Not any regular ol’ covered walkway, but a covered linkway built on steel girders, spanning a storm drain of some 15m. Awed by this miracle of urban engineering, I did what any normal Singaporean would do. I took a picture with my phone and sent it to the Facebook page ‘Singaporeans Supporting The Government Because of Covered Walkways’.
However, to my disappointment, my contribution was not appreciated by the admin(s). Not only did they decline to share my picture, they suggested that I-because I work in ‘online media’-should write a longer listicle about the many different types of covered walkways in Singapore.
“Just thinking out loud,” the admin added, with a hint of passive-aggression.
Heartbroken by this rejection, I was tempted to unfollow their page. However, curiosity got the better of me. How many different types of walkways have we built and how did we become a sheltered walkway nation?
Article 18 of the plan states: “Description of houses to be constructed, each house to have a verandah open at all times as a continued and covered passage on each side of the street”. These ‘verandahs’, built into shophouses and providing protection from both sun and rain, would later be known as the five-foot-ways. (Even though their actual width ranged between 6-8 feet.)
As for their purpose, the plan states: “A still further accommodation will be afforded to the public by requiring each house should have a verandah of a certain depth”.
Since Raffles was not an architect-or a man who did much walking-historians have often speculated on how he dreamed up the idea. After all, with malaria endemic and fresh water running short, you would think that Raffles had bigger problems than UV protection-but apparently not. Furthermore, covered walkways were not so common in Great Britain, which had a shortage of shelter despite its ceaseless rain.
As the story goes, he was being carried across a verandah-less Calcutta in his Game-of-Thrones style palanquin, when it began pouring heavily. Drenched by rain, enraged, and apparently ignorant of the existence of umbrellas, Raffles swore vengeance against the sky by building covered verandahs everywhere he went.
A more orthodox history points to the Dutch East Indies. In the Dutch capital of Batavia (i.e. Jaya Karta/modern-day Jakarta), the Dutch East India Company (VOC) had created regularly lined streets with overhanging eaves for shelter. Raffles, who served as the governor-general of the Dutch East Indies and wrote a The History of Java, certainly had both time and inclination to observe the local architecture-when he was not busy attacking it.
Indeed, his The History Of Java does make special mention of women preoccupied with “spinning and weaving on an elevated verandah in front, where they are protected from the rays of the sun, by an extended projection of the pitch of the roof.”
But how did the Dutch come up with it? After all, Amsterdam has many charming-uh-cafes, but it is a city known for canals rather than cover.
This is where the history ends and pseudo-intellectual guesswork begins. Depending on their mood and ideological fetish, experts have variously attributed the covered walkway to either Southern China, Javanese Vernacular architecture, or the House of Habsburg (Spanish branch).
Article 122 of this ordinance reads: “The while(sic) piazza and the four main streets diverging from it shall have arcades, for these are a great convenience for those who resort for trade.” The Dutch, who fought a number of wars with the Spanish crown, could certainly have copied from Manila.
Other writers point to China, where a subtropical climate likewise made cover quite necessary.
In Singapore Shophouse, writer Julian Davison suggests that Singaporean shophouses-and their covered walkways-had come from the Southern Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, brought here by successive waves of Chinese immigration.
Mr Davison bases this argument not on historical records, but on the architecture itself. The “air wells, firewalls, and even Raffles’ celebrated five-foot-way” were endemic to Southern China, “where one typically encounters simil…