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Because of the colonial rule in Asia, particularly South East Asia, it created a lot of fusion of cultures which is unique in this region. Since food has been covered extensively in many food blogs, I shall write about architecture, which is harder to access and more difficult to understand.

Just a short history lesson to put the better put the timeline in perspective.

A brief history of the Straits Settlements

The Straits Settlement consists of a group of British colonised located in Singapore and Malaysia. Originally established in 1826 as part of the territories controlled by the British East India Company, the Straits Settlements came under direct British control as a Crown colony on 1 April 1867.

The Straits Settlements and Malaya in: Colonial naval culture and ...

Map of the Straits Settlement (Source: https://www.manchesterhive.com/)

The Straits Settlement consists of a group of British colonised territories located in Singapore and Malaysia. Originally controlled by the British East India Company, the Straits Settlements came under direct British control as a Crown colony on 1 April 1867.

The Straits Settlements originally consisted of the four individual settlements of PenangSingaporeMalacca, and Dinding. However, the latter wasn’t as successful as the other 3.

Brief History of Melaka (Malacca)

The Portuguese came, saw and conquered Malacca in 1511 and prosper under Portuguese rule until the Dutch came into the picture in 1641. With the help of the Sultan of Johor (descended from a Malaccan Sultan), the Dutch captured the port and ruled over it until 1798. Malacca was ceded to the British under an exchange programme for Batavia (Jakarta) In Indonesia.

Brief History of Penang

Fort Cornwallis, in the heart of George Town, was constructed at the spot where Francis Light first set foot on Penang Island.

In the 1770s, the British East India Company instructed Francis Light to establish trade relations in the Malay Peninsula. Light subsequently landed in Kedah, which at that point was threatened by both Siam and Burma, as well as an internal Bugis rebellion.

Aware of this situation, Light formed friendly relations with the then Sultan of Kedah, Sultan Muhammad Jiwa Zainal Adilin II and promised British military protection. As part of his promises, Light assisted in the quelling of the Bugis revolt by recapturing a Bugis-held fort for the Sultan. The Sultan reciprocated by offering Penang Island to Light.

A brief History of Singapore

Sir Stamford Raffles landed in Singapore on 29 January 1819. Recognising the potential of the island, he helped negotiate a treaty with the local rulers and established Singapore as a trading station. The city quickly grew as an entrepot trade hub, attracting immigrants from China, India, the Malay Archipelago and beyond.

The Shophouses of Southeast Asia

To houses new immigrants at these settlements,, there was a great shift in architectural types from very traditional houses at “kampong” of “attap houses” to brick houses. As structure town planning is implemented, the colonial masters brought in their expertise in buildings these town and shophouses.

Most have typical narrow frontages and (usually) multiple storeys, were always designed as terraced housing – cheap, mass-produced identical dwellings built in long rows, which stretched for whole city blocks. These are planned with very practical reasons. For instance, 2 rows of shophouses may back to back to  each other, with an alleyway down the middle (you will see a lot of these in the conserved shophouses in Boat Quay) where the nightsoil men could haul away the pans and buckets of human waste.

Now classic shophouses of Southeast Asia, found all over Malaysia, Singapore and other countries in the region (for the style was popular, and widely copied) were made up of a mix of European and Asian design styles.

It takes an expert to tell the structural differences between the Dutch and British-style buildings, like brick works, but you can spot the differences visually too.

Mish-mash of Styles: Dutch, British, Chinese and more.

Shophouses in Malacca.

Shophouses in Malacca: You will notice that building is long. In the case, the last houses has the privilege of windows which are usually lacking for houses in the middle of the row of terrace homes. You can also spot Chinese-style circle windows too.

  • Narrow Long Terrace Houses – These shophouses are deceptively large because their length. This was due to how the dutch tax based on the frontage of the house, rather than the land area. That is also why most of these are 2-storeys tall. Terrace housing is cheap, practical and quick to build lots of these houses during these times.
  • Interior – The interior layout of the house and the ordering of the rooms was dictated by traditional Chinese house-plans, dating back to the days of the ‘siheyuan’ (four-sided courtyard-houses of ancient China).
    • Townhouses – Upon opening of the doors, this is where you receive your guests. Beyond this would be a secondary room, which would serve as a sitting room. Close family friends, visiting relations, or good business-partners might be invited in here to relax and chat. The bedrooms are up in the 2nd floor for practical reasons. The kitchen, bathroom and toilet is usually right at the back. At the very back of the house would be the kitchen, bathroom, and toilet.
    • Shophouses – The lower floor is dedicated for business while the upper floors are bedrooms.
  • Main Structure – symmetry front to the back is typical of the Chinese buildings.
  • Entrance – The facade were typically Chinese in style or inspiration – such as decorative nameplates and calligraphy panels around the doors, and the symmetrical layout of the doors and windows facing the street.
  • Louvers windows – Windows, with holes which allow air to flow through but tilted to prevent people from looking in directly and brickwork were building styles and methods used in Europe, particularly the dutch. This provides ventilation mostly on the upper floors, while providing some sort of privacy for residents.
  • Fan Light – The semi-circle structure above the windows is of dutch-influence.   These let light comes into the room even when the windows are closed.
  • Variations – Why are there so many variations of the windows, air-vents, etc for these houses? There are many Chinese from many different regions hence each has their own differences in terms of “fengshui” and culture.
  • Air well – Like a Chinese style ‘siheyuan’, you will find a central countyard. Because of the narrow structure, this central countyard doesn’t have left and right rooms flanking  it. This air-well to allow light and air to come in, creating ventilation. This is usually right in the middle of the long house providing light reflected into the whole house. Rainwater was usually collected in a pool or pond, or was used to water plants. Fish might be kept in the airwell pond, as pets. There may be a well even to collect water.
A well which is share between a neighbour!

