In the past few decades, Singapore has seen increasing numbers of upscale restaurants and cafes housed in European-style, colonial-era buildings leased out by the state to business owners. These edifices are preserved and protected under law as heritage sites, and managed closely by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) or the Preservation of Sites and Monuments (PSM), the governing body housed within the National Heritage Board (NHB). The SLA leases such buildings for both residential and commercial purposes, wooing business owners to refurbish and repurpose them in what they refer to as “adaptive reuse”. While black-and-white mansions make up the bulk of these buildings, other colonial buildings, including former chapels, have also proven popular.
Clearly, these buildings continue to be repositories of cultural cachet, featuring in articles in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest and Singapore’s own Expat Living. Singapore’s national narrative also continues to present colonialism as an ultimately positive historical occurrence. Look no further than this year’s Bicentennial events, which mark 200 years since the arrival of Stamford Raffles, to see how cultural institutions depict the British as business-minded benefactors who launched Singapore on a trajectory that brought it to where it is today: a hyper-modern, developed gem of a nation; the jewel of Southeast Asia.
In this context, while upscale colonial-themed restaurants may seem an innocuous part of Singapore’s culture, they can also be thought of as cultural institutions in their own right, often unwittingly reproducing British colonial ideas about racial superiority. This article traces how some of these restaurants reinforce a popular narrative that equates colonialism with luxury—aligning Anglophile culture with upper class elites, and naturalising the displacement of indigenous Malay people, reflecting contemporary racial inequalities.
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