Beyond Singapore Shophouse Tiles
Singapore’s decorative tiles are often a favourite feature of shophouses, and loved by both local residents and tourists alike. I’m excited to bring together my passion for design and history in an exciting project to uncover the stories behind Singapore’s decorative past. In uncovering the cultural, historical and international connections of these beautiful surfaces in places of worship, we go beyond the shophouse facade to a unique and unchartered territory.
My introduction to Singapore’s past
My introduction to the existence of tiles beyond shophouse ones was rather abrupt. I hadn’t long moved to Singapore when in late 2012, my uncle rang me up and asked to meet him there to do something-something. He didn’t actually explain in advance that I would be attending the exhumation of my great grandfather and his brother. In the pouring rain, I stood shell-shocked at a Taoist priest chanted prayers while tomb keepers hacked and dug away the earth.
As I soon learned, the removal of their graves was due to the construction of a highway through part of what I know realise was Bukit Brown Cemetery. Since then, I’ve been compelled to get to know this overgrown and untouched part of Singapore. Through the help of volunteers from Heritage Singapore - Bukit Brown Cemetery Facebook page, I managed to discovered four relatives still buried at the cemetery.
decorative ‘peranakan’ tiles
As an artist with architectural training, I’ve been increasingly inspired by the various types of tiles at Bukit Brown. I’m especially drawn to the decorative tiles commonly found on Peranakan Chinese graves and the various styles and types evident. In Singapore and neighbouring cities like Malacca and Penang, such tiles can still be seen on some shophouses once owned primarily by wealthy Peranakan Chinese. The fact that these tiles were used points to a possible wish for the deceased to enjoy beauty in the afterlife, and for their descendants to remember them in style.
Japanese tiles lead the pack
The international flavour of the tiles is quite amazing with nearly 60% apparently from Japan. The rest were manufactured in England, Germany and Belgium. With a number of shophouses demolished in the 70’s in Singapore*, it leads to strong possibility that some tiles at the cemetery may be found nowhere else in Singapore, let alone Asia. It will be interesting to try to find out!
Be part of the project
This project is about bringing people together in a shared love of discovery and learning. I hope you’ll support my efforts to find out more about this amazing corner of Singapore, and be part of upcoming excursions, sharing sessions and updates on new tile tales.
I’d love to have you onboard! Drop me a line anytime
Support the project
Follow me on Instagram to see photos of my discoveries of trade tiles.
Visit Bukit Brown and join regular tours offered by a team of dedicated volunteers
Like the Heritage Singapore Bukit Brown Facebook page to learn more about BBC