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Tour this truly stunning shophouse conversion in Chinatown

By: Verne Maree; photography by Hart Tan

Englishman Matthew Elton yearned for something with more space and character than his small condo in Orchard Boulevard – but it had to fit the budget. Here’s the story of how he converted a 6,000 square feet sausage factory in Chinatown into a colourful, creative shophouse.

 

Where are you from?
Devon, England. Mark is Australian; we met in London 13 years ago and came to Singapore in the second quarter of 2012 after a year in Hong Kong.

How did you get this place?
Hilariously, it was originally a Chinese sausage factory! The street had been re-zoned as residential, so our fantastic landlord was pleased to find tenants like us who were prepared to turn the place into a home at our own expense.

The price started off far too high, so we offered less, promised we’d do a good job for him and made a commitment to spend a certain amount of money on the place: $65,000, which then became our budget. It made sense aggregated over the four-year lease he had agreed to.

What did you need to do to it?
Our task was to transform a factory, which had in the 1980s become a photographic studio, into a home that would work for us – while respecting the heritage and architecture of the building.

To start with, the interior was very 80s corporate, the ground level partitioned into dark, poky rooms, with floors covered in grey carpet… horrible! But I could see the potential.

In the first week, we got busy with the sledgehammers – great fun! – and took out four flatbeds of rubble, opening it all up to reveal the original spaces of the sausage factory. Being on the corner, we’re lucky to have the light from windows along two sides; like a shophouse, this kind of building could otherwise be rather dark.

And did you stick to your budget?
Yes, and for me, that was the most interesting challenge. Previous renovations that I’ve done were to places that I owned. Each time, I’d say something like, “Oh, I just love that kitchen!” and then the budget would go out of the window. That couldn’t happen this time, because it’s not our own property.

After a lifetime of shopping, I had to learn all over again how to shop in Singapore – on a budget. Now, I know where to buy anything and how to get anything done.

The place is huge. What did you do to the upper level?
Much of it was just one massive room, so I had to find a way to compartmentalise it – the exact opposite of what we did downstairs. Installing a long row of identical mirrored wardrobes from IKEA created the effect of a corridor to one side of the space, plus they give us tons of storage.

Behind the dividing line is my den, separated by a small wall from Mark’s study. He’s a telecoms lawyer who works long hours, so we spend a lot of time up here.

This must be the biggest bedroom in Singapore.
It’s a work in progress, but everyone loves the walls. I’d planned to replaster them, but stripping away up to a hundred years of paint and old plaster revealed this gorgeous patina of blue, gold and cream. It would have been a sin to cover over it, so I varnished the walls instead.

Where is your furniture from?
Like the Rajasthani bedroom doors, we bought just about all our furniture through Expat Auctions. The furniture from our condo was simply lost in this vast space, so we needed to get everything. But although the space is so ginormous, it still feels warm and cosy – and it’s perfect for entertaining. A hundred guests came to our Halloween housewarming party. (I had two slushy machines on the go, filled with margaritas.)

What’s this neighbourhood like to live in?
I love the outlook onto the front street – this is authentic Singapore, from the shophouses to Everton Park HDB over the road and the towering blocks of the nearby Pinnacle @ Duxton. We like to sit on the front porch with a gin and tonic and talk to our neighbours: local Chinese families to the left, and crazy, champagne-loving expats to the right; we seem to be the point of fusion.

We shop and eat as locally whenever possible; it’s a nice way to get to know the community. There are some great coffee shops around here, like Nylon; excellent murtabak in the food court across the road, and a lovely little Vietnamese restaurant. What’s more, we’re at most a five-minute walk away from the foodie spots in Keong Saik, Tanjong Pagar and Duxton Roads.

Now that your nest is sorted out, what’s your next project?
I’m thrilled to say that I’ve become the auctioneer at Expat Auctions! It all happened as a natural progression from spending so much of my time there as a customer, acquiring all the stuff we needed to furnish this place. I’ll be taking on full-time auctioneering duties from the owner, Rob Pendergrast, who’ll shortly be moving with his wife to Sweden.

Auctioneering suits me down to the ground: I love people and I love old stuff, and I’m fascinated by the process and the relationships it involves. Like this new home of ours, Expat Auctions is all about recycling; for me, it’s something of a reaction against the cookie-cutter consumerism, the glitz and the marble that reign in many expat homes.

Recommendations

Amanda Tee – “a singer with a band”
9769 0682

Expat Auctions
6278 0511

Highlander Coffee
49 Kampong Bahru Road
6223 7102

Janet – “for fantastic flowers”
#B1-177/178 Chinatown Complex
9750 3439

Gemma Van Schendelen – “the artist in residence”
8343 1395

SPCA – “where we got our cat, Babything, for just $50”
6287 5355

Stephen Joyce – “my one-on-one yogi”
9272 7420

The Cinnamon Room – “for great rugs”
9727 3051

Zech Wu – “for private chef services”
9688 7701

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