The Stacked Homes Editiorial began in 2017 to provide the latest news and analysis on property in Singapore.

Reuben and Fang

EP. 5 12 SEP 2020 | 30:52

What Living in a Shophouse is Really Like

Ever wondered what it's like to live in a shophouse? Today's episode has us in conversation with Fang Low, founder of Figment - a boutique co-living company that specialises in shophouse-living here in Singapore.

We start off with a recollection of Fang’s earlier days growing up in a shophouse, before the duo delve into topics that include architecture, community and cultural heritage dipped with the slightest tinge of controversy.

As he walks us through the entire shophouse living experience from one region to the next, Fang also takes the time to share some of the steps that Figment has taken towards making co-living a safe and viable option for everybody in today's climate.

Available on

Guests

Reuben

RDReuben is the producer and talkshow host of the Stacked Podcast Series.

Fang

FLFang Low is the founder of Figment - a boutique co-living company that specialises in shophouse-living here in Singapore.

Transcript

Reuben  0:00  
On today's episode,

Fang  0:02  
I actually think a lot of Singaporeans don't realise that, that you can actually live in these shophouses because you see them a Club Street, Ann Siang Hill, and you're always like, oh yeah, they're all these great F&B brands out of shophouses, but you'd never really think you could live in them.

Reuben  0:22  
You're At Home, with Stacked.

Hello, and welcome back to another episode of At Home with Stacked. Now in today's show, we've got a very brilliant man with a burning passion for, you guessed it shop houses here in Singapore. His name is Fang Low, and he's found an avenue that involves fusing both coliving and shophouse resident here in our rapidly evolving metropolis. Now prior to founding his company, he worked at Goldman Sachs for a number of years, while also pursuing his MPa at Harvard University.

And today, we'll hear some of fun stories about growing up in a shop house, and we discuss the vivid ins and outs of shop house living here in Singapore. Now remember, if you like what you listen to, you can always hop on to stackedhomes.com/editorial for more of us right after the show.

The founder of Figment, Fang - welcome to the show.

Fang  1:39  
Hey, Reuben. Thanks. It's great to be here.

Reuben  1:42  
Hey, it's great to have you. How was your week?

Fang  1:44  
Good. Good. As usual, a lot of running around looking at shophouses

Reuben  1:50  
Well, I can definitely think of worse ways to spend your week.

Honestly, it sounds like fun, man. Alright, let's dive straight into it. For the benefit of our listeners. Tell us a little bit more about what Figment actually is and why the name

Fang  2:05  
Right Figment is a boutique coliving company. We specialise in managing heritage houses around Singapore in all these old charming districts. I think the name Figment came to me because it brought to mind storytelling, imagination, creativity, you know, dreamy things that might only exist online, which is basically where we are.

Reuben  2:35  
Right now. Of course the entire show has experience embodies that the colours the vintage, you know, so I understand that you kind of grew up with shop houses Can you share it was maybe one of your favourite memories as a kid living in a shop house?

Fang  2:50  
Sure. I I feel very fortunate to have grown up in a shop house. This one was in Tanjong Pagar on Blair road. Sure. It's, it was like, residential Historic District, much like Emerald Hill. And, and this house, she was a black and white kind of two story what we call transitional style shop house. And I was also very lucky because I had parents who loved art. And so they would love back art antiques from their travels all around the world. And so yes, not only that, I have three generations of Chinese Singaporeans piled on to shophouse. We also had like, all these different tea cups, faces around the house. And so yeah, it's quite fun growing up like that, although as a kid, you don't want to be knocking down any antiques and so carefully, but yeah, you know, on all great time. And I feel strongly about sharing that with people today.

Reuben  3:58  
But this wasn't was it just out of curiosity? Was it hard to be living in a three generational home with all the you know, the rules and plays and all that kind of things?

Fang  4:08  
I think I think hard not so much. I think it was it was great having three generations at the dinner table? No, every Friday night. And also, you know, my parents would have loved it because all they needed to do was shop my name and I would come running down. I used to live on the attic floor of my brother. And so yeah, it's a very close knit kind of environment. Sadly, we don't live with my grandparents anymore. But yeah, only fond memories.

Reuben  4:41  
Sounds amazing. Well, let's talk a little bit more about your company Figment. So I kind of understand the show pauses because you that's basically your background, how you grew up with that, but why co living? Does that have something to do with the multi generational family by any chance?

