Heritage Buildings: Syed Alwi Road shophouses rich in style

With its unusual trio of windows and ornate designs, these shophouses in Little India point to the first owner's wealth

"It's possible the owner had more money for frills. You can see it in the handiwork and the extensive use of glass." — MR KELVIN ANG, director of conservation management at URA, on the features on the 223 Syed Alwi Road shophouses (above, rare window design and curved columns) ST PHOTOS: AZIZ HUSSIN
Flower buds and diamond-shaped panelling. ST PHOTOS: AZIZ HUSSIN

Syed Alwi Road in Little India is best known as the address of department store Mustafa Centre.

But long before the hulking 24-hour shopping centre existed, the stretch was home to pre-war shophouses. It is off the busy Serangoon Road, runs all the way down to Victoria Street and is intersected by many roads such as Jalan Besar along the way.

While Mustafa Centre welcomes eager shoppers on one end, a pair of newly refurbished white and light chocolate-coloured shophouses at 223 Syed Alwi Road further down is a reminder of the road's long history, says Mr Kelvin Ang, director of conservation management at the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

The road's namesake Syed Alwi (Alwee) Ali Aljunied, who was a Justice of the Peace and died in 1926, was known to have developed some shophouses in the Jalan Besar area during the first phase of urbanisation in this district after World War I. But it is not known if he built this unit.

The details that went into these shophouses point to the first owner's wealth. Mr Ang says the pediments are more "voluptuous" compared with other shophouses.

"While the design of the facade points to the owner's taste, it's also possible he had more money for frills. You can see it in the handiwork and the extensive use of glass," he says.

These shophouses have been conserved, but others were not spared from redevelopment. Next to this shophouse stands a much younger and taller building.

Mr Ang says: "There were more shophouses there. They were torn down and rebuilt as new buildings in the past two decades, before we were able to put conservation in place in the last 10 years."

• This series is part of a monthly column on heritage buildings.


1. Rare window design and curved columns

The shophouses have three windows on the second level. This is an anomaly for shophouses which usually feature two. Mr Kelvin Ang, director of conservation management at the Urban Redevelopment Authority, says it was probably designed this way to let more light in - as seen in the use of glass panes instead of timber louvres.

The plaster columns on the ground floor were also deliberately designed at an angle.

Shops which opened on the ground floor could paint signs on the curved surface. This would have helped drivers to easily identify the business there, instead of having to crane their necks to look at names on a flat, rectangular column.

2. Flower buds and diamond-shaped panelling

The diamond-shaped panelling - off the sides of the windows and down the centre - are different from the usual flat or vertical fluting lines. Around these panels are decorations such as flower garlands below the windows and dangling flower buds under the rafters.

Here, builders have paid homage to their Asian heritage, instead of using typical Western laurels. The buds mirror the tradition of Indians using fresh flowers as a decoration on doors. It could have been the contribution of builders who worked on the building at the time and who would have come from all over the world.

3. Roof pediment

The inverted version of the numeral "1" on the roof's marker suggests that the builders then might have been illiterate. The year 1924 was when the shophouse was completed.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2015, with the headline Heritage Buildings: Syed Alwi Road shophouses rich in style. Subscribe