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File:George Town, Penang.JPG

A terraced layout allows a row of shophouses to extend as long as a city block permits, as exemplified by this long row of double storey shophouses at Penang Street, George Town, Penang.

A shophouse is a vernacular architectural building type that is commonly seen in areas such as urban Southeast Asia. Shophouses are mostly two or three stories high, with a shop on the ground floor for mercantile activity and a residence above the shop.[1][2] This mixed-use building form characterises the historical centres of most towns and cities in the Southeast Asia region.[3]

Design and features[]


Shophouses in Hang Bong, Hanoi, Vietnam


Typically, shophouses consist of shops on the ground floor which open up to a public arcade or "five-foot way", and which have residential accommodation upstairs. Shophouses, like terraced houses in England and townhouses in the U.S., abut each other to form rows with regular facade, with fire walls between them and adherence to street alignment.

As its name suggests, a shophouse often contains a shop with separate residential spaces. More generally, space occupied by the former contains a semi-public function. While this usually is, and historically usually was, a shop, it could just as easily be a food and beverage outlet (e.g. coffeeshop or bar), a service provider (e.g. clinic or barber), an industrial activity (e.g. cottage industry or auto workshop) or a community space (e.g. a school or clan association). Residential spaces are meant to accommodate one or more families, or serve as a dormitory for single workers. Popular belief holds that shophouses were initially occupied by single families, with their private living areas in one space and the more public family business in another. However, it is possible that the two spaces were always usually used by unrelated persons or groups, who may be tenants or resident owners. The position of the shop and residential space depends on the number of floors of the shophouse: A single storey shophouse tends to include residential space behind the shop, while residential spaces in shophouses of two or more storeys are typically located above the shop.


File:HK ShanghaiStreet CantoneseVerandahTypePrewarShophouses.JPG

Tong lau at 600–626, Mong Kok, Shanghai Street, Kowloon, Hong Kong, China 2008

Due to constraints in building technology, early shophouses in the 19th and early 20th centuries were generally low rise buildings with numbers of floors averaging between one and three, with two storey variations being the most abundant. Three storey shophouses are most common in central cores of towns and cities with higher levels of prosperity and population density, and pre-war shophouses with up to four storeys existed later in the first half of the 20th century with the advent of modern construction materials like reinforced concrete.

Narrow fronts, deep rears[]

Shophouses may nominally stretch as high as three floors in densely populated locations. Depicted here is a row of mid-20th century, three storey shophouses in Chinatown, Singapore of traditional Sino-Portuguese, Art Deco and International styles.

Shophouses have narrow street frontages, but may extend backwards to great depths, in some cases extending all the way to the rear street. A number of reasons have been given for the narrow widths of these buildings. One reason relates to taxes, i.e. the idea that buildings were historically taxed according to street frontage rather than total area, thereby creating an economic motivation to build narrow and deeply. Another reason is building technology: the timber beams that carried the roof and floor loads of these structures were supported by masonry party walls. The extent of frontage was therefore affected by the structural span of the timber used. While all shophouses appear, visually, to have similarly narrow widths, these are not uniform and minor variations are the rule, especially when comparing buildings built at different times, by different owners and with different materials or technologies. In Singapore, many Chinese immigrants moved with their businesses into shophouses, and as the majority of these immigrants came from the southeastern coastal provinces of China, the architecture of early Niucheshui shophouses was strongly influenced by that of southern China.[2]

Terraced building[]

File:Malioboro Street, Yogyakarta.JPG

Shophouses along Jalan Malioboro, Yogyakarta

Shophouses are urban terraced buildings, i.e. standing right next to each other along a street, with no gap or space in between buildings (in similar vein as a terraced house). Frequently, a single wall separates the shophouses on either side of it.

"Five-foot ways"[]

File:Five foot way, Ampang, Selangor.jpg

An example of a five-foot way along a row of shophouses in Selangor, Malaysia

Main article: Five foot way

The covered walkway along the road is within the shophouse property line but is for public use, providing pedestrians shade from sun and rain. This practice can be traced to antecedents in South China, but also to the Royal Ordinances by Philip II of Spain of 1573. In early Manila two-storey houses were built in rows with arcades on the ground floor.[4] A key development was the Raffles Ordinances (1822) for Singapore which stipulated that “all houses constructed of brick or tiles have a common type of front each having an arcade of a certain depth, open to all sides as a continuous and open passage on each side of the street”. This practice spread to other States in British Malaya and by-laws with requirements for "verandah-ways of... at least seven feet measuring from the boundary of the road ...and the footway within any verandah-way must be at least five feet in the clear."[5]

The by-laws were an important element in the evolution of the shophouse building form. They were not easy to implement: builders naturally wanted to build on and use as much of their land as possible. Even to this day municipal authorities have to occasionally make sure that the arcades are kept free from shopkeepers blocking the path with their goods.

