Mr Mark Shaw gets irritated when people diss Orchard Road.
You know, when they talk about how the country’s premier shopping stretch has lost its soul and shine, and how suburban malls have become more exciting than their city cousins.
“I don’t think it’s entirely fair,” says Mr Shaw, who chairs the Orchard Road Business Association (Orba). “When people just criticise, there aren’t really any constructive ideas. It’s easy to do.”
It’s not that he thinks all is hunky-dory in Orchard Road. He knows things aren’t. But instead of just finding fault, he wishes people would come up with ideas and engage the authorities to make them happen.
We’re discussing Orchard Road smack in Orchard Road, of course.
He has chosen to have lunch at La Taperia, a dark, cosy Spanish restaurant in Shaw Centre, which sits at the junction of Orchard and Scotts roads.
The Shaw name is a famous one in Singapore. In the 1920s, Mr Shaw’s grandfather Runme and grand-uncle Run Run arrived from Shanghai and started a film distribution and cinema business.
Today, the privately owned Shaw Organisation runs a property arm and seven cineplexes, including in suburban malls like Nex. The Lido, at Shaw House next to Shaw Centre, is its flagship.
Mr Shaw’s father Vee King, who passed away last year, was director of Shaw Organisation and also served as an Orba executive committee member for 10 years.
Mr Shaw, 48, joined Shaw Organisation straight after getting a degree in aeronautical engineering from Imperial College London. He started as a booker scheduling films in cinemas, then moved to other roles including the redevelopment of Lido and Shaw Centre. He works alongside two uncles and a cousin.
His office is in Shaw Centre, so lunch is an elevator ride to the restaurant on the second floor.
He’s a tall, burly man with a deep voice, hearty laugh and an affable manner. The father of three – daughters aged 18 and three, and a 17-year-old son – looks younger than his age.
His Shaw name card doesn’t give a designation. “I guess officially I look after the operations,” he says.
He’s wearing his Orba hat today and so gently steers me away from questions about his work and private life.
He has asked two Orba executives to come along for lunch.
I hope you won’t constrain what he wants to say, I joke to them.
Mr Shaw laughs: “I actually have the opposite problem. I need them here to constrain me.”
We decide to get our orders out of the way. I say I might try the set lunch, but he suggests ordering some tapas and stuff for us to share instead.
Sounds good, I say, and leave him to choose. La Taperia is a restaurant he frequents, and he’s been interviewed in The Sunday Times’ food pages before, revealing himself to be quite the foodie and weekend cook.
IN DECEMBER last year, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) announced that they were conducting a six-month study into Orchard Road.
The findings of this study will be incorporated into an “actionable Orchard Road Blueprint” to take shape over the next 15 to 20 years.
Orba, which Mr Shaw has headed since 2015, has naturally been consulted.
The association was started in 1998 by the STB to look after the interests of businesses from Tanglin Mall down to Plaza Singapura, and Scotts Road up to Goodwood Park Hotel.
It currently has 126 members including owners and managers of malls and department stores, as well as retailers, hotels and restaurants. Not every Orchard Road player has opted to join Orba. Cineleisure, Liat Towers and Orchard Building, for example, are not represented.
A team manages daily operations, while a 20-member executive committee – which Mr Shaw chairs – sets its direction. Among other things, it organises the yearly Christmas light-up.
Mr Shaw is optimistic the ongoing study will lead to big and great changes. “We’re at that point now where we feel that Orchard Road really needs a new look.”
He is old enough to remember a time when “Tangs was a three-storey department store, Lucky Plaza was a bunch of houses, and everything was about the size of KPO”. KPO is the low-rise Killiney Road Post Office building.
Now, on the same plot of land, the precinct is home to eight million sq ft of retail space and 12,000 hotel rooms. “Basically, Orchard Road’s got 10 times bigger. It’s just that it’s gone vertical, and I think that in a way is part of the problem.”
IN HIS view, the biggest issue with Orchard Road today is how there is a dearth of street life. Without that, there is no buzz. And without buzz, there isn’t much reason for people to visit again and again.
He sees several reasons for this.
For one thing, a very large chunk of space is used for vehicles. A multi-lane thoroughfare – Orchard Road – cuts through the heart of the district. “If you give people the space, they will use it. If you give it to cars, then people will have to move to the sides.”
