In historic neighbourhoods across Singapore, efforts are finally being made to preserve and showcase the city’s architectural icons.
It’s a city renowned for its gleaming glass skyscrapers, but of all the architectural styles in Singapore, none is as distinctive as the lavishly decorated shophouses.
Take a stroll through Little India, Emerald Hill, Ann Siang Hill, Chinatown, Joo Chiat/Katong or along Koon Seng Road, and you’ll discover the uniquely Singaporean buildings that have become tourist attractions in their own right.
Largely influenced by the Peranakan (Straits Chinese) culture, many shophouses were built between the 1840s and mid 1900s, although there are six architectural styles.
The Peranakan culture is unique to South East Asia and is a hybrid of Chinese, Malay and Indian influences, with esoteric Portuguese, Dutch and Indonesian traces. It’s that eclectic mix that makes many shophouses so eye-catching.
In keeping with the ancient Chinese belief of universal balance, the archetypal Singapore shophouse was built with symmetry and always follows the same pattern.￼
Narrow and two-storey and arranged in long terraces, they have a shop on the ground floor recessed behind a pedestrian walkway, known as “five-foot-ways” (pictured) for shelter from Singapore’s relenting heat and rain.
The windows feel French, the shutters on the upper floor Spanish or Portuguese, the construction Malay and the decoration Chinese.
And the Peranakan’s love of eye-popping pastels, like pink, turquoise, green and yellow, make these buildings easy to find.
There are only around 6,500 shophouses left in Singapore, with many destroyed to make way for high-rise buildings after Singapore’s independence in 1965.
The Peranakan’s love of eye-popping pastels make these buildings easy to find.
Thankfully, those that remain are now protected by conservation rules, with strict guidelines for restoration and adaptive reuse enforced since 1989 in many historic enclaves across the city.
Ironically, because shophouses are so scarce, the market is a lucrative one for property investors. On a recent visit, it seemed like every second property had a “For Rent” sign in the window.
These gilt-edged properties are highly sought after because they traditionally hold their value even during market downturns, and many investors are interested in owning a piece of heritage.
Shophouses in city fringe areas like Jalan Besar, Kampong Glam, Little India and Joo Chiat are favoured by entrepreneurs and businesses because they’re less expensive than high-rise city office blocks, yet still close to downtown.
Where To See The Shophouses
Historic Emerald Hill, the site of nutmeg plantations until the early 1900s, is home to some of the most elegant and longest-surviving shophouses and terrace homes in Singapore.
Located close to the Orchard Road shopping belt, Emerald Hill was once home to a large and wealthy Peranakan community, with many shophouses now converted into trendy wine bars, cafes and commercial use premises.
Many shophouses feature wooden pintu pagar, or half doors, often elaborately carved, as well as richly coloured ceramic tiles, shuttered windows and mirrors above doors to ward off evil spirits.
Be sure to stop by No. 5 Emerald Hill Cocktail Bar, a 1910 Peranakan shophouse-turned-European-style bar, where you can drink cold beer and toss peanut shells on the floor (a long-standing tradition that started at Raffles Long Bar).
While you’re at Emerald Hill, check out the Baba House, a pre-war terrace house that was once the home of wealthy shipping merchant, Wee Bin. It is Singapore’s most famous Peranakan dwelling and has been restored back to its original shade of electric blue. It’s actually one of Singapore’s last remaining untouched Straits Chinese houses. You’ll find it at 157 Neil Road.
Little India/ Jalan Besar
Wandering through the colourful neighbourhood of Little India, nothing prepares you for the eye-popping surprise that is the House of Tan Teng Niah. With its kaleidoscopic paintwork, this two-storey bungalow really stands out like a sore thumb.
Built in 1900, this rainbow-coloured landmark is not a shophouse, but it’s too good not to mention. The eight-room villa is the former home of well-to-do Chinese businessman Tan Teng Niah, and is said to be the last surviving Chinese villa in Little India.
Throughout Little India – along Serangoon Road, Dalhousie Lane, Syed Alwi Road and Sam Leong Road – you’ll discover many ornate shophouses. At last count, there were more than 200 shophouses lining Jalan Besar, the earliest built in 1888.
Head for Petain Road where you’ll discover a dazzling row of 18 beautifully preserved Chinese-Baroque styled shophouses. With their Spanish glazed tiles, Chinese animal motifs and Malay eaves, they are a throwback to the colonial era.
(Beware, the back alleys near Petain Rd are also something of a red light district.)
Kampong Glam/ Arab Street
With the Sultan Mosque (Masjid Sultan) as a backdrop, the shophouses of Bussorah Road, Arab Street, Baghdad Street, Kandahar Street and trendy Haji Lane are some of the most picturesque north of the Singapore River.
You’ll see row after row of colourful shophouses in Kampong Glam, Singapore’s oldest urban quarter.
Many shophouses are home to design and IT companies, as well as art galleries, rug shops, restaurants and bars.
Chinatown has one of the biggest concentrations of restored shophouses in the Lion City, influenced not just by southern Chinese traditions, but with European and Malay influences, including elaborate columns and louvered shutters.
Pagoda Street, in the clip below, is the gateway for visitors to Chinatown and it’s here, in a restored shophouse, that you’ll find the Chinatown Heritage Centre.
Wander along Smith Street, South Bridge Road, Sago Street and Trengganu Street in the heart of Chinatown to see other shophouses restored to their former glory. And if you’re eating at Chinatown Food Street, be sure to look up and take in the amazing architecture there.
On the fringe of Chinatown, there are lovingly-restored conservation shophouses at Amoy Street, Ann Siang Road, Tanjong Pagar Road and Keong Saik Road.
Koon Seng Road/Joo Chiat
Joo Chiat Place/Katong is one of Singapore’s most iconic and storied neighbourhoods. Once the home of coconut and cotton plantations, the area is now a tourist hot spot thanks to its colourful Peranakan architecture.
Here you’ll find pastel-decked, low-slung Peranakan-style shophouses dating back to the 1920s, with patterned tiles pressed on the walls along five-foot-ways.
The real show stoppers are the rainbow-coloured terrace houses found just a block away at Koon Seng Road.
Since being gazetted for conservation in 1991, these Instagram sensations remain a major draw card for tourists.
Clarke Quay/ Boat Quay
The tourist magnets of Clarke Quay and Boat Quay are popular night spots on the Singapore River, with restaurants and bars housed in many of the restored 19th century shophouses and warehouses.
The colourful facades serve as a reminder of the importance of Clarke Quay and Boat Quay in Singapore’s early colonial history when they were significant trading ports.
While you are exploring Clarke Quay, wander towards Coleman Bridge for a glimpse of one of Singapore’s most distinctive buildings – the Old Hill Street Police Station, built in 1934.
With more than 900 windows, it’s famed for its technicolour shutters and neo-Renaissance design. Most recently it has been home to Singapore’s Ministry of Communications, as well as a string of well-known commercial art galleries.
© 2019 Bernard O’Riordan (Travel Instinct). All Rights Reserved
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