For 170 years, as Singapore went from a colony to a nation, trudging through war, riots and disasters, a little-known building stood quietly in Telok Ayer.
A clan of Hokkien Peranakan merchants, who called themselves the Keng Teck Whay association, occupied it and kept it private.
To the outside world, it was often mistaken as part of the adjacent Thian Hock Keng temple, a Unesco award winner.
But after more than two years of revamp work, the building, now a house of worship, is ready to rival its famous neighbour. It even bears a new name: the Singapore Yu Huang Gong, or Temple of the Heavenly Jade Emperor.
Gazetted a national monument in 2009, it will finally open to the public next month.
“We didn’t have the experience or the funds, but we’ve made something out of nothing,” said Taoist Mission president Lee Zhiwang, whose group acquired the building for an undisclosed sum in 2010. “Now we have a place we can call home, and we’ve preserved our heritage.”
Visitors will be greeted by a pair of dragons at the entrance and a newly replaced imperial treasure gourd at the top of a three-storey pagoda.
They will also see the restored roof truss, timber columns, balustrade walls, double-leafed doors and encaustic floor tiles.
A team of craftsmen, including sculptors from Quanzhou, in the southern Fujian province of China, were brought in to work on the interiors.
“Timber logs had to be lifted by hand as there wasn’t much space to bring in heavy machinery,” said Master Lee.
The timber beams and columns were transported log by log from Telok Ayer Street by six workers who hoisted them with just light tools like pulleys.
The work was onerous. Conditions were bad as the roof of the entrance had started to sink inwards. When restoration began in 2012, the site was declared unsafe for occupancy.
As the structures are made of wood, termite infestation was a concern, said Dr Yeo Kang Shua, the project’s architectural conservator.
The roof was taken apart to access the timber components below, and these were disassembled to check for damage and repaired before re-assembly.
Said Master Lee: “It was challenging because we are not constructing a new building but restoring an old one.”
On Jan 1, a stretch of Telok Ayer Street will be closed to traffic from 1pm to 9pm for the opening celebration. The public can visit the monument from Jan 2. Admission is free.
All, however, is not complete. The cost of the revamp is about $3.8 million and the mission is short of $400,000.
It has raised about $3.4 million, including from Singaporeans of other faiths and tourists from countries such as Indonesia.
Said Master Lee: “When people realised the temple was in need of a facelift, they came forward to help.”
Shareholders of the former St James Holdings could reap a bonanza now that it is reinventing itself as a major property player.
Developer Perennial Real Estate Holdings (PREH) completed a $1.56 billion reverse takeover of the nightlife firm last month and is set on raising its net asset value by more than twofold from its current $1.26 billion to $2.62 billion, along with other deals in tow.
The enlarged group will also include a PREH-sponsored vehicle, the Perennial China Retail Trust (PCRT), once it is de-listed.
PREH’s net asset value per share is expected to climb to $2.12, said chief executive Pua Seck Guan in a recent interview with The Straits Times. PREH units have yet to commence trading on the mainboard.
This increase assumes the group completes its acquisition of the Beijing Tongzhou Integrated Development and the remaining 51 per cent stake in Perennial Real Estate as well.
“The potential of the company is great because we’ve created a sizeable platform to deliver long-term growth,” said Mr Pua, pointing to PREH’s China portfolio, which comprises mixed-use developments worth $13.1 billion.
Its Singapore portfolio, which includes Capitol Singapore, Chijmes and TripleOne Somerset, has a gross development value of $3.8 billion.
Shareholders of the former St James Holdings who keep their shares could enjoy ample rewards, especially as PREH completes its ongoing projects in China and Singapore in the coming years.
Even PCRT shareholders who participate in the share swap can expect an upside, given that they are receiving PREH shares at a discount to the net asset value per share of $2.12, said Mr Pua.
“All our projects, which include the two largest high-speed rail commercial hubs in the whole of China, are strategically connected to major transportation nodes,” he noted.
“And that’s the exciting thing – because we have seen how successful such commercial hub projects can be in the likes of other cities, be it Tokyo, Osaka or Hong Kong.”
The group’s integrated development in Chengdu, for instance, is next to the Chengdu East High Speed Railway Station.
It has a gross floor area of 8.2 million sq ft and will boast offices, apartments and retail space when completed.
“When we bought the land about four to five years ago, other developers didn’t quite see its potential,” said Mr Pua.
“Today, as more train lines are added and as the area evolves to become Chengdu’s new central business district, you can see it is bustling with activity.”
Other projects in the pipeline include integrated developments in Xi’an, which is adjacent to the Xi’an North High Speed Railway Station, Beijing’s Tongzhou district and Zhuhai’s Hengqin area.
