Researching my Secret Brighton guidebook has made me a little sentimental over old and vulnerable architecture. Today, I thought we could travel to the southern hemisphere – through this Instagram account – to discover these lesser-known architectural gems, called ‘shop houses’. How cool? A riot of colour and quirky details, you’ll find them all over Singapore, and they look straight out of a Wes Anderson film set.
They’re called shophouses because… you guessed it… the ground floors were used as shops, while the second floors houses separate private residences. Historically, the shop part of the building centered around mercantile activity, but today they’re likely to be used as anything from coffeeshops, bars, clinics and barbershops to mechanics workshops or even schools or banks!
They date back to the late 18th century, but after the colonial era, became neglected, dilapidated, many abandoned, demolished or destroyed. Bizarrely, many shophouses have been known to be illegally sealed and used to cultivate and harvest edible birds nests, doing long-term internal damage to the buildings. I know! The edible birds nests, created with the solidified saliva of small birds from the swift family, are among the most expensive and rare animal products consumed by humans, particularly prised in Chinese culture due to their supposedly high nutritional value. Used in their cooking for over 400 years, most commonly bird’s nest soup, the Chinese believe it promotes good health, especially for the skin.
In the late 90s, a repeal of rent control began pushing out older and poorer tenants from their shophouses and gentrification within historical districts saw prices skyrocket. Today, pre-1948 shophouses can sell for up to US$4 million. Eeek.