Fang  4:56  
Great question. So, co living I feel has been around For the longest time, you know, there were it's cohousing over in Scandinavia, you had communes and keep it says in Israel and so. So co living today in its current incarnation is what? You know, we see a return to to the importance of relationships and communities, especially in a big urban Metropolis like Singapore.

And so, personally, for me, I was very involved with with couchsurfing International. It was, it's pretty much like this very cosmopolitan group of people all around the world that were very open to hosting strangers from different countries in their homes, and it sounds crazy, but But no, I, I think you really get a certain type of person who's who's very open to cultural exchange, and who's also very curious about other cultures.

And so that inspired me to to build what is now Figment. And the fact that we have the opportunity in Singapore to build a very cosmopolitan community where people from all over the world, it's something that I'm very proud of.

Reuben  6:18  
Amazing. All right, so can you show us how many shop houses do you actually have for lease right now?

Fang  6:25  
Right, so we've been growing quite quickly.

We currently have about 15 shop houses for these. Each of them, I like to call them our, our special snowflakes, right? Because each house is distinct. They have their own heritage, they have their own interiors, and even every room is distinct. So we don't have any rooms that look the same. Each one is different.

Reuben  6:49  
Right? So I was reading some of the articles online about Figment, and actually realised that you guys hire multiple architects. So you would think that, you know, most people would just find one architect and then stick with that guy for all the every furnishings and refurbishments. But you chose to go on the route of variety.

Fang  7:11  
Yeah, I think it's, it's great for us to support our local designers or local architects. And really, you know,

We started with eight shop houses on Lorong 24 at Geylang designed by seven different architects. It was a project led by Karen Tan of bucket project she has gone on to start to project in the cinema in Singapore right now. But yeah, she she put together the original team of architects, and, and each one would have their own take on on what a design of a modern house should be, because these were all questions of adaptive reuse and imagination. And so we get all sorts of houses in our portfolio today. I've since gone on, to invite not only architects but also everything from botanical design studios, to stage design, to furniture design. And so we have different types of designers, not necessarily architects who are able to imprint the unique personalities on the homes that we provide. And frankly, that's what people are looking for. At the end of the day, you don't just want to go to a bar and kind of insipid house and live in it. You want to be building vibrant memories in house that equally stunning,

Reuben  8:36  
Oh that's beautiful. And in fact, that's one of the reasons why I believe you give them carte blanche as well.

Fang  8:40  
Exactly, exactly. So, so we we don't really restrain them. And that's why you get houses that's truly dramatic, like campus house, done by Ministry of design, it's totally white, check it out. Totally white. It was actually also the childhood home that I just mentioned early on is compensation. And so

We literally erased all the previous memories into hopes for a better future. So it's kind of poetic in that way. But yeah, you get a very kind of total creative destruction in a single shop house.

Reuben  9:18  
Did you ever go like, so you go carte blanche, and then you come to the shop house maybe a couple of weeks, couple months later, and you're like, Oh, no, what's happened? If he had that,

Fang  9:27  
To be fair, you know, because it's so diverse. And it's such a dizzying array of shop houses that we design.

I don't like each and every one of them. Sure, in terms of the aesthetic, right? But that's fine, because we were all about diversity. We're all about different personalities, both within our community and without.

And so I quite like that. Yeah, you get some designs that are more simple and homely and you get really the more dramatic ones as well.

Reuben  9:58  
Right. Tell us a little bit more about your rent. Give us a ballpark. For example, if I were to want to rent a room, maybe how much would I be looking to pay in this case?

Fang  10:09  
Right, so our rental ranges from 2000 a month for one of our smallest suites, all the way to about 4000 a month for one of our larger suites. That said, This rental amount, what people don't actually realise is it includes a whole bundled set of services, like weekly cleaning, includes your disposables in your room, you know, your your your soaps, your hand, soaps, your toilet paper, and also includes curated community events. We last had a private dining, inviting and vocal chef, we a little bites into the store. And we've also had cocktail mixing sessions as well. And so we really want to provide an entire complete experience for our members.

Reuben  11:00  
Yeah, I think that's a really good thing, that anti cleaning, service inclusion, mainly because you know, I think as experts or Singaporeans here in Singapore, we're really busy. So just knowing that there's a cleaning service data, you don't have to really take care of it. It's wonderful. And, of course, the entire community thing that's, that's beautiful. You know, speaking of community, I don't think I grew up personally, in HDB flat, and I'll be honest, I never really had much of an experience. I never really even thought that you could be living in a shop house.

