Shophouses are commonly found in many historic cities and towns of the Southeast Asian countries, but the shophouses in Singapore and Malaysia are more similar in their architectural styles and designs, largely due to the two nations’ historical links. In Singapore, shophouses also provided one of the housing means for the population between the 1840s and the 1960s, especially in the downtown area.
A typical shophouse has two or more storeys, where the owner usually uses the ground level for conducting his business and the upper storeys for his residential needs. In cases where both levels are designated for living, the building is often known as a terrace house. Shophouses were commonly built in an adjoining manner; two shophouses share a common party wall in between.
Different Styles and Designs
Shophouses are buildings of a curious mixture of the East and West architectural styles. They are derived from the classical European-style buildings, such as England’s Georgian terrace houses or the canal houses of Amsterdam, which in turn are inspired by the Roman and Greek classical architecture. On the other hand, they look “Chinese”, and have been used for decades by the Chinese, Malay, Indians and Peranakans in Singapore.
The prewar shophouses, largely built between 1840 and 1940, were categorised into three main groups – the Early Style (1840s-1900s), the Transitional Style (1890s-1910s) and the Late or Chinese Baroque Style (1910s-1930s). The Art Deco Style (1930s-1960s) and Early Modernism Style (1950s-1970s), on the other hand, dominated the designs of the postwar shophouses.
Shophouses of the Early Style were mostly simple double-storey buildings with one or two rectangular windows on the upper floors and timber-framed doors that had louvers or shutters for ventilation. Shophouses of the Transitional Style continued the similar designs in their windows and doors but often furnished with glass-plated shutters. Transoms and fanlights were also incorporated into the designs of their windows at the upper floors.
The Late or Chinese Baroque Style perhaps gave the best demonstration of the fusion between the Eastern and Western architectural styles. Decorative mouldings, delicate ornaments, detailed pilasters, elaborate woodcarvings and imported glazed tiles were extensively used on the facades of these shophouses. The shophouses’ extravagant displays of designs and colours also reflected Singapore’s rapid growth of wealth and its role of a global mercantile centre in the early 20th century.
Art Deco style architecture emerged in the 1930s, and had greatly influenced the design of shophouses. Exposed to the cultures of the European, American and Chinese, the Art Deco-styled shophouses often had grey Shanghai plaster walls and flagpoles mounted on ziggurats that resemble the United States’ Empire State Building. The years of their construction were sometimes displayed on the top of their facades. Using reinforced concrete, steel, clay bricks and glass as the main materials, the shophouses were typically three- or more storeys tall and had facades with geometrical deigns.
Aided by the building boom during the postwar economic recovery, and also influenced by the early Modern movement in the fifties, Early Modernism-styled buildings had its share of fans, especially among the overseas trained architects. Simple, clean and mostly painted in white, the Modern shophouses were notable with their curved corners and balconies, thanks to the new building technology and the use of reinforced concrete. The popularity of shophouses designed in Modern style had lasted until the seventies.
Five Foot Ways
An interesting feature of a typical Singaporean shophouse is its five foot way. It was first proposed by Sir Stamford Raffles in his Plan of the Town of Singapore in 1822. Under this plan, walkways measuring five feet in width must be built in front of the shop buildings in Singapore, so that they could share a common boundary with the streets.
The five foot ways (“kaki lima” in Malay and “gor kar kee” 五脚基 in Hokkien) were meant to have continuous corridors or verandahs, sheltered against the tropical sun and rain by the second storeys of the shophouses. The width of five feet, however, was not consistent. Some five foot ways were wider, others narrower, depending on the types and designs of the shophouses.
By the 1870s, hawkers and other trades began to do businesses along the five foot ways. As more and more people plied their trades at the five foot ways, chaos and conflicts erupted, sometimes worsened by the involvement of secret societies.
The colonial government later began to disperse and expel those who were congesting the walkways and streets, but the harsh treatments eventually led into a three-day social unrest in 1888, known as the Verandah Riots. Prominent Chinese leaders such as Tan Seng Poh, Tan Beng Swee and Whampoa Hoo Ah Kay had to be roped in by the government to speak to the unruly crowds.
