10 Nov 2016: Shophouse / Townhouse: Asian Perspectives

The shophouse typology is a quintessential urban vernacular form in Southeast Asia. It is an ubiquitous architectural form that has assumed diverse appearances and meanings.

Shophouses are a familiar sight throughout Asia ‒ they are found in India, Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Hong Kong. In Malaysia, for example, shophouses once served as both business outlets and living quarters, but recent adaptive rehabilitation has reduced their use in the latter. Although shophouses primarily function as commercial outlets these days, they remain very much a quintessential urban vernacular form for many Asian cities, and the community’s way of life represents an intricately balanced culmination of different cultures living together in relation to their surroundings and  social structure. In the post-war years, however, the shophouse was seen as a bane ‒ an obstacle to physical and economic development. Against the threats posed by these perceptions, there is also a trend towards its celebration in the media and in magazines as a continuity of the past, an old “way of life”, a purveyor of cultural-social mores, and a moral form of slow architecture (requiring low energy inputs) against an age of conspicuous consumption and speed.

The study of shophouses from both an architectural as well as a social perspective makes itself worthy of further exposition beyond architectural history. This is where our featured book this week Shophouse/Townhouse: Asian Perspectives ‒ containing broad considerations of the “issues” of the shophouse, taken longitudinally and cross-sectionally ‒ provides an opportune first step towards further studies.

There is much to be learned from the ‘humble’ shophouse, such as the differences between the high and low forms, the variations resulting from their governance and geographical distributions, and the effects of culture and technology on their reception and making. The sumptuously-illustrated book is divided into two sections. The first part focuses on shophouse types, variants and histories; the second part, particularly pertinent in this day and age, discusses documentation, restoration and adaptive reuse. Reinvigorating old buildings to meet the demands and trends of contemporary lifestyles forces the issue of balancing respect for the past with the integrity of present needs. While commercial activities for shophouses could accommodate a wide latitude of changes, the conservation of traditional townhouses, though a matter of the “private realm,” is often subjected to greater “public” scrutiny.

The endeavour to create this book has been a decade old in the making and involved bringing scholars together from diverse backgrounds to look at various aspects of this vernacular form. Over a period of seven years, beginning in 2006, the Singapore-based Tan Chin Tuan Foundation endowed five month-long research expeditions that brought students from both University Malaya and National University of Singapore to Malacca/Penang (2007), Kuching (2008), Kuala Terengganu (2009), Taiping (2010), Muar (2011), and Ipoh (2012). These expeditions allowed the UM–NUS researchers to compile numerous case studies of the urban shophouse and townhouse and to gain a deeper understanding of its urban morphology and social dimensions. The resulting ten core essays from the expedition, supported by eight more carefully solicited essays, will provide invaluable comparative details.

According to the book’s editors Wong Yunn Chii and Johannes Widodo, both eminent academics at the National University of Singapore, this anthology will have met its primary objective if it has spurred the reader’s interest to re-look at the shophouse/townhouse the next time they take a stroll through the older precincts of Asia.

Other titles you will find interesting from Areca Books: Returning Taiping: The Town of Tin, Rain, Commerce, Leisure and Heritage and Encounters with Ipoh: Familiar Spaces, Untold Stories are also available. For a useful handbook on the shophouse, see Tan Yeow Wooi’s Penang Shophouses: A Handbook of Features and Materials.