As the name suggests, a shophouse is essentially a shop with a residence above it. The height of these shophouses was originally restricted by the technology and building resources available. Two-storey ones are the most popular, though a quick stroll through the Chinatown district will reveal taller versions.
The entrance to a shophouse is on the ground floor, through a public arcade. These long and narrow channels are called five-foot walkways, presumably due to their width. Running the length of an entire row of shophouses, the walkways have brief step intervals for shophouse rows built on hills or slopes. While the inside of shophouses are private, these five-foot walkways are considered public.
Though called shophouses, these shops served a variety of functions: from eating houses to small garages for vehicle repairs. The shophouses of modern Singapore are essentially unchanged in these functions, serving as retail stores, restaurants, offices and training spaces.
Navigating these shophouses must have been interesting on narrow wooden stairs that matched the diagonal and tree-shaped supporting beams between the walls and ceiling. Rows of horizontal beams run across the ceiling to support the roof. The exterior roof is easily recognisable by its orange clay tiles. These tiles were particularly favourable because of their resistance to fire and other weather conditions.
The shophouse was an instrumental component of community in Singapore’s earlier days. Many owners ran their businesses on the ground floor and reserved the upstairs for their families and private residences. However, owing to the nature of commerce and community back then, it was not uncommon for a family to live upstairs above complete strangers who ran their businesses below.
Sometimes several families occupied the residential areas of these shophouses. This is because while the shophouses had narrow street facades, many of them extended backwards to a great length. It was therefore possible to partition this area and house multiple households.
The architecture of these shophouses was designed such that in many cases only a wall separated one residence from the other. There are no gaps between houses and the row of shophouses may be considered one long terraced building.
Shophouses in the rest of South East Asia have subtle or significant differences from Singapore’s own style. This is because Sir Stamford Raffles, founder of colonial Singapore, stipulated that each shophouse have a uniform front as the others and that each walkway measure a specific width to follow consistency and allow for easier passage for pedestrians.
Singapore’s shophouses have become an integral icon of the country, and are frequently the sites of upscale restaurants. Many shophouses were constructed with an open courtyard inside, between the houses. Some of these shophouse rows have multiple internal courtyards that today host open-air eateries and function spaces.