An example of a traditioanl shophouse type on Neil Road and Keong Saikbiscuit factory, JBW 1920 (Photos courtesy of iProperty)
Article by Samantha Loveridge
The shophouse, the unique Singaporean building that flourished amongst the Peranakan Chinese in particular, is in danger of becoming an empty shell of its former self.
While, with so many types of shophouse around Singapore, we often just focus on the beauty of the exteriors, within these buildings, historic architecture is being torn away in favour of modern interiors.
Those shophouses that were built before 1910 seem particularly at risk, as their unique interior features are rapidly being lost to the whims of modern designers. Julian Davison, author of the recently launched book The Singapore Shophouse, marvels at the architectural ingenuity of these shophouses’ air well (aerial well or condenser) feature: an open column that runs through the whole house. Exposed at the top to the sky, the air well allows air to run through the house, which creates a cooling system that Julian describes as being very effective. “It really obviates the necessity for air conditioning,” he says.
”There’s usually a water feature at the bottom of the airwell too,” which, Julian explains, adds to the cooling quality of the house. Fish and water are prosperous symbols in Chinese iconography, and these beautiful ponds were often decorated with murals where the rainwater from above would flow from sculpted fish mouths after the pipes had been carefully fed through the exterior walls.
Example of where a (now filled-in) water feature would have been at the foot of an airwell. Photo from a shophouse on Church Street.
The floors would have been made from warm Malaccan terracotta tiles, edged in granite –- which symbolises permanency and solidity in Chinese culture –- where the air well came in. These terracotta tiles would be laid straight on to the earth, meaning you can literally lift them up from the ground due to the lack of concrete. This wasn’t done for speed or cost. “They actually have an ecological value as, because they are porous, the cool moisture of the earth rises through and keeps the tiles cool”, says Julian.
Baba House: The Shophouse Museum
So scarce are these features now that a museum was created to preserve the original features, “Baba House”, as it is known, has been in one Peranakan family for over 100 years and has been preserved in its original state since 1988. Located at 157 Neil Road, it was bought by the National University to showcase how the Peranakans lived their lives.
Baba House, the shophouse museum, is located at 157 Neil Road.
“The Peranakan people were a hybrid of Chinese and Malay. Because they lived on the Straits Settlements for hundreds of years, this also meant that they picked up European sensibilities as well”, Julian explains. This resulted in a very fusion interior design style, which you can see at Baba House.
Baba House is officially a townhouse, not a shophouse, having three stories rather than the original two. The Peranakan houses had the air well in the centre, which, combined with the tiles, meant the houses were always cool. However, the house has preserved the cultural history of the Peranakan people and the heritage of their houses’ original interior. The tiles even contain a print from a dog that must have run over them whilst still wet –- now preserved for over 100 years!
Are Shophouses Disappearing?
Very little is actually known about the people that lived in the shophouses, or, as Julian discovered, about the people that created them. One man, Wee Teck Moh, whom Julian calls the “Shophouse King”, worked from 1890 to 1911 and created hundreds of shophouses (among other forms of architecture). All that is known of him now though is a name on the architectural specifications –- a signature.