'Locking in' the Quay to our trading history

'Locking in' the Quay to our trading history
Robertson Quay today with its Alkaff Bridge, shaped like a wooden boat. The bridge got its name from the nearby Alkaff Quay

Robertson Quay today is home to an array of cafes, restaurants and contemporary art galleries.

Round the corner in Jiak Kim Street is iconic nightclub Zouk, which has been drawing partygoers for the past 23 years.

Yet the area has not always been so cosmopolitan.

Just under a century ago, warehouses - also known as godowns - stood waiting for goods to be unloaded by coolies from boats on the polluted Singapore River, which has since been spruced up and seen its sandy banks replaced with neat, tiled pavements.

The area's historical significance seems to have all but ebbed with the tide. However, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) is hoping to preserve its remaining historical character.

Last week, its latest Master Plan gazetted nine warehouses along the stretch for conservation amid the hotels and condominiums that have been sprouting up.

Among them are three warehouses built in 1919 that are home to Zouk, whose lease reportedly runs out at the end of the year. Its head of business development and public relations Sofie Chandra would not be drawn on its future, but did go into its past.

"The silhouette of the warehouse has been synonymous with Zouk all these 23 years," she said.

"During the initial and subsequent renovations where we did soundproofing and interior redecorations, preserving certain elements of the structure allowed us to maintain the uniqueness of the building."

According to the URA's latest Master Plan, Zouk's premises are within a larger site zoned for residential use, with commercial activity on the first floor. The warehouses, a URA spokesman said, "will be restored and integrated into the future development".

Other warehouses to be conserved include the premises of DBS Arts Centre, TheatreWorks and the Singapore Tyler Print Institute.

TheatreWorks managing director Tay Tong said one of the group's considerations when it moved in in 2005 was to retain as many features as possible.

He said: "Beyond the facade, there were many very beautiful features on the inside that we wanted to retain as a continuing reminder that some architecture of the past is worth keeping."

This includes a timber slide, which coolies used to transport goods to the ground floor.

One nearby site gazetted last year is the former Warehouse disco in Havelock Road where partygoers boogied from 1986 to 1996 and which now comprises three rundown warehouses. It will be redeveloped into a hotel.

At the peak of the island's entrepot trade in the mid-20th century, these warehouses would store, repackage and re-export commodities such as rice, spices, coffee, tin and rubber.

Traditional Chinese medicine shop owner Ng Sui Peck, 72, told The Straits Times that observing the coolies hard at work is among his earliest memories.

"I recall them lugging 100kg sacks of rice from the boats, onto the planks and then into the nearby warehouses," said Mr Ng, who moved out of the area when he was in his 20s. "Fires were also pretty common then, probably because the coolies were careless with their cigarette butts."

Retiree Tang Wang Kid, 75, who has lived in a nearby Housing Board flat for 52 years, said the area has "remarkably modernised" into a tranquil riverside setting.

"It does not really feel like Singapore now," he said, noting the al fresco dining by the river and a large expatriate crowd.

Entrepreneur Beverly Yeoh, 28, who has lived nearby for 15 years, added: "The profile of the area has gradually been raised in the last decade, with many popular destination eateries. Clarke Quay was the place to go in the past."

Heritage buffs and residents support the preservation move but some believe more could still be done to promote the conserved buildings' significance.

Naval architect and heritage blogger Jerome Lim, 49, said: "In conserving it's always from the architectural viewpoint of how the exterior looks. But what is often lost is what the building actually meant, as the context of why the building is there has changed."

Beyond just putting up a plaque, there is a need to talk about how "to bring life to an area while educating people on what it used to mean, be it through school history or walking tours".

Ms Yeoh added: "If it is not obvious when people see it they won't care. If it is painted over in some gaudy colour, the frontage would have been changed."


This article was first published on June 13, 2014.
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