As dawn breaks on Emerald Hill, just off the famed Orchard Road, dappled sunlight shines on rows of pastel- and cream-colored shophouse façades amid flowering trees and tweeting birds in what was once a nutmeg plantation. It’s magical, really: peaceful, refreshing and not too hot, it’s a perfect time to visit.
Built in sporadic stages after 1900, these constructions, many of which display architectural award plaques, are icons of the colonial era. While their styles range from Transitional (pre-Gothic) to Art Deco, they mesh together well thanks to codified guidelines outlined by Sir Stamford Raffles in his first town plan of 1822.
Shophouse architecture is a seamless melding of Eastern and Western building styles. Late-style façades, like those on Emerald Hill, feature Chinese porcelain tiles and batwing-shaped air vents, Malay timber fretwork, French windows, Portuguese shutters and Corinthian pilasters. They are narrow and terraced, squeezed into contiguous blocks with common party walls, and often feature a sheltered “five-feet way” at the front that serves as a pedestrian path between the home and the street. Original interiors have water features and open-air courtyards that bring light and air to otherwise dark center spaces. Prized for their myriad architectural elements, shophouses fascinate tenants, owners, tourists and history buffs.
Though once ubitiquitous on the island, many shophouses were bulldozed after Singapore gained independence in 1965 to make way for sprawling blocks of public housing and office skyscrapers. Those 6,000 that remain – in distinct commercial and residential districts on the island – are gazetted under strict conservation guidelines.
While the terraced homes on Emerald Hill were designed for residential use only, most others accommodated a business on the ground floor, with one or two floors of living quarters above. Today, it’s either one or the other: shophouse residential districts such as Emerald Hill, Cairnhill, Joo Chiat, Geylang and Tiong Bahru lie outside the downtown core, while their commercial counterparts – Chinatown, Duxton Hill and Tanjong Pagar – squeeze inside, surrounded by myriad contemporary towers.