The irony is that the carparks of most buildings aren’t accessible via Orchard Road. Instead, you get to them via side roads like Claymore Hill and Orchard Boulevard, he points out.
Orchard Road is used mainly by motorists heading to the downtown core – which is of no use to Orchard Road businesses.
“Retailers need people, right? They’re the ones spending their money in our stores. They’re not spending money by driving down the road,” he says wryly.
“If you have five lanes of traffic running through the middle of the street, you have more pollution, right? You can smell the fumes, it’s hotter, and it’s less pleasant to be outside, it’s noisy.”
It’s been proven by studies that street temperatures come down when cars are taken off the street, he shares.
But the key to rejuvenating Orchard Road isn’t about banning cars, he says. It’s about making the precinct pedestrian-friendly, and for buildings to be connected, porous and spilling out onto the street so it’s not just “box after box after box”.
“Malls might be busy inside the buildings, but there is no spillage out to the streets. Everything is siloed.”
His vision is an Orchard Road with a streetscape that is “playable”, where sidewalks are levelled so people can “flow in a more sort of free fashion”, and where thought is given to elements like street furniture and landscaping.
He counts Barcelona’s tree-lined La Rambla, Sydney’s George Street and Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade as examples of exciting shopping precincts.
He points out how in cities like Paris and Milan, side streets and back lanes are attractions in their own right.
Why can’t Emerald Hill be developed into a vibrant enclave? Or Killiney and Exeter roads? “There are zones in Orchard Road where the expansion could go sideways.”
And that big plot of state land behind Ngee Ann City that is overgrown with vegetation? “It has huge potential to be something cool.”
He even envisages trams from which people can hop on and off.
What about the weather, I wonder. Singapore’s heat and humidity don’t make strolling pleasant.
He’s not buying the weather excuse. He has just come back from Paris where it was cold and wet. “People are still on the street, people are still shopping, and they have even fewer covered walkways. It’s all about what there is to do on the streets.”
While underground shopping has its uses – and he thinks it’s done well around Ion and the Orchard MRT – improving the street-level experience is more important. “There’s more to using a shopping precinct than just shopping. You have to eat, you want to be able to get outside, you want to walk.”
But what’s stopping building owners like yourself from doing all that you think Orchard Road should be doing, I ask.
For a start, there are zoning regulations to contend with, he says. Individually, some building owners have tried. For example, Isetan at Shaw House added a street-facing cafe on the ground floor, which is doing well, and there is a gelato kiosk there.They have helped to liven up that area.
WHAT WE ATE
1, Scotts Road
02-10/11, Shaw Centre
Grilled baguette: $4
Momotaro tomato: $16
Deep-fried squid: $16
Brussels sprouts: $10
Grilled pork: $24
Grilled lamb: $26
Grilled beef: $30
Suckling pig: $65
Chicken paella: $30
San Pellegrino: $16
Double espresso: $5.50
Total (with tax): $330.15
But for Orchard Road to become more lively as a whole, the Government must get into the act.
“As an organisation, Orba, which is stakeholder-led, can’t tell Ngee Ann City or Ion what to do. But if the Government provides the infrastructure that allows Ion to do something innovative, or allows Shaw to do something innovative or Tangs or Paragon or Ngee Ann, it will open the box.”
I can feel his passion about what Orchard Road could be, but what if nothing changes after the STB and URA study?
A city park? Killiney Road to become as hip as an Omotesando side street? Trams instead of cars? Honestly, I can’t see anything as game-changing as that ever happening.
But he says he is an optimist.
Of trams, for example, he says: “If nobody says it, the Government won’t know. So I’m saying it. Orba has mentioned trams many times. Groups within the URA have mentioned trams. If the people say, ‘I want trams’ rather than just going, ‘Oh so boring, Orchard Road is dying, better die soon’, that’s terrible. I really don’t like the negativity. It irks me.”
What is needed to bring big change is “political will”. Without the Government being invested in wanting to make Orchard Road great, things won’t happen.
He is confident change is afoot, and “one thing I’ve learnt is when the Government decide they want to do something, they will do it”.
As we conclude our delicious lunch (his food choices have been excellent), he says: “I really think it’s wrong to write off Orchard Road, and I don’t think it’s in the interest of Singapore to do that either. ”