Step into the past by looking inside Emerald Hill's present homes

Reena Devi
Lifestyle Reporter
(Photo: OH! Emerald Hill)

If you ever wanted to know more about the history of Emerald Hill, or imagined venturing into the homes of the rich and glamorous residents of the area, this year’s edition of OH! Open House is the perfect opportunity to do so.

Situated just off Singapore’s renowned Orchard Road shopping belt, Emerald Hill is known for its expensive real estate as well as for being Singapore’s first designated conservation area.

Most of Orchard Road were previously nutmeg plantations during Singapore’s colonial era, and the adjacent Emerald Hill was a former enclave to wealthy Peranakan, or Straits-born, Chinese families. Many famous Peranakan bankers and businessmen resided here, and so did Lee Choo Neo, the country’s first practising woman doctor and aunt to Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

The OH! Emerald Hill Artwalk, Singapore’s first and most popular event of its type, explores these lesser-known facts about Emerald Hill by bringing people into actual homes to see quirky site-specific works of art. During the walk, which runs from 3 to 25 March, visitors go inside shophouses owned by the likes of wealthy philanthropist Magdaline Goei, and that of the brother of Lee Kuan Yew. The residents of these homes are expatriates, from academics to bankers to founder of a lifestyle brand.

Alan Oei, co-founder and artistic director of OH!, told Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore the simple reason they chose Emerald Hill for the artwalk was because there are shop-houses here, whereas everywhere else you’ve lost the shophouse. Said Oei, “This is the only colonial vestige left, and it’s such prime land; so who’s living here today? Those are interesting questions as well.”

Inside an Emerald Hill home that has been modernised inside. (Photo: Mike Lim)

The expats who call Emerald Hill their home definitely live in style, with modern furnishings set against original Peranakan floral motifs carved on the walls of the houses, which range from two to four storeys. Traditional wooden cabinets with gold designs and sealed air wells in the middle of spacious courtyards typical of traditional shophouses also feature.

One such home is currently rented by Lisa Robins Pauze, who runs the transaction banking division of Standard Chartered Bank. She moved to Singapore from Beijing with her husband, and the pair have been living in Emerald Hill since. 

Pauze told Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore she was drawn to the area because it is a study in opposites. Said Pauze, “It is a small community of shophouses harking back to old days right off a bustling modern shopping district. We love the spirit, the ambience, and the fact the house has ‘outdoors green space’ inside with its interior garden area.”

She added that the shophouse she resides in, which was built in the mid-1920s, has been completely renovated. “I believe it was one of the first to be redone but it still retains the old bones and the feel of an old shophouse,” She added.

Inside a shophouse in Emerald Hill. (Photo: Neima Sitawi)

Another stunning home in the area goes as high as four storeys with a roof patio overlooking Orchard Road, a jacuzzi, and original windows on each floor opening up to the sealed air well with a view of the indoor water feature on the ground floor. There are inlaid original floral motifs below each window and the bathtub in the third floor sits next to a window that opens into the air well.

This shophouse’s tenant is Neima Sitawi, 39, designer and creative director of her own lifestyle brand who recently moved from Shanghai with her family.

The mother of two said, “It was mandatory (for me) to get a place with a heartbeat, with tradition, with some kind of old-school feeling, it’s part of our ethos as a family. I understand when I moved to Singapore it’s a very modern country, but what inspires me most is architectural history.”

Sitawi, who has lived in more than 10 countries with her family and launched her lifestyle brand in an old palazzo (palace) in Italy, was intrigued by the shophouse and even did research on its history.

A water feature in the middle of Emerald Hill home. (Photo: Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore)

She said there used to be an old kitchen on the ground floor, next to the present-day kitchen, which was open to the elements, and there were cooking stations with five or six burners and a bathroom or a shower in the area. This was shared by 12 to 13 families who lived in the house. They would use the kitchen on a rotating shift.

“In the master bedroom when you open the double doors and you’re standing on the balcony that looks over the street at Emerald Hill, it gives you this feeling of how it would be in your home (in the past), looking at your plantation unfold before you,” she said.

“On the rooftop, it’s even more stunning because you can see very far into the distance, you can really get the feeling of the grandeur, majesty actually of the orchards and plantations,” she added.

Of course, these old homes come with its own share of quirks. For example, at Sitawi’s place there is a “strange cross vent” in the house – when there is no breeze, the doors on each floor will slam shut in a synchronised fashion.

Main courtyard in Emerald Hill shophouse. (Photo: Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore)

At another shophouse further down the road, the Australian tenant, Linton Atlas, 57, points out the peephole carved into his second floor bedroom floor that allows residents to see anyone standing in the corridor outside the shophouse front door.

Linton Atlas, who has lived in Singapore since the ’90s and worked in banking, said he and his wife recently moved into the shophouse from a condominium because they wanted a place where they could entertain and have “enough wall space to show the artworks” they collect.

At one the shophouses near the stretch of bars, academic Nancy Eisenhauer also said the wall space for displaying their artwork collection was one of the reasons she was drawn to her place with its high ceilings. 

She moved to Singapore a few years ago from Oxford, England, with her husband who teaches international law at National University of Singapore, and her 10-year-old son. Her place sits between shophouses with Urban Redevelopment Authority plaques detailing the Chinese Baroque style of the homes and their architectural history going as far back as 1905.

Anthony Chin’s artwork in the front room of Emerald Hill shophouse. (Photo: OH! Open House)

According to Eisenhauer, the owner of her place used to live in a shophouse down the road with her numerous siblings and attend the Singapore Chinese Girls School nearby.

Eisenhauer described the residents of Emerald Hill as falling into three categories: “There’s (the) expats; there’s some Singaporeans who live here because this is where they grew up and they have not moved; [and] some really wealthy Singaporeans that own houses with the gigantic Mercedes.”

“But everyone is very friendly,” she added.