The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1582] Past to Future: Resilience of the shophouse as a typology in Singapore


Over the course of the last couple of centuries, Singapore has seen herself develop from a kampong village, to a bustling and industrious port, to a seemingly oppressed colony that was under the Japanese Occupation, and finally to its modern presence as a globalised city. To the outside world, Singapore has evolved into a 1st world country. However, to me, with this surge in economic and financial growth, the by-products of social and cultural disintegration could not be more obvious.

Since the advent of colonization in Singapore in the early 19th century, there were social and urban restructuring policies to provide a more ordered and regulated environment for the inhabitants of Singapore. Sir Stamford Raffles was a British official, best known for the founding of the city of Singapore. His establishment of the early infrastructure transformed the island into a free port that encouraged trade and attracted people from all over the world to migrate and live in Singapore. These immigrant groups of different origins, who settled in Singapore at that period of time, significantly influenced the exercising and controlling of government policies.

Some of these policies involved the setting up of a Town Planning committee that ensured comfort and security to the different descriptions of inhabitants of the Settlement and to prevent confusion and disputes thereafter. In brief, areas were specifically allocated to different ethnic and sub-ethnic groups, such as Chinese of different dialects, Indians from different regions, Malays, Europeans, natives etc.

However, in today’s geographical context, there are no longer such clear geographical distinctions between different ethnic groups. That being said, its multi-racial identity still thrives as a unique and outstanding image of Singaporean identity. Besides the present day official state definitions of racial groups; namely Chinese, Malay, Indian, and others, a variety of different Chinese dialects, Malays and Indians from different geographical regions, as well as Japanese and other nationalities were and still are found in Singapore today.

The most noticeable early developments of the shophouse archetype were found along the banks of the Singapore River, where it was heavily characterized by the segregation of different ethnic and sub ethnic groups. In today’s context, the shophouse building type is similar to the ‘live-work’ typology that is common in most cities in the world.

Shophouses were built in support of the urban planning grid, long streets were found with shophouse rows lining the roads. From the air, all that is visible are lines of homogeneous double-pitched roofs, seemingly portraying a long building block. The division lies in that each row or strip is divided into different units of the same width of approximately 20 feet. Shophouses are usually 2 to 3 stories high, with the ground floor generally open to public access. There is a connected walkway along the front of each row of shophouses, usually under the eaves of the roof, measuring five feet in width, popularly known as a five foot way. The five foot way served a purpose of sheltering pedestrians from inclement weather, and also enabled the provision of drainage and waste disposal services.

Brick and tile are the main materials in which these shophouses were constructed, with plastered or brick facades, all as part of Raffles’ instructions to the town planning committee. These choices were made in reference to their fire-resistant qualities.

The circulation through each unit is by means of a staircase located at the back or sides of each floor. Shophouses in certain districts were constructed with an additional spiral fire escape staircase, usually located at the rear end of each unit. There is usually a rear aisle or alley that allows access from the back, and it also provided storage facilities for some households. In addition, certain features such as small courtyards, that can be found in the middle of each unit, with skylight openings in the roof, also provide nuances to the archetype.

However, the homogeneity of spatial elements for this archetype did not restrict the people, regardless of their ethnicity, culture or financial status to use the space in a variety of ways, in order to fulfill their own needs. The significance of these flexibilities is that different sub-cultures and practices of the various immigrant groups, and also the way they lived, worked and played were made possible by configuration of spaces within this socially humble eco-unit.

In the early Hainanese community and enclave, there were problems of lack of space, which led to one of the early innovations of using the shophouse space. Multiple merchants would share one unit to run their individual businesses and several families could inhabit another. This flexibility was achieved by partitions and it stretched upwards, where the upper stories would be used for storage, and also as rooms. This condition was different from other Chinese sub-ethnic communities who enjoyed more space.

Similarly, but inherently different, manual laborers, also known as coolies, from different places of origins, be it from China, Malaya or India had to occupy tiny cubicles within shophouse dwellings along the river banks, where they worked along the river collecting goods and sacks to be transferred into warehouses.

Japanese styled brothel spaces, considered one of the social vices during the earlier periods, is another example of the spatial flexibility. The upper floors of these units were segmented into different cubicles, with Japanese tatami mats, where the dealings were carried out.

From another perspective, the architectural elaboration of the shophouse archetype also distinguished the different wealth classes. In the case of Japanese merchants, many of whom were running textiles and garment businesses, the imposition of their native design styles revolutionized the interior spaces of their shophouses in a luxurious manner. From historical readings and journals, it is clear that the hybrid of different styles, Oriental or European, East or West, manifested itself upon the spaces where they ran their business.

Shophouses were also used by the Peranakans, generally acknowledged as a mestizo group (Chinese and Malay). Peranakans were a particularly prosperous race, and this is evident in the distinctive ornamentation and decoration of their shophouse units, a stark contrast from the shophouses occupied by other ethnic groups.

It is evident through the above examples that the flexibility of the shophouse space allowed the unique mix of people of different ethnic divisions, social and financial classes to run their businesses, maintain their livelihood and even become indicators of wealth. These past examples also show a possibility for adaptation and modification.

In the later part of the 20th century, Singapore began to flourish as an economy and the population increase compelled the government to find means of housing the people. Due to the land constraints of Singapore, which measures no larger than 700 square kilometers or 70,000 hectares, the government’s response was to introduce high-rise housing blocks. Today, more than 85% of the state's population goes home to their high rise apartment blocks every day, regardless of the color of their skin, the language that they speak, or the culture and religion they practice. This introduction alleviated many of the social and urban problems at that time.

