It’s now home to a self-confessed history buff who restored many of the apartment’s original architectural features.
Just like its transformation from a humble fishing village to a modern city-state, what counts as the quintessential home in Singapore has changed over the decades: First came the attap houses, then the shophouses, and finally, the ubiquitous HDB flats that make up the heartlands of today.
But despite the evolution in local housing, some historical homes have stood the test of time – this walk-up apartment in Joo Chiat is one of them, and together with it stands the legacy of local songwriter Zubir Said, best known as the composer of Singapore’s national anthem “Majulah Singapura”.
“The building was given conservation status by the URA (Urban Redevelopment Authority) in 2003, and any renovation work had to be first approved by them,” says Matthew, who is the current owner and occupant of the apartment. So, how exactly did the whole process go? We had a word with Matthew and got all the details, along with a couple of interesting facts about the property’s past.
About himself and coming across the apartment
Matthew (M): I like history. I’ve always been interested in the past and I like architecture as well, so having a home that has a rich story to tell is a dream come true for me. I’ve been looking for a walk-up apartment for a few years, but it was quite difficult to find the right one.
First, these type of apartments are rare, and secondly, it’s hard to find a good one – and by that, I mean finding one that wasn’t heavily renovated and still had most of its original features intact. An apartment with good bones, so to speak.
It was by chance that I came across this apartment. One Sunday morning after a roti prata breakfast in the area, I was walking down the street when I saw a ‘For Sale’ sign hanging on the balcony. The previous owner was selling it himself, so it wasn’t listed online. It was a very DIY arrangement and there was no property agent involved.
I knew about the historical significance of this apartment and I was astonished to see it up for sale. The previous owner is an antique collector and he had turned the apartment into a mini-museum of sorts. He was friendly with Zubir Said’s family and he had filled the apartment with mid-century furniture to make it look like how it would have been when Zubir Said was still living in it.
About the apartment’s history
M: I was able to get the original drawing plans from BCA (Building and Construction Authority), which answered some questions about the apartment’s past.
The entire block, which this apartment is part of, is a private construction by the architect Ee Hoong Chwee; he was active in Singapore and Malaya from the 1930s up to the 1960s. BCA has records of some of the residential commissions he was involved in, but I would like to study more about him and the local architects of his generation .
Zubir Said moved into this apartment in the 1950s. The Cathay Keris movie studio where he made music for a lot of films was nearby – that was what brought him to this neighbourhood where he lived until his passing in 1987.
I’ve had the privilege to meet some of his family; shortly after the sale was confirmed, the previous owner invited them over, including Zubir Said’s daughter – she lives in KL and she was the one who wrote his biography published by ISEAS.
On the living room’s and balcony’s makeover
M: Originally, this space was a lot darker because the doors were solid wood and they didn’t have glass panes, so the only source of natural light would be from the windows.
As for the furniture layout, I kept it almost like what the previous owner had; I don’t have a TV so it made sense to have an arrangement that would allow me to chat with friends or relax.
If you take a look at the 'before' photos, you’ll see that some of the furniture like the sofa and chair were previously in the house. Most of them are well-kept antique pieces and I negotiated to buy some over from the previous owner.
Originally, I thought I would be spending a lot more time out in the balcony than I do now, and the reason why I don’t is because of the noise from the streets. Sadly, the windows aren’t very soundproof. That was a bit of a disappointment, but it’s something that you have to accept if you want to use period-accurate materials.
Speaking of which, both the balcony’s railings and the windows are brand-new, and they had to be rebuilt exactly to the original drawings to maintain the outward appearance of the building due to its conservation status. URA was extremely helpful throughout the process and I had a good collaboration with them.
On changes made to the master bedroom
M: Like the living room, the master bedroom’s layout was kept pretty much the same, except there used to be a poster bed here. There's a mid-century-cum-industrial feel from the vintage wood furnishings, brass accents, and exposed trunking.
Renovating the flooring for the bedroom and the rest of the house was a bit of a complicated affair. That’s because there were already two or three layers of existing ceramic tiles, so the question was whether to do a thin overlay or to hack everything out and start from scratch again. Eventually, we went with the overlay option, but if I had to do it all over again, I’d probably go with hacking instead.
Another feature of the master bedroom that we kept were the vents above the doorway. They had been bricked up and plastered over, presumably to keep the air conditioning in. So, one of the first things I did when I moved in was to climb up a ladder and carefully drill out the bricks and plaster, just to ensure the vents and the surrounding brickwork were still in good condition.
About the study’s renovation
M: Originally, the study was the third bedroom, and it’s the only room in the house that’s actually square. I decided to have it opened up to let more natural light into the house. It has been a great spot to work at during the pandemic and it also has a nice view of the streetscape outside.
It’s hard to tell unless you get up-close, but the vents above the study aren’t original. Limin, who is one of the designers from Free Space Intent whom I worked with, took the measurements from one of the existing vents and fabricated lookalikes from wood, which were then painted and installed overhead.
About renovating the apartment’s kitchen
M: There didn’t use to be a kitchen in the house. Well, it had a space with a fridge and a sink, so technically there’s a kitchen, but because the previous owner didn’t live here, there was no reason to have a proper one. Now, there’s a dishwasher, induction stove, cabinets, and everything else that I need.
The kitchen’s vintage-style mosaic floor tiles are a new addition as well and I think they go quite well with the island’s countertop; I wanted a white marble accent for the island because it calls to mind the classic marble tables which you can still find in really old kopitiams.
The kitchen used to be fully enclosed, and I contemplated whether to keep it that way or open it up to the rest of the apartment. I was reluctant to take such a bold step in changing the apartment’s layout, but in the end, it was the right decision to make for improving both the lighting and flow.
On the service area and common bathroom’s makeover
M: The service area had a sink and a cabinet originally, so that configuration was kept, except for the addition of a new washer-dryer and the water heater. It was also quite dark here as well, but that was solved with the fluted glass door, which leads to a spiral staircase that goes all the way downstairs.
In contrast to the rest of the house, the bathroom isn’t really a retro space. I just wanted something utilitarian; a previous owner had merged the shower and WC together and I kept it that way.
The interior wall was also shifted outwards to create more space on the inside of the bathroom and one of the vent blocks, which was salvaged from the kitchen wall that was torn down, was installed here. I am glad we were able to salvage and re-use it; it looks like it’s been in that spot since the building was constructed in 1953.
About the spare room’s makeover
M: It’s no longer a music room, but the room behind the living area used to be where Zubir Said gave music lessons to his students – his piano was placed here and it’s now at the Malay Heritage Centre.
The master bedroom doesn’t have a wardrobe, so this is where all my clothes go. Eventually, I might turn it into a spare bedroom, but for now, it’s a second study as well as a display area for photos and posters of Zubir Said. These particular photos were all taken inside the home over the years and are now part of the National Archives collection.
Another interesting thing about this apartment is that none of the rooms are square, except for the current study; this one had a sharp corner on the right side of the space, so it was squared off with a storage area to make it look a bit more regular-shaped.
To sum up
M: If you talk about preserving old houses in Singapore, what comes to mind are usually the black-and-white bungalows or Peranakan shophouses. But now, there’s more conservation focus on mid-century buildings, especially the ones that were designed by local architects, such as Golden Mile Complex.
I think it’s great that more of these buildings are receiving attention and I’m glad to play a role in conserving one of them. Someday in the future, I might find myself living in another place, but I’m sure happy knowing this one will be around for a long time to come.
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