Fang  11:32  
Yeah, I actually think a lot of Singaporeans don't realise that, that you can actually live in the shop houses because you see them on Club Street, Ann Siang Hill. And you're always like, Oh, yeah, they're all these great F&B brands, auto shop houses, but you'd never really think you could live in them. And so Figment we regularly do open houses. We did once for the latest case study homes that we released, where everyone Singaporeans included can come and check it out.

And we had a great reception. Like, there are people walking in off the street, who never knew that there was so much peace in the house. It just looks like a two storey building from the front. But because it can build up four floors behind. It's it's just incredible space, incredible light. And so I'm very happy to actually be democratising shophouse living. Because like I said, you no longer need to pay like eight, nine grand to live in Japan. Oh, yeah. For us. Japan suites to three to four grand and you get to live in an actual shophouses. So it makes it a lot more accessible to everyone.

Reuben  12:42  
But tell us a little bit more about the kind of people who reach out to you, I think mostly locals expats.

Fang  12:48  
Yeah, I think we get a good chunk of expats, mainly because locals are not too accustomed to renting with the with the convenience of hdb's and so on. But we are seeing more and more locals who actually do want to experience shophouses you know, finally live in one. And so we get locals coming in for stints three to six months on the shorter side, just to to live in one of these neighbourhoods with old charm, Emerald Hill, Blair road and so on. But you also see within these neighbourhoods, a lot of I guess, celebrities living there, and so you do get you to get the at the odd actor or actress. I do know historically, Lee Kuan Yew's grandfather lived in the shop house on Neil road. And when I was growing up on Blair road, you know, Dick Lee used to be living down the street. And so we would like not say spy but like, you know, be a bit cheeky and play, play close to his home and so on. So yeah, we I'm a big fan of everything that goes on in these neighbourhoods,

Reuben  14:05  
Really beautiful. It's kind of like a hidden community of sorts, you know, that the public eye isn't really aware of. So it's wonderful that you're doing this things. Tell us a little bit more about the process. Right? What is the process of renting a room of maybe even going to look from the time they contact you? How does it work?

Fang  14:24  
Great. So people reach out to us, mostly through our website, figment.live. And what we do is we don't just want to bring you through on a shop house viewing, like what an agent would do, right? We're so passionately excited about shop houses, we turn it into a heritage tour. And so we tell you about the facades, that liner shop houses, everything from Islamic rain eaves to Chinese Jian Yan kind of stuff goes to like Corinthian pillars inspired by Europeans. Architecture, we tell you about all that we bring you inside the house. And we tell you about the designers that did it. The various local partnerships that we've worked with all the artisans that crafted objects within our houses. And so it's, we want you to be excited by living in a shop house, you know, and if you're keen, then sure you could come into it with us. And we mostly have a very strong community of like, called the creative class. Mainly many knowledge workers in Singapore, they're very cosmopolitan and open minded, that really want a stronger sense of place, you know, you can be anywhere in the world. Why did you pick Singapore? And how can shophouses make you build stronger memories in Singapore?

Reuben  15:46  
Right? So you know, while we're on the topic of being able to pick your house, anywhere in the world, or in Singapore, for that matter, this thought is a little bit of a controversial one I feel. And I want to get your opinion on this. What is in your eyes, the difference between condos and shop houses here in Singapore?

Fang  16:07  
Great. So I have to caveat and say that, you know, I love shop houses I've grown up in Chicago. Sure. I've lived in condos, you know, when I was in New York overseas. And so to me, condos, we have tonnes of them in Singapore, it really all over the place to meet at are a representation of what modern Singapore is today. Dealing with the construction site, right and coming back every year to construction side, things are being built your CBD buildings, condos. And sure you know, you you still see these classes to buildings all around the place. To me, to me, it's, it's not what we want, and what we get from shop houses. Because condos ultimately, are maximising gfa they have their own pressures you need to build to maximise your return on your investment. And so developers are making them much more blocky, they look like they were designed by accountants more than they were by architects Really? And yeah, you know, it's, it's what makes a saint poured the concrete jungle that is today. And so I'm very, very proud of the URA. Because the conservation guys at URA have done so well to fight to retain many of these houses that then lie in our streets and our, our built heritage. And yeah, you know, by pushing all these buildings further out of Marina Bay, and so I, I really have to thank for all of this,

Reuben  17:47  
You know, from the way I look at it. If you look at our infrastructure, our cultural infrastructure heritage of today, we don't really have all that much left. Yes, you have a couple gloms you know, you have your shop houses. But really, if you think about it, we are only 55 years old, right? Yeah, at the rate of expansion, all these new condos, sleek glass architectures filling the skyline, hundred 50 to 100 years down the road. Is it possible that we're going to look back at future generations, they're going to look back and be like, Oh, shophouses was something that used to exist, now they extinct? And you know, thanks to thanks to the efforts of the URA thanks to the things that you're doing to promote these shophouse experiences. I think we do have a possibility of future generations being able to live in the shop houses. It's a really beautiful thing. Now, on the topic of living in shop houses, tell us a little bit more about the perks. So the benefits of living in a shop house, as well as some of the issues that tenants residents might face when moving in for the first time.