However, I feel that other issues, such as cultural and historical ones, which compose the softer aspect of a state’s concerns, were neglected and not dealt with properly. As a result, shophouses have lost their significance as dwellings, as an indicator of the multi-cultural heritage of Singapore. Demands for shophouses have shifted into the commercial sector, where they are now priced for financial value and location, instead of for its rich cultural heritage.

There are efforts put in place to conserve and protect this Singaporean identity such as plans by a local governmental agency, the Urban Redevelopment Authority, to conserve groups of shophouse districts at various locations on the island. However, the conservation guidelines focus more on the hard aspects, such as minimal intrusion and change to structural and façade components. It also limits program types allowed for shophouses, inherently restricting the shophouse’s ability to thrive as a social unit.

Besides the small number of time-honored traditional shophouse businesses still surviving today, modern interpretations of the shophouse has turned it into a luxury for the more well-to-do. Due to the scarcity of shophouses in the modern context of Singapore, only the wealthy are able to live in them, which also limits its usage.

The shophouse today offers not just possibilities for living spaces, but also commercial developments that are crucial to Singapore’s continuous prosperity. Examples are new offices that have been located in old shophouse units, notably so in Singapore’s Chinatown area, which has a rich historical heritage.

From the colonial involvement in terms of financing the shophouse infrastructure, to the present day governmental conservation guidelines imposed that limit the programmatic flexibility of the shophouse, I think that for shophouses in Singapore to remain as a strong social and cultural identity, there needs to be a rethinking of what we see it to be in the future.

I feel that there is real value in celebrating this archetype that underwent numerous variations as marked by the past and present. This is because it represents the multicultural heritage and history of Singapore, which could be easily lost if the state becomes obsessed with the pursuit of globalization and modernization.

However, there is an admission that the transformation in this shophouse typology has to keep up with the changes, in both society and economy. Perhaps there is no longer a need for people to live in districts based on their ethnicity and social class, and that we are now economically capable enough to provide sufficient and comfortable spaces for people to live in. However, I think that the key for survival, that is progress while still keeping our traditions alive, is to create and alter this architectural heritage according to our requirements and celebrating the nature of this built form.

I propose a few suggestions. Firstly, I think that the programmatic usage of the shophouse has to be expanded to provide more opportunities for people looking to use the space. Such inspirations could be drawn from examples in the past, when the shophouse was a need, not a desire. To truly maintain and celebrate this indicator of Singapore’s social and cultural heritage, it should not merely be preservation in the physical sense, but to also consider the softer aspects of historical values and understanding.

Like the way people of other countries dignify their vernacular forms even till today, I think Singaporeans should celebrate the shophouse with as much rigor. This architectural and social unit has shown its resilience and robustness, in weathering the country’s developments, as well as accommodating the smorgasbord of people of varying ethnicity, class, and social behavior. Education could prove to be yet another key factor here, to let the people of Singapore realize that shophouses are not merely humble buildings that have a long tradition, but to understand their intrinsic values.

Next, I think that the relatively small scale of shophouses is a cause for concern too. Vertical expansion to accommodate a larger population is a practical solution that indicates economic progress. However, it is not practical or feasible if we were to think along the same lines for the development of the shophouse in the 21st century. Much of the charm of the shophouse comes from its scale and the ‘relaxed’ atmosphere that comes with it. Since we are unable to increase its physical scale, I suggest that we begin plans to create new and contemporary facades to bring more attention to it. These facades could consist of modern materials, such as steel and glass, and the juxtaposition of the new façade onto the old building could possibly inspire the birth of a new archetype.

This should not only be an injection of modernity, but also to show that tradition can be celebrated in conjunction with technological and economic advances. I feel that the true relevance of shophouses is such that it should not fade off as part of history, but constantly change and establish itself as an ongoing Singaporean agenda, with unlimited possibilities.

Lastly, another approach could be to direct the attention to the neighboring areas of shophouses. The Singapore Tourism Board has reported that tourist figures in Singapore would increase in the coming years, so there is a possibility of utilizing this resource as a means to rejuvenate businesses in some of the shophouse areas. The state's interest in the arts and culture scene could be injected more into the surrounding areas, which will attract visitors, and eventually bring about revitalization of the shophouse identity without losing economic sense.

Nostalgia lies in the old, and practicality lives in the new, seen today in the scarce quantities of shophouses dwarfed by tall apartment blocks and office towers, I think that there needs to be flexibility not merely in the transformation of the old, but also in how the two can be intertwined.

Perhaps an understanding of the properties of the shophouse and how they can be mitigated into developments of the present clone-type apartment blocks, to relive our nostalgic memories within the constraints of reality is paramount to Singapore’s future development. I feel that there is no fixed answer or solution, but a concerted effort by the government and community into looking at the possibilities and realized examples will bring fruitful and much appreciated results.

The shophouse is a building typology that has become an integral social and cultural indicator of Singapore’s history. In terms of value, it stands more than as a mere archetype, but as a collective understanding of the country’s diverse multi-cultural identity. The resilience of the shophouse is shown in its history of adaptation, modification and change. In my opinion, the shophouse should be valued and understood to bring about progress and development for Singapore as an economically and culturally rich nation.


1) Chee Kien, Lai, (2006), Multi-ethnic Enclaves around Middle Road: An Examination of Early Urban Settlement in Singapore, article in Biblioasia Vol. 2, NLB Singapore

2) Jon S. H. Lim, (1993), The ‘Shophouse Rafflesia’: An Outline of its Malaysian Pedigree and Its Subsequent Diffusion in Asia, Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society

3) Urban Redevelopment Authority of Singapore Conservation:

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