If you want to see dozens of beautiful examples of traditional Singapore shophouse architecture, it’s worth heading to the tiny neighborhood now known as Blair Plain.
In the early 1990s, Singapore was in the middle of a giant tear-down-the-old, put-up-the-new enterprise. Fortunately, the old houses of Blair, Everton, Spottiswoode, Kampong Bahru, and Neil Roads were all protected under the umbrella of the Blair Plain Conservation Area. This means that you can now see shophouses from a range of eras, starting with the simple, short, two-story affairs of the Early era on Kampong Bahru. Just around the corner, shophouses of the early 1900s First Transitional style stand on Spottiswoode Road:
On Blair Road, you can see that the many ways in which the builders of the Late Shophouse style went all out, adding elaborate ornamentation …
… including wild and intricate plasterwork:
The late 1930s saw a move to a bit more restraint, as builders in the Second Transitional style pulled back on the ornamentation.
The 1930s also saw the introduction of the Art Deco shophouse (here on Everton Road, in an unusual hybrid, you can see Art Deco mixed with a bit of Arts & Crafts):
There are some unusual shophouses in Blair Plain, like this one at 59 Blair Road, built on a trapezoid-shaped lot with a Venetian-style loggia …
… and this amazing example at 66 Spottiswoode Road, which boasts the only known 19th-century Chinese fresco in Singapore:
The fanciest shophouses of Blair Plain front busy Neil Road …
There’s so much to look at in these shophouses. For starters, there’s the amazing plasterwork:
While floral, fruit, and scrollwork were the norm, you can also find lots of animal images. But this is the only plaster design I’ve seen with fish:
Then there are the tiles. Made in Europe and a favorite with the early 20th century Peranakans, they might be set into the second-story facades of the most heavily ornamented buildings …
… or set along the base of the first story facade in slightly more modest Late and Second Transitional homes:
These tile are everywhere (and as you can see in the peacock tiles, some have been updated for modern tastes).
Another distinctive feature of many shophouses is the pintu pagar, or swinging door:
Vents over the first-floor windows were often shaped like stylized bat wings (bats, representing prosperity and longevity, are an auspicious symbol in Chinese culture — you can see the same shape in the green panels of the doors above):
Some houses have scrollwork rather than vents above the windows.
A few of the very wealthiest homes were ornamented with jian nan, ceramic pieces broken up and made into figurines:
These jian nan decorations are usually found just above the tile canopy, between the first and second floors.
Wooden carvings also made their way into the occasional building design.
I was a huge fan of this gate on Neil Road, which features a bat motif:
While the rest of the house might have ornamentation nearly everywhere, windows with simple wooden shutters were the norm on the second floor …
… though the top circlet of very small windows might be set with stained glass:
Back on the ground floor, most shophouses were set back from the street by the five foot way, a covered area that would protect passers-by from the sun and the rain.
Terra cotta tiles were used as flooring in Singapore’s earlier five foot ways …
… but the early 1990s saw a move to encaustic tiles, cement, and mosaic — all highly decorated. Some five foot ways are still a riot of color and pattern:
Families with more money set their homes further back from the street — so rather than five foot ways, they had front entrance areas hidden behind gates (note the nontraditional color scheme below — historically, shophouses were pretty much all white, indigo, or some pastel hue):
These front areas were once used to welcome guests and keep the hustle and bustle of the city streets at a distance. Now many of them are either car parking areas or tranquil sitting spots.
Many shophouses were not just residential; instead, they housed businesses on the first floor (this is still often the case in Singapore today, though it’s rare in Blair Plain).
As a side note, if you want to see scenes of Peranakan life, you can stroll by the neighborhood’s three Yip Yew Chong’s murals. Here is a traditional kitchen scene:
His work will also give you a glimpse into what life on the street would have looked like in mid-20th century Singapore, with amahs doing their washing …
… hawkers strolling by with snacks …
… and barbers plying their trade right out on the sidewalk:
Want to see more shophouses? Head to Chinatown, Emerald Hill or Joo Chiat for many other great examples!