Mr Pua said the group plans to retain ownership of about 50 to 60 per cent of each China project, while putting the rest up for strata- title sales – as offices, shops, small office home office (Soho) or residential units that will “churn out trading profit and retain liquidity”.
Such a strategy, said market watchers, may fetch high rates in a market packed with potential investors.
But they also cautioned that having more sub-proprietors could make it more difficult for the developer to get consensus on issues such as upgrading.
For Mr Pua, however, the sites bode well for the company’s long-term prospects.
“We’re not keen on selling everything because we believe that, in the coming years, these projects will help build the company’s net asset value.”
Mr Pua said PREH is also considering real estate opportunities outside of China, especially in countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar and even in Africa.
“But we won’t go to a country where we don’t know anyone,” he said. “We will at least leverage on our business partners’ network of relationships and experience before moving into another market.”
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Investment sales of property – big-ticket transactions of at least S$10 million – have risen this quarter, on the back of a more than tripling in the value of hospitality assets sold, mainly in connection with the listing of Frasers Hospitality Trust.
Moreover, office transactions have continued to post stellar performance with rental recovery firmly in place and expected to continue amid tight supply.
According to figures from Savills Singapore, nearly S$5.4 billion of investment sales were transacted this quarter up to Sept 23. This is 13.6 per cent higher than the Q2 figure of S$4.7 billion and the best showing in four quarters. However, the Q3 number is 61.2 per cent down from a year ago.
CBRE too has a similar figure so far this quarter, reflecting 10.7 per cent expansion from its Q2 number. This takes the year-to-date number to S$15.3 billion and the group’s executive director, Jeremy Lake, predicts that the year would end with S$18-20 billion.
Savills’ figure for the first nine months is slightly over S$14 billion and its managing director, Steven Ming, expects S$17-19 billion for the full year.
Both houses’ forecasts would be significantly lower than the annual figures hovering around S$30 billion for each of the past four years. Investment sales are often seen as a gauge of developer and property investor confidence in the medium to long term. Overall sentiment in the property market has been dented by the total debt servicing ratio framework announced in late June 2013.
That said, the office market continues to shine. About S$1.94 billion of office deals have been sealed this quarter, up from S$1.25 billion in Q2, going by Savills’s analysis. This quarter’s number marks the best performance since Q4 2012, when the figure was S$2.75 billion. Major transactions in Q3 include Straits Trading’s divestment of its namesake building in Raffles Place, and Keppel Land’s sale of its one-third stake in Marina Bay Financial Centre Tower 3 to Keppel Reit.
CBRE’s Mr Lake noted that office buildings have continued to be sold this quarter at higher prices, reflecting the optimism that the market has for offices due to the recovery in rents, which is well in place – driven predominantly by shrinking vacancy and tight supply. “There are only two major office projects to be completed from now till late 2016,” observed CBRE research head Desmond Sim.
Mr Lake expects additional demand to be generated by the impending displacement of tenants at Equity Plaza, which has around 250,000 square feet of net lettable area, as the building’s new owners have served notice to tenants to vacate the building by March 2015 ahead of an extensive renovation.
Despite the quarter-on-quarter rise in office investment sales, transactions of commercial properties as a whole (including retail) have slipped 14.6 per cent to S$1.97 billion, said Savills. “The fall is due to no commercial sites released under the Government Land Sales Programme as well as lack of retail block transactions for the quarter.”
Commercial property made up the largest share, 36.7 per cent, of this quarter’s total investment sales.
Meanwhile, the residential sector saw a 31.7 per cent drop in transaction value to S$1.14 billion. It accounted for 21.3 per cent of total investment sales.
Savills Singapore research head Alan Cheong said: “As long as the residential cooling measures are in place, home sales will suffer from inertia, which in turn will restrain developers in land bids at state tenders.”
Transactions of hospitality real estate jumped to S$834 million this quarter, from S$248 million in Q2. The bulk is due to the InterContinental Singapore in Bugis and Frasers Suites Singapore arising from the listing of Frasers Hospitality Trust in July.
Looking ahead, Mr Ming said: “We anticipate continued interest in the Singapore investment market as there are some signs of bid-ask gaps closing in the private sector. This is the result of investors who need to deploy their capital and sellers who are seeking to divest for various reasons – whether fund-maturity concerns or to recycle their capital into other opportunities.”
Besides continuing interest in the office sector, Mr Ming highlighted interest in bulk purchases of residential units, especially in the high-end segment. “Although the near-term outlook remains hazy, the thesis for a strong capital value recovery over the mid-to-long term is gaining credibility.”
Both Mr Ming and Mr Lake said that a key challenge to Singapore real estate deals these days is competition from overseas property.