A history of shophouses, one of Singapore’s most distinctive forms of housing.
A shophouse has at least two storeys. It may have had a dual commercial and private purpose, the owner conducting business on the ground level and living upstairs. When, as in this case, both levels are designed for living in, it is often called a terrace house.
The name Cairnhill is a derivation of the name of the man who built the first house in that area, Charles Carnie, in 1848. He was the owner of a nutmeg plantation on a hill near the Orchard Road area, and the hill on which he built his house became known as Carnie’s Hill. In 1884, the house was demolished to make way for a bank, and after that a number of big mansions and Peranakan shophouses were built, some of which still exist.
Who are the Peranakans? The word Peranakan is interchangeable with Straits Chinese, and refers to the descendants of early Chinese settlers. Another term is Nyonya, which refers to female Chinese descendents, but is also used to describe the distinctive Chinense-Malay cuisine.
The earliest of these settlers were 500 young Chinese men who accompanied Princess Hang Li Po of China when she was given in marriage to the Sultan of Malacca during the 15th century; the men settled on a hill called Bukit Cina and married local women. Another source were early Chinese immigrants who intermarried with the local non-Muslim Malays, including the Javanese, Balinese, Amboynes and Bataks who were brought to Malaya by the Dutch during the 17th century. Peranakan culture is distinguished by a unique cuisine, dress, and marriage and other social rituals, is a fascinating blend of their Chinese and Malay heritage.
During the colonial period, the Peranakan Chinese identified with the Dutch and then British colonisers, flourished in business and embraced all things Western. They tended to live either in Western-style bungalows or villas, or in shophouses of the architectural style known as Straits Eclectic, which were built between about 1900 and 1940. The elegant interior would have been richly furnished with antique Chinese furniture, often inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and decorated with expensive porcelain ornaments and distinctively colourful Nyonya crockery.
For more, visit the Peranakan Museum at 39 Armenian Street, or www.peranakanmuseum.sg
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