A well which is share between a neighbour! This is probably an example of a middle class family, not rich enough for a full well.

  • Air-vents – The terrace design meant that there are lack of windows on the sides. Hence, you will spot airholes at the front of the houses near the ceiling to improve ventilation. Since the Straits Settlement are primarily by the sea and with houses built near the ports, these air-vents provided the natural air-condition to allow air to come in.
  • 5-foot-way – Based on Raffles’ Jackson Plan, the 5-foot-way is a covered walkway at street-level provided by the 2nd floor of the house. This would protect pedestrians from the heat, sun, rain and filth on the streets, and provide then with a safe, sheltered and paved area in which to walk. Although they were called ‘five foot ways’, their width could vary anywhere from five to even eight feet across.
  • Peep-hole – This interesting feature about shophouses is for practical reasons! This is usually a square cut-out on the 2nd floor, looking down on the 5-foot-way below. This peep-hole was so that you could see who your visitor is or suspicious people loitering around your shop. It is the CCTV of the past! Perhaps owners could drop money down to hawkers without leaving their room.

British Style Houses vs Dutch Style Houses.

Looking at the timeline,

  • Dutch was the probably the most earliest and perhaps the influential building style- This is evidence in the styles in Malacca in terms of brickwork of the systems.
  • The large number of Chinese migrants has a major influence in the Chinese style of the buildings.
  • Some of these technique were probably brought over by merchants to Penang as the British built infrastructure as the town bloomed. (Prisoners were also brought over to assist in the town building.)
  • Raffles having lived and worked in Penang (1805) and Malacca probably took the successful elements of these buildings and implement them in the Jackson town plan (1822, implemented later in 1828) in Singapore.

What are Peranakan-style Shophouses

The term Peranakan generally refers to people of mixed Chinese and Malay/Indonesian heritage.

Traditional terraced Peranakan townhouses.

Due to mix in culture, the exterior as well as the interior of the house would be tiled in exquisite imported colourful tiles and mosaic using broken ceramics. There may be elaborate 3D motifs which are very typical of Chinese-style buildings. The houses were often painted with bright colours and patterns. The family’s value printed on a plaque may be placed above the front door, while prosperous sayings may be sculpted on both sides of the front door.


Sculpture of the Eight immortals crossing the sea at the Ledge of a East Indie Mansion in Penang.

These probably evolved when you have to blag about how you are living well. Lacking social media, decorating of houses is how people in the olden times show your riches to your neighbours.

Some of the sculptures are very interesting with a interesting mix of cultures. There was one shophouse in Balestier which had picture of Sikh guards.  This probably played similar roles as the statues at Bukit Brown cemetery, to scare away burglars, while still wanting to show off their wealth.

What about Tan Kah Kee-Style Houses?

Is this type of building style, Tan Kah Kee-style?

Tan Kah Kee (21 October 1874 – 12 August 1961) is a businessman from Amoy (Xiamen) who made his riches in Singapore. He firmly believed in education. His philanthropic activities was evident in the various schools, which he donated to built in South East Asia and China, like Xiamen University.

Hence this style is named after him. The Tan Kah Kee-Style architecture are unique in that they are european buildings with Chinese roofs. Imagine a “ang-mo”(westerner) wearing a Chinese hat. Having spent most of his years in Singapore, Tan Kah Kee’s influence by the British-style architecture has profound effects in the schools which he supported to build, like NTU and Jimei School.

You will notice that Chinese roofs tends to be intricately designed with motifs of animals and dragons. However, these most of European style buildings in the Straits Settlement are lacking that, especially those built in the early 1800s. This was probably due to practical reasons of providing shelter for people, rather than aesthetic purposes.

Hence this Tan Kah Kee style is quite different

Conclusion of about these shophouses at the Straits Settlement

Although the layout is more Chinese than British or Dutch, these shophouses fused the practicality as well as functionality to the region to be unique, not found anywhere around the world. The evolution of the culture and status of these houses makes this one-of-a-kind and not to be missed if you were to visit these places.