The word ‘shop-house’ may have first appeared as early as 1884. In the Penang Administration Report of that year, in Proceedings of the Straits Settlement, reads: “In the Market Square is a small drinking fountain, together with a few shop-houses, and a spacious bathing house”. Even earlier in 1793, Francis Light used the term “shop and house...as belonging to Chee Ean Chinaman” in Penang.
Francis Light: ‘Founder’ of Penang’
Shop-house is probably based on a literal translation of Chinese colloquial terms. The Chinese characters for shop house are “店屋” - in Hokkien dialect, tiam chu, in Cantonese, tim ok and in Mandarin dian wu.
This building type originated from various sources. The influence of Chinese migrants from Fujian and Guangdong is widely acknowledged. Shop-houses that date back to the 13th century have been found in rural areas or towns such as southern Chinese Treaty Ports showing similarities to the South East Asian shop-houses in floor plan, construction and iconography of their decoration (Tjoa-Bonatz, 1998). The Chinese were predominant in the building industry: the East India Company brought in skilled brick-layers from China in 1788 to build public buildings. As described by Francis Light: “....they possess the different trades of carpenters, masons and smiths, are shopkeepers and planters...”
The influence of colonial administration is also acknowledged and is particularly well documented. The earliest town planning codes - The Royal Ordinances of Phillip II in 1573 for Manila and the “New World”– set down that the main “... plaza and the four main streets diverging from it shall have arcades....”
In Singapore 1822, Raffles instituted guidelines for the Town Building Committee which he formed which stipulated that:
“All houses constructed of brick or tiles have a uniform type of front each having a verandah of a certain depth, open to all sides as a continuous and open passage on each side of the street”(S.H.Lim, 1993).
Stamford Raffles: ’Founder’ of Singapore
Municipal regulations were strengthened with the India Act of 1856, and the subsequent Amended Indian Conservancy Act of 1879, enacted for India and its ‘stations’ in the Straits of Malacca. Submission of proper building plans and specifications became mandatory. The provision of footways in front of the buildings was specified in accordance with typical practice in India - even though the provision of a verandah was not mentioned, neither was it precluded. The Acts also conferred public right–of-way to footways and empowered Municipal Commissioners to remove any obstruction and encroachment.
More regulatory measures followed with the Municipal Ordinance of 1887 which allowed for the setting up of Municipal Councils, defining town limits and enforcing building regulations for town buildings, including the provision of regular frontages and verandahs. This was followed up with individual States their own regulations enacting: Selangor in 1897, Perak in 1893, Penang in 1905, and Singapore in 1908. The by-law for verandahs became standardized as follows:
Every person who shall erect a building which abut on any street or road shall provide a verandah-way or an uncovered footway of the width of at least seven feet measuring from the boundary of the road or from the drain....and the footway within any verandah-way must be at least five feet in the clear.
The Chinese owners and builders undoubtedly brought with them the knowledge and experience from where they came; they had given the shop-house its initial form, and later continued to influence its evolving shape. However, it was the Municipal Regulations under the British Administration that had the decisive influence in making the building-type dominant. The by-laws made it mandatory for town buildings which abut each other to adhere to a prescribed regular form. The laws coerced proprietors to build the five-footways which were in effect a public right of way on private property. Even though this was not an easy thing to do, there was sufficient benefit to the public: the colonial authorities felt sufficiently justified to ensure the five-footways were not only built, but were kept unobstructed.
Regulations transformed the prototype into archetype, and the shop-house became a prominent and ubiquitous characteristic of the urban landscape. By the Second World War, almost every town in Malaysia and Singapore already had one or more streets lined with the characteristic shop-houses.
The implementation of municipal regulations that spanned Malaysia and Singapore had resulted in a fairly uniform urban streetscape unique to the region. The old shop-house buildings and streets that are still standing today are an important heritage, and give our towns a sense of place and history: they each tell a story that link to our past.
Shop-Houses, from 1786 to 1866
Singapore from Government Hill looking south. From J.T. Thompson (1846)
Singapore Town from Pearl’s Hill looking east
Street in Penang in 1862. From Stephen White: John Thompson – Life and Photographs
Shop-Houses, from 1867 to 1926:
Jalan Gelanggang, Malacca
Jalan Menteri, Georgetown, Penang
Lahat Road, Ipoh
Kuala Lumpur, near Central Market
Jericho road Singapore, Architect/Engineer: H.R> Arbenz EPZ
Lorong Telok, Singapore, Architect/Engineer: Ho Kwong Yew
References: Jon S.H.Lim, "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.
Mai-Lin Tjoa-Bonatz, "Ordering of housing and the Urbanization Process: Shophouses in Colonial Penang", Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Volume LXXI Part 2, 1998, pp 122-136.