The Singapore Shophouse

A glimpse of Singapore’s architectural heritage in Chinatown

neo-classical shop house, china town

This Neo-Classical style of facade was introduced in the early 20th century using more lighter and delicate decorative features

My last trip to Singapore, over six years ago, was a bit of a blur to be honest.  I do have some hazy recollections of Orchard Road and its endless parade of malls and skyscrapers, merged with a few tipples of a Singapore Sling and a mountain of monkey nuts at the Raffles Hotel.  Other than that, I draw a blank.   So this time round, I decided that I was going do to things differently and explore the area of China town – a unique and special district that was able to take me back in time to the Colonial era and discover the Singapore Shophouses.

Where it all started

Within any city in the world exists history and Singapore is no exception.  In fact, the story behind Sir Stamford Raffles’ founding of Singapore in the early 19th century is truly fascinating.  It was he that had the vision to reorganise the city by ethnic groups.  With the Chinese making up 70% of the migrant population, they were allocated a substantial area of the city on the south west part of the Singapore River, which became the origins of Chinatown.

Singapore

Many shophouses in Chinatown have now been converted into restaurants, boutiques, hotels and private residences

Naturally, traditions in culture and architecture followed the Chinese to Singapore and especially China Town where the concept of the shophouse was first introduced.  Over time, its design style went through many evolutions; therefore today within the streets of China Town, you will see a mixture of styles ranging from:  Chinese Baroque,  Edwardian Baroque, Jubilee Style and Tropical deco.

China town, shophouse

The Chinese community loved to decorate their houses with bright colours

One particular striking feature I noticed was how beautifully the facades are painted.  From delicate pastel shades to flushes of striking oranges and greens, it makes the whole experience of wandering around the area so enjoyable.  Where most cities lack colour and flavour, the existence of these shop houses definitely brings back some blush to our pale winter cheeks.

modern buildings, China Town

The contrast between the old and the modern Singapore

The original purpose of shophouses 

The original purpose of the shophouse was multi-functional and was split by having the trade area on the ground floor and the residential space of the upper floor.  The more wealthy migrants started to build fully residential courtyard town houses, and although not many are left today, you can visit Baba House on Neil Street.  Now fully restored into a museum, you can see in fine detail the typical layout and setting of how a typical courtyard house would have looked back in the 19th century.

Singapore, Chinese ceramic tiles

Locals were fascinated in decorating their houses with ceramic tiles

The use of ceramic tiles

The use of ceramic tiles by the Victorians had a big influence in Singapore in the late 19thcentury and you will see many used on the exterior of shophouses, with flowers most commonly used as a design.  If you are lucky, you can even spot some original tiles in many of the antique shops scattered around Chinatown.

China town, residential

A shophouse as a residential property on Blair Road

Modern day use of the shophouse

Today, Singapore shop houses have been used in a variety of ways.  If you visit areas such as Emerald Hill or Blair Road, you will see many of them converted into beautiful luxury residential houses.  Boutique hotel conversions have also become very popular. Hotel and restaurant entrepreneur Loh Lik Peng was one of the first to start off the trend.

Singapore Shop House

The New Majestic Hotel was originally a collection of shophouses

One of his restorations is The New Majestic Hotel located in China Town. What is ingenious about this particular hotel is how the exterior transmits “old Singapore” with its stark white classical features, yet when you step inside, it is as if you have stepped into the future with its modern design-led features.

For me, China Town has a wonderful blend of the old mixed with the new.  As well as the history and architecture, there are quaint coffee houses and restaurants, eclectic boutiques and antique finds that will keep you occupied from morning until evening.  I spent a good four days exploring  the area and I still didn’t manage to see everything.

To find more information about China Town, you can visit Chinatown Singapore, where you can get all the latest information on what to do and see.

Baba House, 157 Neil Street, Singapore

Entrance to Baba House is free but visits are only made by advance appointment.  You can make a reservation by emailing babahouse@nus.edu.sj or telephone +65 6227 5731.

More details can be found on their website www.nus.edu.sj

Your hotel

To make the most of this neighbourhood, stay at the boutique hotel, New Majestic Hotel, Singapore

Nathalie Salas

Nathalie Salas is a freelance travel writer and marketing consultant based between the UK, Italy and the UAE. Pursuing her passion of boutique hotels, she reviews hotels around the world as well as helping them to improve their marketing strategies. Nathalie is Editor & Founder of travel site Perfect Boutique Hotel, writing also for boutiquehotelnews.com, Masquerade and Global Citizen.

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