Sunday, February 20, 2011

#10 Sim Kwong Ho Shophouse (ii), 418 Balestier Road

The Sim Kwong Ho shophouses proved to be a point of intrigue for us while we were doing our trail. The architectural style of the shophouses definitely made it stand out from the other shophouses that we saw during our trail, but it was the intricate detailing on the shophouse doors that really raised some eyebrows. We knew that traditional carvings on the entrances to Chinese houses would be of "Door Gods", whose duty was to prevent evil spirits from crossing the threshold of the house. However, while the Sim Kwong Ho shophouses sported motifs of similar styling, they were not of "Door Gods" but rather, they depicted Sikh policemen from the colonial era of Singapore. This quickly became a point of interest for our group as we speculated why there was such a departure from traditional architecture. It was not until we found the site marker that we got our answers.

The shophouses here were built by Madam Sim Cheng Ho in 1928, and this particular row of shophouses were designed by architect Kwan Yow Luen. While Madam Sim employed different architects and designers for all her buildings, they all shared the same distinct style that was a fusion of eastern and western elements. This style was known as "Singapore Eclectic" or "Chinese Baroque". The Sikh policemen motifs were considered the "western" influence of the design style. These Sikh law enforcers were juxtaposed with traditional embellishments such as winged dragons, creating a clash in the aesthetics of the building that could be likened to Singapore's multi-cultural background.

I think, however, that it is only because we recognised the Sikh policemen that we took interest in the building designs. All of us in the group remembered drawings and photographs from our history textbooks of these policemen, and we recognised their turbans as well. But what of the younger generation, who might not realise the artistic nuance of the building because they are unsure what exactly they are looking at. They would just go past these "eclectic" shophouses without even noticing their unique design features.

It is sad to note that although these shophouses are being preserved as historical landmarks in Singapore, the tenants that occupy them do not reflect their cultural heritage. There were shops selling toilet and plumbing supplies, a budget hotel and interior design outlets. Even the corner coffeeshop had underwent renovation and lost its olden charm in the process. Hopefully, the next tenants would choose to model their shops after the architectural style of the shophouses.

The "unique-ness" of the Sim Kwong Ho shophouses made them one of the more interesting sights of our heritage trail. We stood at the traffic light junction and stared at the confusing array of different embellishments instead of crossing the road. I wonder if anyone else would do the same if they had just a bit more time at the traffic light.

- Daryl

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