Fang  19:00  
Right so there's so many quirks to living in a shop house. I think you you you get very nice facades beautiful jalousie windows, it's on the lower floor. And and it's, it's in all these mixed use neighbourhoods, right. So you, you can basically walk down the street for a bakery to grab a drink or something or meet your friends in a gym. And so it's it's very accessible. But surely, you know, shop houses come with their own set of issues as well. Because we retain the original timber flooring, timber boards. When you step on these sports, you make more noise, right. So a lot of these floors also have to be carpeted to stop noise from travelling. And because they are quite vertical, and there's a lot of open space. Often some I travel upwards and so you don't get the best soundproofing in these homes.

But, but also, you, you want to have that social environment to live in, you want to be getting in touch with people who are also living in the same shop house. And I think it could be a benefit in some, in some ways as well. There are other issues like, like leaks, for example. Because these houses are many, you know, many years old, some of them are over 100 years old. And so you get these terracotta roofs that might not withstand Singapore rain. And so you get certain beaks developing around the place, but we handle them with loving care. And to us, it's just part of that charm of living in a shop house, you know? Sure.

Reuben  20:40  
You know, I totally get you and you mentioned earlier about those creaky floorboards, Allison estando some time back, and we actually rented this antique penthouse. And it was like maybe 150 200 years old, so you kidding. Things were, you would imagine like going in that things will be falling apart. And the lift going up was like really rickety. You had to kind of close the doors on your own and press that little button. You know, it just felt like it could break anytime there was a is really beautiful.

And I remember when I walked into the house, like for the very first time and you know, the wooden floors and I sat down I was like, oh my, this is gonna be keeping me up all night. You know, if I go to the washroom when I come back, get a cup, everyone. So that was that was a really interesting one.

Fang  21:25  
Yeah, you know, you're ready to get old buildings that that that some people fear might actually collapse and and there were a few shop houses in Singapore that did collapse over the years. And so, you know, they BCA, URA, they're like trying to come together with regulations to renovate the house in the way and surely now it doesn't happen anymore. Thank god like, yeah, that that was really a problem for our time.

Reuben 21:47  
Yeah, yeah, honestly, man safeties, it's a really important one. And it's good. It's good to know that I was shophouses in Singapore safe. But you know, that being said, what a really solid things that you feel residents of shophouses really enjoy about the entire experience that you don't really get elsewhere.

Fang  22:10  
Yeah, I think you you've got to be ready for the uplifting experience you might get when you return to the shop house at the end of your work day. It just feels great when you come back and you see this beautiful facade and your enter and it's everything inside to seem so so long and so and so spacious i think that's that's I I really find these spaces to be so distinct. I think the street level ambiences is great. You're you're literally facing a park or nother set of houses on the other side you can shut down from your balcony for your windows where else in Singapore can you actually do that right. And and and these facades you get all kinds of facades, you get modernist facades are deco facade, so you have like, Baroque style facades. And so each shop house is so unique.

It's like, you can't compare it to experience elsewhere in the world. Right? When I go to say New York and I stay in a condo, it's so different than saying in a brownstone in New York are so different for saying in a shop house in Singapore and so it's that sense that you are living in our own Singaporean architectural vernacular that makes it so compelling for people of course, I wouldn't want people to just come in to a heritage home and have the entire interior be old and and authentically heritage right so so we have redundant tire interiors.

You do get your modern comforts your air cons, your dishwashers, your fridges, your appliances and and so it's it's designed on the facade and also on the inside we we've moved away a little bit from you know having all chairs in your home with just steaks and all that I think it's for the better that we've moved from that i think i think we get nicer living rooms and and all that these days and so you know that the best thing is the shop houses they change with the times you know, right now it could be coliving many years from now it could be an art museum or art gallery and there's so many uses for these fantastic spaces.

Reuben  24:26  
Right? So you know on that same topic, let's zoom out a little bit walk is true how the experience changes. As you go from a shop house in one district to a shop house in another...

Fang  24:39  
The feel is totally different. Because the styles of houses change as you go and so surely they look different. But also for example, on Emerald Hill and Blair road. These are your grand dams.

