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What is a Shophouse?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HomeQuestionsAnswered researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By manykitties2 — On Sep 29, 2011

If you are going to be in a place like Malaysia for a long time, do you think it is a good idea to look at shophouses for sale, or would it be better to find a shophouse for rent? I really like the idea of having a home that is separated into different areas.

I always have my own small business, so having a downstairs to work from would be ideal. I am just not sure if it is worth the money to invest in a shophouse if I am going to just be in an area for a year or two.

By wander — On Sep 29, 2011

I have been traveling a lot through Asia and the shophouses have been converted into all sorts of things. I recently stayed in one that had been converted into a hostel, and I must say, the rooms were absolutely tiny.

I think if you want to rent rooms in a shophouse you should really check out the place first. The one dorm I was in had barely enough room to squeeze between all of the beds. It was a nightmare with everyone's luggage tossed around.

While staying in a shophouse hostel was a novel idea, I am not sure I would do it again because I really like my personal space.

By SteamLouis — On Sep 29, 2011

@alisha-- If you'd like to see many shophouses, you must go to Penang Island in Malaysia.

Due to growing economies and wealth, many of the Southeast Asian countries are rebuilding their cities and towns. Many shophouses have been demolished for new buildings to be made in their place. If you had visited smaller towns, I'm sure you would have seen more shophouses, but for the most part they are totally gone in the cities.

Penang Island is really different though. Basically all of the shophouses remain, people still live and work in them and take care of them well. If you have an opportunity to visit Malaysia, make sure to see George Town on Penang Island.

Whenever I go home to Malasia, I go to Penang Island to see relatives. I love being there because there is so much history, it has a very different feel and the shophouses contribute a lot.

By discographer — On Sep 28, 2011

I've been to Hong Kong, Singapore and Bangkok but I didn't see many shophouses in any of these places. I think I saw a really old one in Bangkok, although I didn't realize at the time that it is a shophouse. I just remember that it looked very out of place with all the modern, high buildings around.

I didn't visit any of the small towns though, I was mainly in the big cities so maybe that's the reason. Where in Southeast Asia are shophouses still prevalent? I would definitely like to see more of them next time I go.

By fify — On Sep 28, 2011

I just read in the news that a very popular American restaurant chain is getting ready to start a new one on the theme of 'shophouse.' The article didn't say anything about the architecture, which might not be finalized yet, but I think it will a replication of Southeast Asian shophouses.

The food will also be Southeast Asian and there are rumors that the name of the restaurant will also be 'shophouse'. I can't wait to see it and eat there. It will be interesting to experience that culture, even if it is somewhat Americanized. I don't have plans to visit Southeast Asia so this might be the closes thing to an actual shophouse that I will get to see.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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