The Shophouses of Blair Plain

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.

F3E55450-6204-4C77-AA87-3D7D7AD3D9A4_1_201_a

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:

56DC6FD0-55D9-4678-B841-565A6F938427_1_201_a

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 …

79889636-E7D9-444E-906F-83F6D139F28D_1_201_a

DF37282E-53B2-4E92-BFCD-3238A8DC182A_1_201_a

… including wild and intricate plasterwork:

5487FCC5-6F47-4101-8300-DF0B54A38111_1_201_a

The late 1930s saw a move to a bit more restraint, as builders in the Second Transitional style pulled back on the ornamentation.

IMG_2360

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):
896AF42C-6A95-4DDB-9031-61FCDC5C98CD_1_201_a

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 …

8AA079AC-8930-44DC-AAF6-3F5B8C6A04A1_1_201_a

… and this amazing example at 66 Spottiswoode Road, which boasts the only known 19th-century Chinese fresco in Singapore:

68A3CE1A-C40B-4571-86BF-6CE2E6EE4B20_1_201_a

The fanciest shophouses of Blair Plain front busy Neil Road …

4CBFFE3B-2C17-468F-9818-8702E87AC192_1_201_a

… and if you make an appointment, you can visit Baba House, a shophouse museum that shows visitors how wealthy Peranakan merchants would have lived in the early- to mid-1900s.

D16D0E98-791B-4F8B-B9FD-D52E1FC654D4_1_201_a

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:

F9E426FA-6116-4685-A66C-579E9A4732F8_1_201_aThen 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 …

IMG_2408

26B84AA8-EDC5-4F5E-A176-0E39DEE04821_1_201_a

… or set along the base of the first story facade in slightly more modest Late and Second Transitional homes:

D9A9A4D0-2D80-4CC8-9D9A-C25763F472E7_1_201_a

These tile are everywhere (and as you can see in the peacock tiles, some have been updated for modern tastes).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Another distinctive feature of many shophouses is the pintu pagar, or swinging door:

E41C5BAB-E998-45D3-9839-B422A1C94B77_1_201_a

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):

7E3AC19E-09DA-441D-9DE7-F3C0708BABB0_1_201_a

Some houses have scrollwork rather than vents above the windows.

C7A68DE7-E269-488A-9964-F84A8E725E4A_1_201_a3D289F54-74FB-45AB-80CB-79E454D23D50_1_201_a

A few of the very wealthiest homes were ornamented with jian nan, ceramic pieces broken up and made into figurines:

00528D66-F5E7-4FB4-A246-3A1A389E467A_1_201_a

These jian nan decorations are usually found just above the tile canopy, between the first and second floors.

E8DB0CF1-5E76-4FC0-AA02-4AF1932D6984_1_201_a

Wooden carvings also made their way into the occasional building design.

IMG_2358

I was a huge fan of this gate on Neil Road, which features a bat motif:

IMG_2395

While the rest of the house might have ornamentation nearly everywhere, windows with simple wooden shutters were the norm on the second floor …

AB13E130-71C9-4CF9-B4EE-19D68CE2468B_1_201_a

… though the top circlet of very small windows might be set with stained glass:

IMG_2390

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.

83E282E4-9B8D-43BA-B451-38B9330D0BF8_1_201_a

Terra cotta tiles were used as flooring in Singapore’s earlier five foot ways …

688F3885-5A41-4286-91CD-16D16C6287B1_1_201_a

… 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:

66DCA52F-3DCA-4C40-A87F-ED680A7178B0_1_201_a

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):

IMG_2326

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.

401F6B50-265A-429C-B74C-DB59045E4F4A_1_201_a

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).

IMG_2376

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:

D9B71C36-8826-4581-AF58-96F04877ED57_1_201_a

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 …

4C393790-6ACA-4B5A-AEE2-1AA7176B5E1F_1_201_a

… hawkers strolling by with snacks …

81DC8ED6-9910-4962-B924-4C6E144C2DCB_1_201_a

… and barbers plying their trade right out on the sidewalk:

27B68FD0-4EE2-4099-AFC7-284E0AD192D4_1_201_a

Want to see more shophouses? Head to Chinatown, Emerald Hill or Joo Chiat for many other great examples!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s