pick the newspaper up; get our hair done; have our shoes mended; and, where we could indulge in that favourite bowl of noodles.

A treat I would look forward to as a child was having my favourite bowl of beef-ball soup sitting at a table on a five-foot-way along Hock Lam Street.

My maternal grandmother might also have plied her trade on the five-foot-way – she sold appam in the vicinity of Simon Road Market in the uncertain days that followed the end of the war.

The surviving corridors are mostly silent, abandoned by tradesmen we no longer have need for, except for a few.

(A contribution to National Heritage Board’s “Trading Stories: Conversations with Six Tradesmen” exhibition which will be on at the National Museum of Singapore from 15 March to 23 June 2013)


Trading Stories: Conversations with Six Tradesmen is a community exhibition on old trade­­­­­­­s in Singapore and how tradesmen have coped with the challenge of changing times. Featuring the lives of six individuals who have made their living as a traditional goldsmith, movie poster painter, tukang urut or Malay confinement lady, Samsui woman, poultry farmer and letter writer, the exhibition sheds light on some of Singapore’s old trades through their personal stories – stories of sacrifices and struggles, of passion and fortitude, of entrepreneurial courage and adaptability.

This community exhibition at the Stamford Gallery also features numerous community contributions such as the loan of private keepsakes, locally produced documentaries and a community photography exhibit on old local trades. Members of the public are also invited to contribute to the exhibition by sharing their personal memories and stories of old trades in Singapore.








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