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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The idea of the five-foot-way as an architectural feature was to provide a continuous sheltered walkway and as a space where trades could operate and has been attributed to Sir Stamford Raffles. He had it stipulated in the 1822 Jackson Town Plan that he oversaw, requiring 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.