As a child, Kelvin Pow remembers his grandfather making him clean the intricate carving on a peranakan settee in their shophouse in Katong… with a toothbrush.
It was a Chinese New Year ritual and truth be told, he did not mind. It gave him the opportunity to marvel at the strange but beautiful menagerie of phoenixes at play in the branches of delicate flowers and fruit.
Mr Pow, now in his late 40s, did not know it at the time but he was forming an enduring emotional attachment to a piece of furniture that would one day serve as the piece de resistance of his own antiques collection.
Today, in his 1928 shophouse in Geylang, Mr Pow, a business development manager in the healthcare sector, jokes that he had to buy the property three years ago just to house his growing collection of furniture.
Previously, he lived in a walk-up apartment in the Joo Chiat area and whatever that could not be hauled up three flights of steps and fitted into the small home had to be put in storage.
Now freed from space constraint, he can display everything from an ornate Chinese rosewood dining table that was once owned by an aunt to a prized Huanghuali cabinet bought 20 years ago from an antiques shop in Paya Lebar.
Apart from wanting to preserve a bit of his cultural heritage, Mr Pow says he also finds the motifs used in Chinese and Peranakan furniture fascinating.
"I am interested in the symbolism that is reflected in the furniture," he says. For instance, he explains that the Peranakan culture is matriarchal, hence the phoenix rather than the dragon is the preferred embellishment in its decorative arts.
Interestingly, Mr Pow is not Peranakan by heritage. Instead, he reveals his grandfather was a Chinese immigrant from Fuzhou, China who happened to settle in the Peranakan enclave of Katong.
This perhaps accounts for Mr Pow's eclectic taste which ranges from bric-a-brac found in street markets like Sungei Road to curios picked up on travels to his family's ancestral town in Fuzhou, such as timber moulds for making Hokkien kuehs and Hokkien folk art of Yongchun paper weaving, an example of which hangs over his bed.
But wherever it came from, every object resonates with a bit of history and feels perfectly in place in this period home.
The home is a two-storey terrace house that had to be the right setting for his treasures. Mr Pow even rejected several ideas from his designer/contractor to rip out walls to create an open concept space.
While this is a common solution adopted in the renovation of similar terrace shophouses to bring in more natural light, Mr Pow was adamant about maintaining the original layout that includes the small front sitting room which in the past would usually have been reserved for formal occasions.
Because this room opens out directly onto the five-foot way, it does not get much privacy and as such does not actually get used much.
But Mr Pow was determined to keep everything "as traditional as possible". "People say it looks like a showroom, so let it be a showroom!" he adds, almost defiantly.
The configuration of the two bedrooms upstairs was also left intact with the only change being the insertion of more windows.
The original timber floors, now a little worn, weathered and warped, together with exposed floor joists were also retained.
This penchant for historical accuracy, however, is more than just a quirk. "I think it is very important that we retain our heritage. I think it is also important for people, especially younger Singaporeans to understand their culture and where they came from," explains Mr Pow.
But preserving old Singapore is difficult especially with land values being as high as they are and conservation not often a priority as he witnessed firsthand.
Mr Pow's shophouse and the others on his street are not in a conservation area but it was still a shock for him to see a neighbouring shophouse completely demolished with a four-and-a-half storey building erected in its place.
The incongruous structure has destroyed the continuity of the five-foot-way and street façade. "I feel so angry when I see old buildings get torn down," he adds.
Unfortunately, there is nothing to be done. Short of an architectural crusade, the most a private individual can do is to buy and preserve these buildings themselves.
But it is an expensive alternative. Even for Mr Pow, the cost of most shophouses would have been prohibitive if not for Geylang's reputation for being a red-light district.
So silencing detractors, including his family, he went ahead with his Geylang acquisition.
"It's also fun to buy a property in an undesirable location. When I first moved to Joo Chiat, it was the same. Look what has happened now? It is becoming gentrified," he notes.
Indeed, Geylang too is becoming "gentrified". Not long after moving in three years ago, the nearby Geylang River was cleaned up with landscaping and a boardwalk added.
The rows of old walk-up apartments and terrace houses fronting a nearby park have also been redeveloped into condominiums and the atmosphere is distinctly residential and not "commercial" at all. It is a change that Mr Pow should be happy about.
For one thing, his property has already gone up in value. Still, he has mixed feelings.
"I don't actually like the word 'gentrification' because it suggests everything is cleaned up and the old ways of life are eradicated."
He adds: "I actually like seeing the grandpas and grandmas having coffee in the kopi tiam on the corner."
Yes, it will not be the same when that kopi tiam becomes a Starbucks, an almost certain eventuality given Geylang's rising hip quotient.