Today, we’re taking a trip to Singapore – via this Instagram account – to discover these heritage buildings around the city known as shophouses. These vulnerable architectural gems are a riot of colour and quirky details, and they can be found in clusters all over the city, each set a little different from the next.
They date back as early as 1800 and are called shophouses because, yes, you guessed it, traditionally they were built to contain both a shop and a home, for a merchant and his family. They’re based on traditional houses in southern China, where the majority of Singapore’s early immigrants were from. They were either two- or three-storeys tall, with a business on the ground floor, and a home upstairs. At the front are five-foot-wide covered verandas or walkways traditionally called ‘five foot ways’. Inside, although they’re dark and narrow, they feature sky lights which form miniature courtyards brightened by the sun and cooled by the rain.
Apparently, shophouses in Singapore can be categorised into six architectural styles (you can read about them here). Each style has a set of defining characteristics influenced by trends of the era. For example, those of the ‘Early Style’ are more simple, with little to no ornamentation, while ‘Late Style’ shophouses are more elaborate, featuring bold colours, fancy tiles, as well as the eclectic mix of Chinese, Malay and European elements.
Sadly, many of them were knocked down between the 1970s and 90s, as the city gentrified, but there are still 6500 or so left, each one protected and carefully preserved. While some are used as they were traditionally, the ground floor as a retail outlet – cafes, bars, boutiques, cinemas, tea houses, even banks – and the second floor a private residence, some have been turned into little hotels – like this one I just bookmarked for future trips.
The sad twist in the tale? A pre-1948 shophouse can sell for up to $10 million! What the? 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. So although many of the buildings have been saved and preserved, only the wealthy can enjoy them. I read some have been turned into hotels, which initially I got excited about until I did some Googling and found that developers have bought up entire rows and completely transformed them inside, losing their original character. I’m yet to find my favourite preserved shophouse, but will update this post when I have…
Bizarre fact: Apparently, some shophouses have been used as a place to cultivate and harvest edible bird’s nests, involving illegally sealing them which has led to long-term internal damage of the buildings (via here).
In the meantime, until you can visit, follow along with this incredible Instagram account!