In other parts of Southeast Asia, shophouses lack this distinction but, if an area's by-laws are observed, are a useful feature that protects pedestrians from the sun and frequent torrential rain. Older shophouses in Bangkok, for example, may have a plain ledge without gutters jutting out over the pavement, while newer ones may do without this element altogether.

Internal courtyards[]

File:Malaysian Courtyard1.jpg

Internal courtyards provide open ventilated voids to allow circulation, such as the presence of natural light and air.

One of the most important features of the shophouse is the use of a variety of open-to-sky spaces to admit natural daylight as well as natural air. These open-to-sky spaces may be back yards, small airwells and most commonly, internal courtyards. Depending on their size, these courtyards may be landscaped spaces for quiet reflection, places to dry laundry, vents for cooking fumes or toilet odours or spaces for any number of household activities.

Party walls[]

The party walls that separate most shophouses from their neighbours are generally constructed out of masonry (usually locally manufactured baked clay bricks) and they are structural, load-bearing walls, i.e. they transfer the weight of the roof and upper floors down to the ground. Party walls marked a major shift from traditional timber post-and-beam frame construction of pre-colonial Southeast Asia. Masonry was used to bear the heavy loads, to provide privacy and security and, importantly, to serve as a barrier to the spread of fire in a crowded urban settlement. Modern shophouses use similar materials but additionally include reinforced concrete beams.


Shophouses are typically built with pitched roofs covered with orange clay roof tiles. Again, this marks an important shift away from the use of more organic coconut frond thatch (called "attap") in traditional architecture. The added cost of clay tiles was borne due to their greater durability and especially their resistance to fire.

Floors and beams[]

File:Geylang Road Shophouses.jpg

A row of double storied late 19th-century shophouses in Geylang, Singapore are seen with facades in varied shades of colours.

Traditionally shophouses were built with structural (i.e. load bearing) timber beams which carried the weight of the roof and floors. Floor were similarly made of timber planks, often with narrow gaps in between them to allow air to filter through and to help the building (and its inhabitants) to 'breathe' better. The use of timber beams and floor boards was very much in line with local building traditions. Modern shophouses, on the other hand, use reinforced concrete beams and slabs.

Facade colours[]

Tourists often enjoy visiting and walking around shophouse districts because of the variety of colours used in their facade decoration. Traditionally, many shophouses would have been plastered an off-white colour. Other popular early colours were indigo and ochre, given the range of available pigments. By the mid-20th century, pastel colours (rose pink, baby blue, light yellow, etc.) became popular, and they remain the colours that most people most strongly associate with these buildings. However, many contemporary or restored shophouses have now taken to using very bold colours, including deep reds, black, silver, gold, purple, etc.

Facade ornamentation[]

Traditional shophouses facade ornamentation draws inspiration from the Malay, Chinese and European traditions.[6] European neo-classical motifs include egg-and-dart moldings and ionic or Corinthian capitals on decorative pillasters. From the Malay building tradition, elaborate woodwork has been borrowed in the form of carved panels. Fascia boards, louvres, screens and fretwork. Finally, from the Chinese tradition comes Sino-Portuguese influences and mythological motifs like phoenixes as well as butterfly-shaped windows. Other traditions include the use of Peranakan pastel coloured glazed tiles, often with floral or geometric motifs. The degree of a shophouse's ornamentation depended on the prosperity of its owner and the surrounding area; shophouse facades in cities and (former) boomtowns are generally more elaborate than spartan rural shophouses.

Masonry-heavy Art Deco and Streamline Moderne styles would eventually prevail between the 1930s and 1950s. Modern variations through the 1950s up until the 1980s were devoid of ornamental decorations and tended to be designed with imposing geometrical and utilitarian forms inspired by International and Brutalist styles. Beginning in the 1990s, the buildings began to adopt postmodern and revival styles.

Modern construction[]

File:Pertokoan Pekanbaru.JPG

A row of six reinforced concrete shophouses in Pekanbaru, Indonesia. The frame structure of the shophouses is clearly visible on the exposed right wall. The width of each shophouse is equal to the separation of two piers.

Modern shophouse construction is made from reinforced concrete. Loads are carried by beams and piers, built on a grid system. The spacing of the piers is determined by economic factors - wider beams require disportionately larger amounts of steel. A plot of land that measures 40m wide,and 12m deep, could for instance be used to create 10 shophouses, each measuring 4mx12m, or 8 shophouses measuring 5m x 12m, or something in between.

Walls are infill, which means that a row of shophouses can easily be reconfigured, to allow a business to occupy two or more shophouses, by simply removing the dividing walls.

A row of shophouses can be built in stages by exposing around 50-60cm of rebar in the left-right beams at each end of the row. When continuing construction, new rebar is tied to the existing rebar to allow the beam to be continued, thereby removing the need for new structural piers.

