A shophouse is a structure with some specific architectural traits characteristic of Southeast Asia during the colonial era. Shophouses were built in large numbers from the 19th century through the early 20th century and although many were demolished during 20th century rebuilds, some have persisted. Today, they are considered an iconic example of Southeastern Asian architecture from this period. Similar structures can be seen in other regions of the world, including parts of Latin America and the Caribbean islands.
The shophouse has a number of features which make it distinctive. The structure is two to three stories in height, with a narrow face and a long length. The bottom floor has been designed to accommodate a commercial enterprise such as a shop, a restaurant, or a light manufacturing facility, while the upper floor or floors are intended for residential use.
Historically, shophouses could be used by several families or converted for use as dormitories. So-called “chophouses” were shophouses which were heavily modified to accommodate large groups of people. These structures were often highly unsanitary and characterized by a warren of small rooms and cubbies used by the residents.
The shophouse is designed to be built in a terraced design, with a row of shophouses abutting each other along a street. Each shophouse shares walls with the neighboring structures. An overhang at the front of the house extends the living quarters and creates a covered arcade. This arcade is known as the “five foot way,” and was in fact required by building code in some Southeast Asian cities historically.
Although the five foot way belongs to the shophouse, it is a public walkway which can be used by passerby. It provides shelter from the fierce tropical sun and periodic rainstorms characteristic of the region, making it highly practical. Internal courtyards and ventilation shafts in the rear of the shophouse allow light and air to penetrate so that the structure does not become oppressive or stuffy, while shutters can be used to protect the windows during heavy weather and to control the flow of air through the shophouse.
Today, shophouses continue to be used as mixed work/live buildings in some parts of Southeast Asia. In the architectural community, there is also a lively business in purchasing run-down structures and refurbishing them for residential use. Redone shophouses can fetch a high price on the real estate market in some areas of Southeast Asia.