You’ve probably walked by them – the iconic shophouses along Singapore’s “most Instagrammable street”, Koon Seng Road. In a medley of colourful pastel hues, these shophouses in Joo Chiat invite intrigue from passersby, who wonder what lies exactly behind the intricately designed facades of these living 1920s artefacts.
Thankfully, we got a rare sneak peek into one of these gorgeous homes that stand among only 6,500 conservation homes in Singapore.
Shophouses along Koon Seng Road
History can never be detached from a heritage landmark like a shophouse, and the home’s past is just as colourful as its current facade. Built in the 1920s and 30s, these shophouses were gazetted for conservation in 1991. But through the ages, Koon Seng Road has transformed from a gang hotspot in the 50s to a Peranakan enclave in the 70s. Today, locals and tourists alike flock to the rainbow-hued stretch trying to nail that perfect IG shot.
Foyer and formal living room
Stepping into the shophouse, we were taken in by the sheer depth of the living room. From the outside, one could barely guess at the ample amount of space -2,700 square feet, to be exact – that lay behind those gates.
A painting of a Samsui Woman by local artist Patrick Teo greets you right at the entrance
What greeted us were imposing, moveable wooden panels that added a fluid yet sculptural tone to the entrance, demarcating the foyer effortlessly.
According to architect Richard Ho, who won the SIA (Singapore Institute of Architects) Design Award for his work here back in 1995, the idea behind it was to let streams of natural light in, as shophouses were traditionally poorly lit, while giving homeowners an option to shut them to keep out the harsh morning sun.
Our attention was also drawn to the Peranakan-style tiles that started from the foyer and sprawled all the way to the kitchen. These have been retained since the 1920s and their weathered appearance speaks to an understated sense of history – who else has walked on these through the ages?
One particular tile, laid right at the entrance, was tiled in an opposite fashion – an intentional choice among shophouses of the time to remind one of the beauty in imperfection.
The owner, herself, was drawn to the rich sense of heritage that the home possessed, “I like imagining what it was like a century ago in Singapore and incorporating stories of yesteryear into my daily life. For instance, my mother’s father used to live in a shophouse along Amoy Street, and in some way, I wanted that sense of continued heritage when you walk through and imagine times past.”
Heritage doesn’t mean old and musty, however. The living room, for instance, was a seamless blend of traditional Peranakan influences and modern-day sensibilities. Plants and rich dark wood serve as a backdrop to vignettes like a leather sofa and armchairs from Scene Shang, emerald chaise lounges from Paradizshoppers, and the statement piece at the heart of it all – a hefty engraved alabaster table from a furniture trade fair in Europe.
Rich oil paintings from Myanmar juxtaposed watercolour paintings of the owners’ energetic trio of petite dogs, lending an eclectic yet inviting air to the space.
Kitchen and backyard
While the original kitchen was tucked away at the back of the shophouse – along with what once was a photographer’s darkroom – the current space integrates an open kitchen with the main living space for a seamless look.
Vintage cream shelving continues the blast-to-the-past vibe, while appliances are firmly set in modern day. We were especially eyeing the pops of colour in the form of a jade green De Longhi kettle and Life Element mini-air fryer.
According to the homeowners, the previous renovation had the original stairwell moved from the other side of the room to create a more expansive look from the living area to the kitchen. Turns out, it doesn’t just hold visual appeal, but affords them extra space with bookshelves carved out beneath the stairs, holding a variety of knick-knacks and books.
Moving along a long corridor where we spotted an urban garden en route, we finally made our way to the back of this sprawling establishment. A single wooden door creaked open, revealing a quiet street that was a rare oasis of calm in bustling Singapore.
Study and entertainment area
While the ground level made a deep impression, the second level of the shophouse was not to be outshone. We climbed up a seemingly infinite flight of stairs to come face to face with the now-compulsory “work from home” area of the house.
Combining both study and leisure elements, the space here was similarly eclectic with dark furniture and a vintage brass chandelier adding a touch of luxe. Samsung’s The Frame TV didn’t look out of place with its artsy painting-like appearance, while the abundance of light through Peranakan style windows and doors made the space more inviting than sombre.
We were especially struck by his-and-her working desks that overlooked the photogenic Koon Seng street. With a wooden desk from Journey East and an IUIGA rattan cabinet for WFH paraphernalia, the aesthetic of “her desk” was minimalist with romantic accents like an old-school lamp shade.
A rose gold retro-style keyboard which we’d want for all our WFH sessions, too.
Master bedroom and rooftop
A master bedroom is often the focal point of the home, and here, we were invited into an upscale Bali resort. A rattan-backed bed from Island Living with emerald sheets (the owners’ seemingly favourite colour) turned the bedroom into a modern sanctuary, with light streaming through windows to wake up naturally to.
Besides the bed and across a walk-in wardrobe was an ensuite bathroom. This made a bold statement, with a freestanding vintage bathtub as a dramatic centrepiece amongst black-and-white dot tiles. It almost felt like a still of an old film, where we could imagine 50s music piped into luxurious bubble bath sessions.
The bathroom on the third floor, however, was in direct contrast – all sleek modern lines, marble-topped cabinets and glass doors. Its sloping roof, though, added a unique twist with a loft-like opening bathing the space with soft light.
With our little tour, there were many striking accents around the house that seemed to tell a larger story. One thing that stood out in particular was the airwell that stood right at the centre of the dining room and extended all the way up.
Angular lines and cut-out panels designed by Richard Ho created an architectural look that was stunning from any angle. Plus, a revamp of the traditional air-well also served as a strategic way to let in more light for an airy and bright space, combating one of the usual problems facing the renovation of a shophouse: little light.
The owners also took pains to conserve the original details of the house. This was not just the titles that were gazetted by URA for conservation, but also accents like the windows which added character with their azure blue tone.
As for the iconic facade, the owners explained that they had to write in to URA should they wish to change the colour. That however, was not in their books, as it was precisely the sense of heritage that charmed them into ownership, continuing the legacy of non-cookie cutter homes in Singapore with an irreplaceable past.
Photography by Huy Pham