If you walk along the streets of Joo Chiat, Emerald Hill or Kampong Glam, you might notice these two-storey buildings that look like a blast from the past. Amidst the endless number of high-rise buildings and skyscrapers that only seem to get taller, these beautiful remnants of Peranakan culture stand out with a touch of authenticity and nostalgia.
Shophouses in Singapore were first built in the 1840s in an Early Shophouse Style, before they developed into Transitional Style, Late Shophouse Style, Art Deco Style and subsequently, Modern Style. They were based on traditional wooden houses from Southern China—where the majority of Singapore’s early immigrants were from—but included a mix of Asian and European influences.
Although there were people from all ethnicities staying in shophouses, most Peranakan families were businessmen and would call these buildings home. It is easy to tell when a Peranakan family moves in! Their shophouses are often brightly coloured — a vivid hue of yellow, blue, green, red, or white.
The typical shophouse would be two or three storeys tall, with a commercial shop on the ground floor and living accommodations above. Most shophouses were built side-by-side in a long row, with a ‘five-foot way’ in front of the house. The upper floors would be extended over the walkway to provide shelter. This feature was introduced by Sir Stamford Raffles as a way to protect pedestrians from the heat, sun, and rain, providing them with a sheltered and paved area to walk.
Interestingly, the floor above the walkway has a removable section (a peephole of sorts) about the size of a drink coaster. You could see the people walking below and know who’s knocking on your front door!
On the other hand, townhouses of the same style were built solely for residential purposes. You might mistake a townhouse for a shophouse though, as they look similar and are often referred to as shophouses as well. However, townhouses have the pintu pagar, a ‘door fence’ that allows air to flow into the house while still maintaining privacy when the main doors are open. I like to think of them as the saloon doors of the Wild West.
Both shophouses and townhouses would also have an airwell, an open courtyard in the middle of the house with no shelter. Before the 1920s, there was no such thing as air conditioning in homes. The airwell brings natural light into the middle of the house and allows for ventilation, cooling the house down. It is often decorated with plants or ponds to keep fishes and collect rainwater.
Don’t be fooled by the exterior of the shophouse, it’s much more spacious than it looks! Beyond the front reception hall and airwell, there would be a dining room, and then the back parlour, followed by a room, or shrine dedicated to the worshipping of one’s ancestors and lastly, a kitchen where the bathrooms are also located. Bedrooms would be on the upper floors, with wooden, shuttered windows to protect the interior of the house from monsoonal downpours.
The Late Shophouse Style of 1900–1940 features the iconic Peranakan tiles that decorate the walls and floors of a shophouse. The Peranakans decorated their houses and furniture with these colourful tiles as they believed the floral motifs and vibrant colours would bring longevity, wealth and prosperity to the family. The first half of the 20th century also saw the rise in sub-categories of shophouse styles like Rococo or Chinoiserie.
Singapore’s shophouses are undeniably beautiful. They remind us of a time when life was slower and culture was a big part of everyone’s lives. Today, the shophouses have been restored and conserved as functional spaces like temples, clan associations, coffeeshops, boutique hotels, cafes, homes and offices, adapting to fit into this bustling metropolis.
I love how they showcase a snippet of the past and add flair to our Singapore city. If you are ever in the area, take some time to admire the detailing of these architectural icons! I promise you’ll love it.
• • •