Much like the bay window defines San Francisco or the brownstone defines New York, the Singapore shophouse represents not only an important architectural style but a way of life from this country's past. The shophouse is unique in its design and functionality with character influenced by the many cultures and people who traveled to this island in search of trade and wealth.
The shophouse style, influenced by a wide array of regional styles, was created to serve a dual purpose: residence and place of business. Many of the structures are similar in layout but vary greatly in decor, style and size. Traditionally the first floor or ground level was used as the place to conduct business. Farther back on the ground level, behind the shop area, would be the family kitchen. Often times this was located behind an open-aired courtyard with ample ventilation, usually referred to as an airwell or skywell. An overhang along the street side of the facade, supported by columns, creates a sidewalk. This "five-foot way" ensures a covered area for the shoppers to peruse and protects people and goods from strong sun and rain. As shophouses were built right next to each other the effect of this overhang creates a continuous sidewalk along the street and encourages a pedestrian flow of traffic. The second floor would usually be the family rooms and sleeping quarters. This would traditionally also be the space for women to socialize and entertain guests, embroider and host family gatherings.
Typically the shophouse building was narrow yet long. In the days before reinforced concrete the shophouse was about as wide as a single beam, approximately 18 feet wide. But the average depth was about 80 feet. According to the book Singapore Shophouse by Julian Davison "this characteristic ground plan has its origins in ancient China where house taxes were calculated according to a building's width or frontage on to the street." Other surrounding countries, many of whom occupied by the English and the Dutch, came to adopt similar rulings for plot sizes.
The Chinese, Malay and Western influences are easily seen in both the interior and exterior architecture of the traditional shophouse. The first Chinese settlers in Singapore arrived not from mainland China but from the surrounding region of Malacca, Sumatra and surrounding islands around Singapore, resulting in a unique building style that reflected traditional Chinese architecture blended with other cultural influences. Because of the constant trade and travel of these early merchants you can see the Singapore shophouse style in other regions such as Vietnam and Thailand. Much like Western countries, the architectural style of the shophouse changed with the times. Today you can see shophouses designed in the Chinese style (circa 1880-1900), Baroque Style (1895-1910), Neo-Classical Style (1910-1930) as well as a Modernist Style (1933-1941).
Singapore has always been an important trading outpost in Southeast Asia. As the population grew and changed, the purpose of the shophouse changed with it. Some became funeral parlours, clubhouses for wealthy businessmen, and many were divided into multiple businesses such as coffeehouses and tailor shops. Today you can find examples of conservation shophouses that exist as boutique hotels and private residences.
I gathered much of the above information from reading Singapore Shophouse (published by the National Archives of Singapore). It's a fascinating book and chock full of history and beautiful images of this specific style. If you can't visit Singapore in person be sure to check out some modern uses of the old shophouse like the Scarlet Hotel, 149 Neil Road conservation house, The Saff Hotel, and Hotel 1929.
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