Feature Articles

Shophouses: Our Heritage in Architectural Form

By: joyceho on 19 Apr 2012
If colonial architecture symbolised British rule over Singapore, shophouses would represent the heart of Singapore’s everyday life. This pre-industrial form of urban units, prevalent in 19th and early 20th century Southeast Asian towns, cities and commercial centres, literally housed everything from work to home. Today these well-loved buildings are recognised for their significance not only as an architectural heritage but more importantly as a reflection of the island’s societal history and development.

The term ‘shophouse’ is a direct translation from the Chinese (‘tiam chu’ in Hokkien; ‘dian wu’ in Mandarin) were attributed to the common businesses operations carried out on the first and second levels, leaving the top level for convenient residential living.  The concept was given by Singapore’s founder, Sir Stamford Raffles, who wanted to build uniform houses that consisted of their own verandah, acting as a continuous walkway on each side of the street. This became commonly known as the five-foot way, and created a continuous covered walkway which provided shelter. The floors of these five-foot ways included mosaic, terracotta and clay tiles as aesthetic finishes.

The fusion between both colonial and local architects attributes to the eclectic mix between the British and ethnic styles. Elements such as internal airwells, high ceilings and overlapping roof tiles were incorporated to minimise discomfort from the tropical weather.

Stylistically, shophouses can be roughly categorized into six architectural styles. However, the general structure and certain key characteristics remain the same. Some 5,000 shophouses have been preserved til today under the Urban Redevelopment Authority conservation scheme.

The conservation guidelines not only aimed to retain, restore and repair these traditional buildings but also adapts these to suit new business needs. Visit these shophouses in their full glory with each conservation site dedicated to the various evolved styles spanning across the different eras.

Shophouse Staircases
Shophouse Staircases, Bugis Street area

Early Shophouse Style
Unfortunately, there are not a lot of early shophouse styles left. There are a few however located along Kampung Glam on 780 North Bridge Road and 7 to 13 Erskine Road in between Chinatown and the Central Business District (CBD). Constructed from 1840 to 1900, early shophouses were low-level, two storey buildings with minimum ornaments. Early shophoues are easily identifiable by having only one window, or a maximum of two, on the second floor. The adoption of the Tuscan and Doric architectural styles are also fairly obvious with their clean cut exterior.

First Transitional Shophouse Style
By the 1900s, shophouses became more vertically proportioned. The use of modified Corinthian or Composite Order began to show prominence here. Most of the shophouses had two windows on the upper story. Ann Siang Hill, located off South Bridge Road, is evident of the first transitional style. Once a prominent site occupied by Chinese clan associations and groups, today's Ann Siang’s restored shophouses houses chic boutiques, bars and restaurants.

Number 5 Emerald Hill Cocktail Bar located along Emerald Hill opposite [email protected] on Orchard Road, is another great way to take a peak at what the olden shophouses looked like internally. Reflecting teak and rosewood carvings, as well as Chinese artefacts, the scattered peanuts on the floor also add to the rustic feel of the place.

Late Shophouse Style
As locals became increasingly affluent, so did their homes' decor. By the 1900s to 1940, an array of spectacular ornamentation could be seen. Three windows were introduced for better ventilation of air combined with intricate aesthetics along the fringes. The increased use of ornamentation also meant hybridising more ethnic-based building styles. In some cases, these ethnic styles would mix, combining Malay timber fretwork fascia boards and balustrades, glazes ceramic blocks and Chinese panel frescos. This was particularly true of the Peranakan shophouses, located along the eastern part of Singapore on Joo Chiat street. The intermarriages between locals and regional traders also saw the emergence of Peranakan wood carvings designs and glazes ceramic blocks.

Art Deco Style
The Art Deco style was developed in Europe and parts of the United States during the 1920s but was only adopted into the shophouses design in the 1930s.  Inspired by classical motifs such as column orders, arches, keystones, pediments with geometric designs, the Art Deco type featured streamlined classical motifs, unlike the highly elaborated and individualised designs that characterised its predecessor. Some excellent examples include the shophouses located off Chinatown laden along Keong Siak Street and Craig Road, easily identified by their printed establishment dates dates imprinted on them and rounded-off corners. 

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