The five foot ways continued to be filled with activities throughout the 20th century until the eighties. Different types of traders and service providers could be found at the five foot ways, such as locksmiths, barbers, knife sharpeners, fortune tellers, newspaper vendors, storytellers, food stallholders, clog makers, letter writers, traditional medicine men and others.
Many of the old professions could not keep up with time and had largely vanished today. The life of five foot way traders and shophouses’ residents and tenants were captivatingly portrayed in the 1987 Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) drama Five Foot Way.
In the later shophouses, five foot ways were furnished with elaborate aesthetic finishing. Large quantity of mosaic, terracotta and clay tiles were used, and they would sometimes be repeated on the front walls of the shophouses to create an uniform display of patterns.
Over the decades, the five foot way has evolved from a familiar architectural feature to a cultural identity of Singapore. When the Housing and Development Board (HDB) built the low-lying flats in the new towns in the early eighties, they featured similar walkways in front of the shops at the ground floors, which were also covered and shaded by the second-storey units.
Features of a Typical Shophouse
Beside the five foot way, a typical shophouse has several other distinctive features, such as a pitched roof, an internal airwell and a rear court. There are also timber staircases inside the old shophouses leading to the second floor. In some designs, retractable ladders were built into the ceilings of the five foot ways, just outside the main doors of the shophouses, and were usually used by tenants to access directly to the verandah section.
A common party wall, acting as the principle load bearing factor of the overall structure, separates two adjoining shophouses. The airwell provides natural ventilation and lighting to the interior of the shophouse, whereas the rear court is traditionally used as a kitchen and toilet.
Shophouses in Singapore generally use two types of tiles for their roofs – the terracotta tiles and the flat ‘Marseilles’ tiles. The most prominent feature of a shophouse is its front facade, the front “face” of the building that is facing the street. With designs and aesthetic elements of different eras, the front facade of a shophouse tells a thousand stories about its history.
Singapore’s Historic Districts
Shophouses are found in many parts of Singapore, especially at the four designated Historic Districts in Singapore – Boat Quay, Chinatown, Kampong Glam and Little India.
Chinatown is the largest of the four Historic Districts, and has its history dated back to the mid-19th century, where shophouses started to pop up on almost every of its streets, including Keong Saik Road, Kreta Ayer Road, Mosque Street, Pagoda Street, Smith Street, Sago Street, Temple Street, Trengganu Street, Upper Chin Chew Street, Upper Hokkien Street, Upper Nankin Street and Upper Cross Street.
The shophouses at Upper Chin Chew, Upper Hokkien and Upper Nankin Streets, however, were demolished during the urban renewal schemes in the mid-seventies. The Hong Lim Complex and HDB blocks were built in its place between 1978 and 1981. The urban renewal schemes of the mid sixties and the upgrading and redevelopment plans in the eighties had led to the demolition of hundreds of shophouses, but fortunately, the remaining old shophouses were retained and, in 1989, given conservation status.
Most of the Kampong Glam shophouses are now concentrated along Aliwal Street, Arab Street, Pahang Street, Muscat Street and Haji Lane. At Arab Street, for instance, as many as 35 shophouses form a block that is 135m long and 8m deep. The shophouses mostly belong to the Early Style era, designed with simple facades and one or two windows on the upper storey. Merchants in import-export, wholesale and retail textile trades used to do their businesses in these shophouses, but today, they are used as offices, eateries and shops selling the likes of perfumes, carpets and jewellery.
Many of the shophouses at Little India, along Serangoon Road, were built between 1840s and 1960s. They had decorative facades, using tile patterns extensively on the floors, walls and pillars. The foundation of the shophouses’ external plasterwork were created using the Madras chunam, which was a mixture of water, egg white, shells, sugar and lime. After the mixture was applied and hardened on the buildings’ surfaces, polishing was done using crystal stones, which gave the shophouses a smooth appearance.
Shophouses at the Suburban Areas
At the suburban districts, defined as Secondary Settlements by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), which include Balestier, Beach Road, Geylang, Jalan Besar, Joo Chiat, Mount Sophia, River Valley, Tanjong Katong and Upper Circular Road, hundreds of prewar shophouses can be seen lining up the streets. Geylang Road, for instance, was transformed from a land of plantations and fields to an urbanised area by the early 20th century.
The two- and three-storey shophouses along Geylang Road were largely built in the 1920s, designed in colourful Chinese Baroque style and decorated with glazed porcelain tiles, motifs, intricate base relief mouldings and stained glass windows.
