By Heidi Sarna
I never tire of exploring Singapore, often by bicycle, pedaling around not only for exercise, but in the hope of spotting another old house or some cool architectural flourish I haven’t seen before.
Living in Singapore for more than 14 years, I’ve been around the block a few times and have discovered quite a lot. I read heritage blogs like Jerome Lim’s, The Long and Winding Road, and I’ve taken many tours with Geraldene Lowe-Ismail and later with Jane’s Singapore Tours. When I learn something new, I want to go find it.
But sometimes serendipity plays a role too. And in a way, this kind of random discovery can be the most satisfying of all, an affirmation that just slowing down and stopping to smell the roses is an end in and of itself.
I was recently cycling along Kheam Hock Road at a leisurely pace, on route to Bukit Brown. I pedaled north past Command House, a grand hilltop mansion nestled behind a thick wall of greenery. It was built in 1938 for top military brass, including Lieutenant-General Arthur E. Percival, the British commander who surrendered to the Japanese on February 15, 1942.
Toward the end of Kheam Hock, the graves of Bukit Brown can be spotted dotting either side of the road. Though the main section dates from 1922, the iconic Singapore cemetery comprises several burial grounds, the oldest section dating back to the 19th century. While a chunk of Bukit Brown was lopped off and graves exhumed to make way for the Lornie Highway a few years back, much still remains.
As I rode along Kheam Hock as I had many times before, just before Bukit Brown’s main gate, a tomb caught my eye. I stopped, tipped my bike into the tall grass along the sidewalk, and leaned toward the hillock for a closer look. The foliage was deep, but pushing the thought of slithering snakes from my mind, I waded in to get a closer look.
I’ve seen tombs, and shophouses of course, decorated with Peranakan-style floral-motif tiles, but these were different. I counted six tile panels painted with travel scenes — pastorals in miniature.
One was painted with a Dutch windmill along a canal, another appeared to be a serene Japanese scene with Mount Fuji. Though a bit obscured by moss and other jungle grime, the bright brushstrokes still shone through.
What a lovely way to surround the departed with peaceful scenes, coveted places and the all-important element of water for good feng shui. A pair of lotus-shaped finials on either side of the main tomb stone created a lovely tableau for the man who was laid to rest there, from what I could tell, since the 1960s.
To find out more about the tiles, I was referred to the “Singapore tile lady,” Jennifer Lim, an expert on Singapore’s tiles, especially those in Bukit Brown. The Australian of Singaporean heritage has taken her background in architecture, fine art and language, and married it with a love of Singapore’s decorative heritage tiles. Supported by over 100 community volunteers, her ‘Singapore Heritage Tile Project’ has located, cleaned and documented around 2,000 individual tiles. Her passion and projects are a treasure in and of themselves, and she’s even writing a book.
Speaking of beautiful tiles… I quite by mistake stumbled upon Petain Road looking for a parking space a few years ago. I was floored by this short street on the edge of Little India near Jalan Besar.
A ribbon of light and color amidst otherwise drab surroundings, a row of 18 double-story shophouses from the 1920s and 30s are one of Singapore’s most outstanding surviving examples of the Chinese Baroque style. Commissioned during the prosperous years of the Malayan rubber and tin boom of a century ago, the shophouse exteriors are covered in a patchwork quilt of glazed ceramic tiles with floral motifs in cheerful pinks, blues and greens. Panels of ornate plaster work on columns and below upper story windows depict animals rich in traditional Chinese symbolism.
As I dug around to learn more, I read that the Petain Road shophouses weren’t built by Chinese businessmen as was the norm then, but for a Muslim owner, Mohamed bin Haji Omar. They were restored some 20 years ago and today, seven of the 18 are owned by one local family who has turned four of them into clusters of boutique apartments with shared living spaces.
From time to time, I go back to Petain Road in the early evening hours, when the light is just right, to bask in the glow of these stunning shophouses. And then I drift off to poke around other parts of the neighborhood. You never know what you’ll find.