These are your your age old shop houses for for rich Chinese merchants in the past And so you get like, you get a very upscale like, luxurious experience walking through these neighbourhoods, you also get very committed neighbourhood associations that come together to work on things in your neighbourhood like improving the parks, like safety issues and sales and so on. Of course in the in the East you have to chat you've cut down. There are eminently walkable. You can go down the street to your favourite Peranakan restaurant and cafe and, and it's this idea of different amenities coming together to build that destination.

I think what's interesting, though, is you get other streets, other neighbourhoods like Geylang, or Balestier that were former or still in Geylang's case, Red Light Districts. Sure. So you get a lot more vibrancy coming from these districts. It's a lot more gritty. You have Yes, you do have KTV bars but you also have all these old heritage businesses like Long Fatt Tau Sah Piah or Lam Yeo Coffee in Balestier, which are destinations in and of their own right.

Reuben  26:04  
Does it get like a little bit noisy in this areas. You know, at night on like Friday night, Saturday nights with these KTVs? Do you get some noise bleed overs into the shop house units?

Fang  26:13  
Thankfully, most of these shophouse Lorongs are are actually parked, not at the main road, but inside, Lorongs off the main Geylang road are often in balestier Road. So we have Peck Gou road with a beautiful shophouses. We also have Geylang Lorong 24A. And so these shophouse streets are very quaint, you actually get, you know, furniture stores, you get like institutions like the British Library, or even like a Chinese instrument Association, you get a lot that that charming, type, quaint type living in these streets, you don't you don't get the full blown KTV experience on your main thoroughfare.

Reuben 27:03  
Oh, thank goodness for that. So one of my last questions then and a customer one. And then in today's climate with COVID-19 and everything. And you know, especially considering that you guys are a co living company, after all, what I some of the things that you're doing to try and mitigate perhaps the COVID-19 effects.

Fang  27:25  
So we we have shared workspaces on the ground floor. Because many of our members today are stuck at home, they're working from home, we want to make things very comfortable for them. And so we realised that the dining area, the living area, make very good workspaces for them as well. But of course, on the safety site, we have safe entry in each and every one of our homes, in case any of their friends to come over. So we can track that ingoing and outgoing kind of personnel.

We definitely have have redoubled our efforts, our cleaning and disinfecting each and every one of our suites in our homes every week. And I think the flexibility that comes with our month to month leases are much appreciated right now, especially when you don't know where things are going to go in the next few months.

Reuben  28:19  
Awesome. Well, that's really well put together. Well, then what is the future for Figment? could we possibly be seeing a venture into other housing types perhaps?

Fang  28:32  
Yeah, I think with Figment it's all about dreaming big, right. So we, we, we like this idea of Figment as a brand that brings together different types of architectural vernacular. And so yes, I've gone out I've looked at very, very charming apartments in modernist icons like your Golden Mile complex, like your People's Park complex. But also think we could even go international because you have all these types of architectural vernacular also overseas. Vietnam has its French colonial mansions. Japan has these matchya wooden houses and an even Australia Sydney has has these warehouses by the pier. And so frankly, all these buildings all these homes have tonnes of character it's about bringing them together and the Figment.

Reuben  29:26  
Oh, that sounds like a really grandiose plan and we wish you all the very best for that just before we let you go Fang can you tell us tell our listeners and me where can we go to learn a little bit more about your company.

Fang  29:38  
So we're very proud of our website. It was nicely designed by Foreign Policy in Singapore. And and you can find us at www.figment.live. L-I-V-E.

Reuben  29:51  
Awesome

Fang 29:51  
And I am also happy for you to share my email with your listeners. I'd love to hear from other shophouse fans.

Reuben  29:59  
Sounds Good, we'll do that. Well fun. Thank you again for your time today. I think it's been an incredible experience. Have a wonderful day ahead. And thank you again for joining us.

Fang  30:07  
Thank you, Reuben. Take care.

Reuben  30:12  
Once again, that was Fang Low. He's the founder of Figment, a boutique coliving company here in Singapore. Now if you enjoyed what you listen to today, you can always hop on to stackedhomes.com/editorial for more quality real estate content. As always, if you have any comments, queries or suggestions, feel free to drop us an email at hello@stackedhomes.com. Once again, my name is Reuben Dhanaraj, thank you for joining me today. I'll see you in the next podcast.

Reuben  30:55  
Right would these shop houses...

Fang 30:58  
Maybe we should we should redo that bit. Yeah. Hahaha.

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