Joo Chiat is well-known for its Peranakan-style shophouses and terrace houses. Many of the shophouses and terrace houses, a good mixture in Transitional, Late, Art Deco and Modern styles, are situated around Koon Seng Road, Joo Chiat Road, Joo Chiat Place, Tembeling Road and Everitt Road. In 1991, they were gazetted for conservation by the URA.
With more than 700 buildings conserved, the district of Joo Chiat was designated as Singapore’s first Heritage Town in 2011.
The terrace houses at Martaban Road, Balestier, were built between the 1920s and 1930s. Lining up on both sides and following the gradual upsloping of the road, they reflect the vast influence of European neo-classical architectural designs during the early 20th century. Additional features were incorporated into the design of these houses to suit the tropical sun and rain, such as high air vents to allow the warm air to escape from the roofs, and coloured glass to diffuse the harsh sunlight.
These prewar terrace houses of Balestier were gazetted for conservation in late 2003.
Urban Renewal and Conservation
After its independence in 1965, Singapore carried out a series of urban renewal schemes to clear and replace the old city with an integrated modern city centre. The numerous demolition projects, however, led to a question on conservation, raised by former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. After several years of studies, the Preservation of Monuments Bill was passed in 1970, and the Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB) formed, with the objective to “preserve objects and buildings that remind us of our heritage”.
Many old shophouses, however, did not escape the fate of demolition. The PMB placed its emphasis on historic landmarks such as old mosques, temples and churches. The dilapidated shophouses, especially in the Central Business District (CBD) area, were considered slums and eyesores. Throughout the sixties and seventies, several hundreds were pulled down by the Urban Renewal Department; their sites redeveloped and replaced by new commercial buildings, shopping malls and residential complexes.
The start of the eighties saw the topic of conservation being raised again. Orchard Road was then promoted as Singapore’s exclusive shopping belt. In 1981, Emerald Hill Road’s aging prewar shophouses and terrace houses, built at the beginning of the 20th century, seemed certain to face the fate of demolition.
However, the URA, the successor of the Urban Renewal Department, decided to restore them to their original facades. Emerald Hill was “pedestrianised” and subsequently conserved. It was a major success, as the buildings were reopened as Peranakan Place in 1985 and attracted both tourists and locals.
With the success of Emerald Hill, the authority expanded the conservation plan to Boat Quay, Cairnhill, Chinatown, Clarke Quay, Kampong Glam and Little India. In the late eighties, attention was turned to the shophouses at Tanjong Pagar. Since then, some of the best conservation efforts that have been implemented are the colonial era shophouse at 9 Neil Road and the “Baba House” at 157 Neil Road, one of Singapore’s remaining original Straits-Chinese houses.
Today, almost 6,500 shophouses in Singapore have been given the conservation status.
Shophouses of Multi-Purposes
Shophouses were once buildings of many functions. Besides residential and commercial purposes, the early shophouses were also used as government’s administrative offices, public clinics and dispensaries, hotels, schools, religious places of worship, cinemas and theatres.
The office of William Pickering (1840-1907), Singapore’s first Chinese Protectorate, was housed in a shophouse at North Canal Road. As the staff of Protectorate grew, his office was later shifted to the shophouses at Upper Macao Street (Pickering Street today), Boat Quay and finally Havelock Road in the late 19th century.
Many of the early schools were also started at shophouses. St Margaret’s School, Singapore’s oldest school for girls, was first started in a shophouse at North Bridge Road in 1842. The first Anglo-Chinese School, established by Methodist missionaries in 1886, conducted its first class at an Amoy Street shophouse with 13 students. The Methodist Girls School was founded in 1887 in a shophouse at Short Street.
Shophouses were also used as the humble beginnings of some of Singapore’s prominent places of worship. For example, the Maghain Aboth Synagogue, catered for the Jewish community in early Singapore, had its history started in a two-storey shophouse at present-day Synagogue Street in the mid-19th century.
A Photo Gallery of Singapore’s Traditional Shophouses
Editor’s Note: This is the third and final part of the article for discussion on Singapore’s types of housing. The first part talks about the past kampongs and their houses, and the second part on the history of Singapore’s public housing.
Published: 07 May 2016