If you’ve ever been to Singapore, Penang or any of the other places that once made up the Straits Settlements, you would have strolled along the arcades in front of rows of candy-coloured shophouses, thankful for the shade and muttering about scofflaws while you navigated your way around an obstruction or two.  And then you’d move on, since most of us—unless it’s in the course of our work—tend not to think much about architecture in our daily lives.

But there was a time in the late nineteenth century, when the inhabitants of these shophouses felt strongly enough about these arcades, also known as five-foot verandahs or kaki lima (in the Malay vernacular), to riot about them.

As tempting as it is to imagine a group of aesthetically minded citizens rioting over architecture, what was in fact at stake was public space and who got to wield power within it.

The idea of a public space, clearly demarcated from a private one, emerged as recently as the nineteenth century in England.

Earlier, it was not uncommon for multiple families to bunk together—picture a barn on the farm with bales of hay and everyone cuddling up together.1 With so many unrelated people sharing interior space, the rules governing the use of exterior space were ambiguous.

Then, with industrialisation, more people were able to afford single-family homes, often in the suburbs. The pavements and streets became pathways—neutral, in-between spaces—linking the home, where you conducted your private business, and the workplace, where you conducted your actual business. The informal consensus on publicly acceptable behaviour was replaced by formal rules and regulations, with a professional police force to enforce them, on grounds of public security and order.

Getting back to the Straits, when Sir Stamford Raffles began to conceive of building local cities according to British concepts of good planning, he came up with the idea of requiring a five-foot verandah outside of all shophouses to function as a neutral public walkway.

However, British concepts of public space were at odds with native ones.

 

The inhabitants of these shophouses considered the verandahs to be extensions of their own space—but with public access. Verandahs were not only used to display the shopkeeper’s own merchandise but were also sublet to petty vendors and to coolies looking for a sheltered place to rest for a bit. They doubled up as a social space for the multiple male inhabitants crammed together inside the shophouses. Sometimes, unknown persons would dump rubbish or corpses in these spaces, since the responsibility for their cleanliness lay with the authorities.

 

Even so, it wasn’t lawless territory: there were unspoken norms about who got to use the space and under what terms. Certain secret societies controlled certain verandahs—despite the authorities deeming them public—and if you were street smart, you knew better than to set foot in verandahs in neighborhoods where you didn’t know your way about.

The authorities’ attempts to enforce the laws on public space met with outright resistance, and matters came to a head with the verandah riots of 1872, pitting native hawkers against the colonial administration.

The riots revealed that the rulers’ hold on power was tenuous and that the ruled were only as subservient as they wanted to be. Ruler and ruled continued to hobble along in an unspoken compromise, with neither side too flagrant in its disregard for the other.2

 

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