History and use[]

The shophouse evolved from the late 18th century during the colonial era. After the colonial era, shophouses became old and dilapidated, leading to a fraction of them abandoned or razed (by demolition work or, on occasions, fire).[7]

In Singapore, the Land Acquisition Act (Act) for urban development during the early 1960s, and amended in 1973, affected a great many owners of shophouses and worked a significant compensatory unfairness upon them when their shophouses were seized to satisfy redevelopment efforts.[8] Over the decades, entire blocks of historical shophouses in the urban centre were leveled for high-density developments or governmental facilities.

Owners and occupants of colonial shophouse in Malaysia underwent different experiences involving a series of rent control legislation put in place between 1956 and 1966.[9] Under the most recent 1966 Control of Rent Act, privately owned buildings constructed before 1948, including scores of shophouses, were subjected to rent price controls to alleviate housing shortages,[10] with the intent of providing the increasingly urbanised population with sufficient affordable housing. In the decades following the introduction of the Act in 1966, development of sites that the shophouses rest on were often unprofitable due to poor rental takings, leading to historical urban districts stagnating but being effectively preserved, although entire blocks of shophouses were known to be demolished for a variety of reasons during the upsurge of the economy (from government acquisitions to destruction from fires). With the repeal of the act in 1997, landowners were eventually granted authority to determine rent levels and be enticed to develop or sell off pre-1948 shophouses;[10] as a result, poorer tenants were priced out and many of the buildings were extensively altered or demolished for redevelopment over the course of the 2000s and 2010s. Shophouses have also been documented to be illegally sealed for use to cultivate and harvest edible bird's nests, leading to long-term internal damage of the buildings.[11]

Many shophouses in Singapore that escaped the draconian effects of the Land Acquisition Act have now undergone a revival of sorts, with some restored and renovated to house theatres, budget hotels and tea houses. Some shophouses are now considered architectural landmarks and have substantially increased in value, for example, in 2011 in Singapore, two of every three shophouse units sold for between S$1.7-$5.5 million (US$1.4-$4.4 million), while larger units sold for between S$10–$12.5 million (US$8–$10 million), a sharp increase from 2010, while average per-square-foot prices increased 21 percent from 2010. The median price in Singapore in 2011 was 74 percent higher than in 2007.[12]

Likewise, while the preservation of historic shophouses have suffered substantially in heavily developed states like Kuala Lumpur, Johor, Perak, Negeri Sembilan and Selangor, shophouses in Penang and Malacca (which state capitals, George Town and Malacca Town, have been gazetted as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2008) received more care and attention due to emerging historical preservation movements in both states, experiencing similar levels of rejuvenations as in Singapore. However, the gentrification of both cities has led to older tenants of shophouses driven out by the rising costs of renting or buying properties within historical districts. In 2012, the cost of buying a pre-World War II shophouse in George Town reached RM2,000 per square foot (US$660), equivalent to the price of the most expensive Kuala Lumpur city centre condominium units.[13]



A chophouse, a pun of the term "shophouse", is a distinctive Singaporean building style based on the shophouse. Like a shophouse, the chophouse is a building of similar design consisting of a shop front on the ground floor and accommodation on the first floor. However, the chophouse was intended to hold a larger density of residents, some as many as 200 people. Because of their high number of occupants, the living conditions of chophouses were often claustrophobic and suffered from poor sanitation.

As more immigrants came, both the houses and individual rooms were subdivided into a tiny dark airless cubicle holes. Many house designed for only a single family would end up with ten or more families living in them. There was little or no privacy or sunlight, with poor or absent sanitation and little room to cook or prepare and eat food.

The subsequent major re-housing effort, which also housed the many hundreds of thousands living in palm shack slums, resulted in the demolition of the great majority of the chophouses and only relatively few remain in Singapore today many concentrated in Little India.

The building style was common during years before Singapore's independence and the early years after its independence, but the country's later rehousing efforts saw most chophouses demolished, with few remaining in the country.


File:Shopoffices in Malacca.jpg

Modern shopoffices in Malacca, Malaysia, designed in a New Classical style to evoke the designs of pre-war shophouses.

The term shopoffice [14]Template:Citation needed is used to refer to a derivative of the shophouse design tailored for commercial use on both the ground floor and floors above accessible through stairwells built to the front of the building. During the early twentieth century, the style of building was common in major urban centers closer to commercial districts, and is often utillised by larger businesses, where large-scale operations required more space. A shopoffice may also adopt dual commercial-residential use, so long as the building has necessary amenities (i.e. proper plumbing). To maximise office and retail spaces, some shopoffices may reach up to heights of five to six floors, and a five-foot ways may be incorporated for the floor above the ground level.

The building style remains a common facet of Malaysia's modern urban and suburban landscape, where rows of shopoffices continue to be constructed in large numbers through the late twentieth century to the present, often complementing nearby residential developments.


