Hotfooting it in the Lion City

Restored shophouses on Emerald Hill Road. Picture: Ian Loftus

My daughter Isabella and I are caught in a torrential tropical downpour in Singapore. It's been threatening to rain all day, and the clouds have finally emptied. Pedestrians scurry for shelter, motorists slow down, taxis become scarce. We shelter under one of the island's characteristic "five foot way" walkways indented into the front of a row of shophouses and escape the drenching.

The five foot ways date back to the earliest days of Singapore's European settlement when Sir Stamford Raffles determined that all houses "of brick or tiles (should) have a uniform type of front each having a veranda of a certain depth, open to all sides as a continuous and open passage on each side of the street". This saw the development of shophouses, with commercial and retail on the ground floor (and extending on to the passageway), and residential or commercial upstairs. Owing to their width, the covered passageways along the front of these shophouses became known as "five foot ways". They became a common feature throughout the British settlements in what is now Singapore and Malaysia.

These shophouses embody the soul of Singapore, I think, and can be found across the island. And today, while my wife is wandering through the shopping malls on Orchard Road, Isabella and I have opted to explore the five foot ways of several neighbourhoods.

Our journey starts in Orchard Road and our first destination is Emerald Hill Road, which joins Orchard near the Somerset Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) station. Both sides of Emerald Hill Road have colourfully restored shophouses, with many of those closer to Orchard Road now housing bars and cafes. Many of the ones further north are used as private residences. As can be the case with restorations, these shophouses have a bit of a sterile, artificial feel but are now some of Singapore's most valuable real estate.

We head back out onto Orchard Road and jump on bus number 173 for the ride to New Bridge Road in Chinatown. As much as we appreciate the efficiency of the MRT for getting around Singapore, nothing beats the upper deck of a bus for cheap, air-conditioned sightseeing.

Getting off the bus, we wander the heart of Chinatown - the streets between New Bridge Road and South Bridge Road. It's an eclectic mixture of the old and new, and of locals and tourists. Many of the five foot ways in this neighbourhood are crowded with racks of T-shirts and other souvenirs but there are also plenty of shops selling products such as hardware, kitchenware and bright red decorations for Chinese New Year. As you'd expect, there are also plenty of Chinese restaurants and coffee shops that seem to be perpetually busy with customers of all ages and backgrounds.

We wander back to New Bridge Road and descend the escalator into the Chinatown MRT station, where we board a Northeast Line train for Little India.

Little India is one of our favourite parts of Singapore. From the Little India MRT station, we walk over to Serangoon Road and through the streets and laneways between it and Jalan Besar to the south.

Like Chinatown, this area is an eclectic mixture but tends to be far less touristy. The myriad small stores sell all manner of goods and services: gold jewellery, Indian groceries, Bollywood CDs and DVDs, Indian fashion, cash transfers to India, pre-paid mobile telephone cards and plenty of cheap clothing. Many of the shopfronts open directly onto the five foot ways and it's often necessary to negotiate a path past clothing racks, display stands, and the attendant shopkeepers and customers.

The shophouses in this area are also home to plenty of Indian restaurants, and there's time to duck into a branch of Ananda Bhavan, which claims to be the oldest Indian vegetarian restaurant in Singapore, for a delicious masala dosa and refreshing lime juice.

About a 15-minute walk east of Little India, Kampong Glam is traditionally associated with Singapore's Malay community. The area is home to one of Singapore's main mosques, the Sultan Mosque, and the Muslim influence is strong.

The best examples of shophouses here line both sides of Arab Street and are predominantly retail, with many shops selling imported goods such as carpets, cushion covers, pashminas and cloth. Around the corner, in some of the neighbouring streets there is a broad mixture of souvenir shops, restaurants and coffee shops, and a wide variety of other retail stores. Singapore's Malay Heritage Centre is also in Kampong Glam, on Kandahar Street near the mosque.

At Bugis MRT station we jump on an eastbound train to Paya Lebar MRT station, from where we walk south to the Katong area. Katong is often associated with Singapore's Peranakan community, the descendants of early Chinese settlers who predominantly married local Malays. Many of the shophouses here are beautifully ornate, particularly along Joo Chiat Road and its side streets. The area was declared a conservation district around 20 years ago, making it an ideal place to see shophouses and five foot ways.

It's while walking south on Joo Chiat Road that Isabella and I get caught in the rain.

After the rain abates, we walk a little further south and catch bus number 16 back to Orchard Road to finish our day of exploring, having seen the soul of Singapore.