Singapore Shophouses

There is a lot of beautiful architecture in this tiny country: a variety of temples, churches, and mosques; colonial-era Palladian, Renaissance, and Neoclassical civic buildings; and modern and postmodern office towers that punctuate Singapore’s skyline.

However, it’s the island’s shophouses that enchant me. These two- to four-story buildings are constructed in long, contiguous blocks and connected by a passageway called a “five foot way.” These covered structures have provided me and many others with protection from Singapore’s unpredictable, tropical weather.

As the name suggests, a shophouse was traditionally a business premises with living quarters on the upper floors. There are a number of stylistic expressions of the shophouse: Early (1840-1900), First Transitional (early 1900s), Late (1900-1940), Second Transitional (late 1930s), and Art Deco (1930-1960).

Here is just a sampling of the shophouses I have seen and admired in my comings and goings.

The residences at 37, 39, and 41 Kim Yam Road were built in the Early Style, a squat, two-story style with minimal ornamentation.

Houses built in the First Transitional Style, such as 83 Duxton Road (Berjaya Hotel), feature arched transoms and decorative vents above their windows.

The Late Style is the most spectacular style. 30 Petain Road, designed by E.V. Miller (a Modernist in the Bauhaus tradition) and built at the height of the Malayan rubber boom, features pastel-colored walls and fanciful tiles from France, Belgium and Japan. Singapore’s National Heritage Board refers to this style as “Chinese Barouque” or “Singapore Eclectic.”

According to A Walking Tour Singapore by G. Bryne Bracken (Times Media Private Limited, 2002), houses such as 98 Cairnhill Road, built in the Second Transitional Style, were “seen as an aesthetic reaction to the ornate Late Style Shophouse.” This style looks a lot more austere than its predecessors.

The Art Deco Style shophouse at 69 Keong Saik Road (Keong Saik Hotel) has streamlined columns and arches. Houses built in this era rarely use decorative wall tiles and have little detailing.

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My photographs pale in comparison to photographs taken by Luca Invernizzi Tettoni for the book, Singapore Shophouses by Julian Davison (Tailsman Publishing Private Limited, 2010). I picked up this gorgeous addition to my library at BooksActually. I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy.

9 responses

  1. I personally love love the shophouses along Cairnhill. Have you taken a walk to Emerald Hill? There was some really impressive shophouses with huuuuge courtyards.