See also[]

  • Sino-Portuguese architecture
  • Tong Lau, in Hong Kong and southern China
  • Lingnan culture
  • Trade magazines are sometimes nicknamed "shop houses".
  • Compare Bruges merchant houses and the Medieval Merchant's House in Southampton
  • Terraced house
  • Architecture of Singapore
  • Chinese architecture
  • Architecture of Portugal
  • Malay houses
  • Rumah adat
  • Nipa hut
  • Bahay na Bato
  • Ancestral houses of the Philippines


  1. Shophouse, nét riêng của Park Hill Một shophouse thường có ít nhất hai tầng Trúc Linh, VnEconomy 14:59 - 22/7/2015 Template:Vi
  2. 2.0 2.1 Zhu, Jieming, Sim, Loo-Lee, Liu, Xuan, D., Place-Remaking under Property Rights Regimes: A Case Study of Niucheshui, Singapore, IURD Working Paper Series, Institute of Urban and Regional Development, UC Berkeley, 2006, p.13. Accessed 2012-3-30.
  3. Chua, Beng Huat, and Edwards, Norman, Public space: design, use, and management, National University of Singapore, Centre for Advanced Studies, Singapore University Press, 1992, p. 4-5. Template:ISBN
  4. Mai-Lin Tjoa-Bonatz, "Shophouses in Colonial Penang", Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Volume LXXI Part 2, 1998, pp 122-136
  5. Lim, Jon S.H., "The Shophouse Rafflesia: An Outline of its Malaysian Pedigree and its Subsequent Diffusion in Asia", Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Volume LXVI Part 1, 1993, pp 47-66. ISSN 0126-7353
  6. Template:Cite web
  7. Kaye B., Upper Nankin Street, Singapore: A Sociological Study of Chinese Households Living in a Densely Populated Area, University of Malaya Press, Singapore, and Oxford University Press, 1960.
  8. Han, Sun Sheng, Global city making in Singapore: a real estate perspective, pp. 77-83, in Progress in Planning 64, pp. 69–175, Elsevier, 2005. Accessed 2012-3-30.
  9. What is the law relating to the control of rent in West (Peninsular) Malaysia?,, 2001-5-31. Accessed 2015-3-6.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Why is the Control of Rent Act 1966 being repealed? Why is Control of Rent (Repeal) Act 1997 being introduced?,, 2001-5-31. Accessed 2015-3-6.
  11. Template:Cite web
  12. Property Guru, Shophouses increasingly popular among investors, Yahoo! News, 2012-3-27. Accessed 2012-3-30.
  13. Wong, Johnni, Skyrocketing shophouses, JOHNNI WONG , The Star, 2012-3-21. Accessed 2012-3-30.
  14. Template:Cite web

Further reading[]

  • Lee Ho Yin, "The Singapore Shophouse: An Anglo-Chinese Urban Vernacular," in Asia's Old Dwellings: Tradition, Resilience, and Change, ed. Ronald G. Knapp (New York: Oxford University Press), 2003, 115-134.
  • Davis, Howard, Living Over the Store: Architecture and Local Urban Life, Routledge, 2012. Template:ISBN
  • Chua Beng Huat (Chua, B.H.), The Golden Shoe: Building Singapore's Financial District. Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, 1989.
  • Lee Kip Lim. The Singapore House, 1849-1942. Singapore: Times, 1988.
  • Goh, Robbie, Yeoh, Brenda, International Conference on the City, Theorizing The Southeast Asian City As Text: Urban Landscapes, Cultural Documents, And Interpretative Experiences, World Scientific Pub Co Inc., 2003. Template:ISBN
  • Yeoh, Brenda, Contesting Space: Power Relationships and the Urban Built Environment in Colonial Singapore (South-East Asian Social Science Monographs), Oxford University Press, USA, 1996. Template:ISBN; and published by the Singapore University Press, 2003. Template:ISBN
  • Ongsavangchai Nawit, Funo Shuji, Spatial Formation And Transformation of Shophouse in the Old Chinese Quarter of Patani, Thailand, Journal of Architecture and Planning, Transactions of AIJ, V.598, pp. 1–9, 2005. ISSN 1340-4210
  • Ongsavangchai Nawit, Formation and Transformation of Shophouses in Khlong Suan Market Town, Proceedings, Architectural Institute of Korea, 2006.
  • Phuong, D. Q. and Groves, D., Sense of Place in Hanoi's Shop-House: The Influences of Local Belief on Interior Architecture, Journal of Interior Design, 36: 1–20, 2010. doi: 10.1111/j.1939-1668.2010.01045.x
  • Chang, TC and Teo, P, The shophouse hotel: vernacular heritage in a creative city, Urban Studies 46(2), 2009, 341–367.

External links[]

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