The distinctive look and feel of the Chinatown Street Market will soon be getting a makeover.
About 70 shopfront street stalls - which are now marked by colourful plastic awnings - will operate out of box-like units equipped with their own shutters and fire safety system by 2015.
A mock-up of the shelter, about the size of two toilet cubicles, was erected two months ago outside the Singapore Coins and Notes Museum on Pagoda Street.
The new shelters will replace existing ones - made up of plastic canvas draped over zinc roofs - which are a potential fire hazard.
The old shelters are made of materials which may not be fire-retardant. Many stall owners also leave their goods strewn along passageways or in front of the staircases of the shophouses, leaving no room for evacuation in the event of an emergency.
Some also display their wares - ranging from traditional clothing to jewellery - beyond the marked-out area of their street stalls, obstructing pedestrian traffic along the street.
The relatively smaller size of the new shelters leaves a 4m gap between two opposite stalls to ensure that fire engines can pass through.
They will also be equipped with a fire safety system, which includes water sprinklers, and shutters that will allow stall owners to lock up their wares when they close for the day.
The change will affect stalls occupying the space directly in front of shophouses. This is because if a fire breaks out at one of these stalls, it may spread to the shophouses.
Standalone street stalls - which number more than a hundred - will not be affected, though they will be furnished with better roof insulation to withstand the sun and rain.
Mr James Ong, executive director of the Chinatown Business Association, said the move is part of an ongoing effort by the association to enhance the Chinatown experience and to improve public safety. The association runs the street market, which flanks Pagoda, Trengganu and Sago streets.
The idea for the new shelters surfaced five years ago. Stall owners and landlords consulted were supportive of the move, which is part of a larger plan to spruce up and revamp Chinatown, said Mr Ong.
In May, the Chinatown Food Street was closed for a $4 million overhaul, and it will reopen at the end of the year.
Later this year, the Singapore Tourism Board will call for a tender to redesign the Chinatown Heritage Centre.
But some stall owners pointed out that the new shelter is too small, and its nondescript box- like structure does not reflect the rich culture and history of the area.
"Competition here is strong, and we display our wares to attract walk-in customers. We can't display much items in that small space," said Mr Abu Saleem, 46, sales assistant at a clothing stall.
Others took issue with how the shelter looks. "We will lose the essence and heritage feel of Chinatown," said Mr Rakkesh Belanii, 34, manager of a jewellery shop along the street.
Added Mr V. Raj, sales assistant at a tailor shop: "If people want all these boxed structures, they can go to the shopping malls in Orchard Road instead."
But Mr Ong was quick to point out that the shelters will come in various sizes.
"They can also customise the design of their own shelters to include cultural motifs, subject to the Urban Redevelopment Authority's approval," he said.
Some stall owners, who pay about $2,000 to $3,000 in rent each month, also worry they may have to pay more in rental.
Rents will go up, said Mr Ong, but the association is still working out the sums. This is due to the higher cost of building the new shelters, which will be split between the association, stall owners and the Singapore Tourism Board.
The new design, however, has won over some stall owners. Said Mr Xu Guo Bing, 49, who sells Chinese figurines and paintings: "It will not be so hot in the day, and we can just lock it up at night instead of having to shift all our items in every day when we close shop."