peculiar shophouses in indonesia: types, variants, and context



Shophouses/ townhouses are ‘grown’ out of particular conditioning; street activities, intended function, plot size and shape, regulations, climate, availability of building materials, availability of skilled labors and craftsmanship, or influences from local building traditions and techniques. They are heavily reliant on changing urban regulations, redevelopments, racial policy of the colonial period, changing economic significance of the cities, land values, changing architectural styles and meanings, and social/ cultural background of the inhabitants. Therefore we are actually expecting typological diversity, along with their changing significance and meanings over time. Based on extensive inventory surveys on three Indonesian cities; Bogor, Cirebon, and Bandung; this paper describes some cases of peculiar shophouse/ townhouse types, and relates those features with their urban historical contexts.

As a subject, ‘shophouse’ architectural typology is often approached as a unit that constitutes Southeast Asian urban morphology, especially in the coastal cities. Its origin is also associated historically with the influx of the Chinese to the south and maritime trade since as early as  the 14th century. Within this view, these events had brought distinct vernacular tradition of South Chinese coastal towns to Southeast Asia. Since then, the idea of commercial port cities had been shared and developed for centuries throughout the archipelago. Here shophouse types in Indonesia are explained with this perspective.

As a tradition, a building type, we usually identify ‘shophouse’ as appear in particular following characters; relatively narrow frontage/ facade, long/ deep plot, features an opened courtyard between twin gabled roofs, and some other characteristics. Shophouses in northern tip of Sumatera (Aceh, Padang, Medan) are similar to the ones we find in the Strait Settlements, as they probably were originated mostly from the same period (19th century), and recognized as a ‘mature type’ with all the distinctive elements. The five-foot-way is one of the unmistakable ‘mature’ characters for this region. In Singapore and Malaysia, due to heritage preservation, we probably recognized that those characteristics are legally recognized and officiated.

However, as a shared tradition, ‘shophouse’ types are also pretty much a evolving one. So we might expect to find enormous variants and types of the ‘shophouses’ within the region. They are ‘grown’ out of particular conditioning; street activities, intended function, plot size and shape, regulations, climate, availability of building materials, availability of skilled labors and craftsmanship, or influences from local building traditions and techniques. Shophouses were also the products of their eras. Some were products of hundreds of years old of vernacular building practice, while some were no more than a hundred years old. Some were originally intact, some were heavily altered during the course of history. They are reliant on changing urban regulations, redevelopments, racial policy of the colonial period, changing economic significance of the cities, land values, changing architectural styles and meanings, and social/ cultural background of the inhabitants. Therefore, if we are taking consideration the wide spread and long development of shophouse, we are actually expecting a wide range of types and variants, along with their changing significance and meanings. This all makes the study of shophouses as an interesting subject to explore and a very challenging one, especially for conservation practice.

In this paper, I am focussing on distinctive features and ‘anomalities’ of shophouses, and trying to relate those features with their urban historical contexts. This paper is based on a series of shophouse inventory surveys conducted in three different cities (2000-2004): Bogor, Bandung, and Cirebon, trying to explore the types and their evolutions seen from the urban morphological development.


Shophouse typology in Cirebon had flourished since early 15th century during the heyday of maritime trade. Cirebon was initially formed as an agglomeration of three coastal villages that supported logistics for Ming Dynasty vessels since as early as 1415. Talang, one of the village that located at the Bacin estuary, served as the port. It initially grew as a Muslim settlement but during 17th century it was developed as the first Chinese settlement. Shophouses flourished as the settlement grew westward along with the development of the Chinese quarter, native Hindu Pajajaran Kingdom (native village and palace 1445) and other ethnic settlements (the Arab in Panjunan) until 16th century, and later on 17th century the Dutch began establishing Cirebon as an important outpost by building a fort (1681) and European settlement. During this early period, shophouses might already be occupied by non-Chinese communities.

Cirebon had enjoyed an important status as one of the most important port cities in Jawa up to the end of colonial period before taken over by Jakarta and Surabaya during the post-colonial era. The introduction of the Great Post Road in early 19th century and railway connection with Semarang and Batavia (Jakarta) in the late 19th century were pushing the Cirebon urban development westward, expanding the existing commercial activities and Chinese quarters during early 20th century. There are some streets that host specific commodity wholesale trading activities, such as: Pekiringan Street for salted fish, Pekalipan Street for agricultural products (beans, rice, palm oil), etc.

In Cirebon, we recognized several distinct types of shophouses, but the type that caught most of my attention was the large type that was distributed along old primary streets [Fig.1 & Fig. 2]. Urban Chinese mansions are quite common in many prosperous coastal cities. However based on an artist impression dated 1850, the city was packed with this wide type. This indicates that Cirebon might be among the most properous cities in the region, and having a large shophouse was quite common among the Chinese community. Some are single-story (with attic), some are double-story. This type is wide, about 10-15 meters wide, many have 3-4 structural bays.

Unfortunately we can’t be certain about the typical layout, the plot depth, and the variants of the type since most of them were altered due to the change of ownership, subdivisions, renovations, demolition and lack of maintenance. The layout may vary but as far as we can assume the plan usually consists of the front facade (with or without the front veranda), the front house (usually a hall joined by smaller rooms), living quarter in the middle (usually a living/ dining room accompanied by a void or a courtyard, sometimes with bathrooms), and the back of the house. The fronts are usually changed due to subdivision of ownership or sub-rented as kiosks/ stores. The middle part varies. Common amenities such as sitting and dining room are common, while some include a grand hall for a family ancestral altar. The middle part is also often joined by several walled courtyards open to the sky, while some covered by roof. A side access, leads directly to the back, is another common feature. It might be functioning as entry for horse carriage carrying commodities in and out of the house.

The street widening project initiated in the 1970s had significant impacts to the shophouse facades and the streetscapes of Cirebon [Fig. 3]. Many shophouses were forced to cut their frontages about 5 meters and lost their original facades. Eventually, many shophouses facades have to be remodeled in rush and in the most practical and least expensive way. During that time many shophouse owners also took the opportunity to remodel the layouts of the shophouses; usually the bathrooms. The cement tiles were replaced with ceramic tiles, while new sanitary wares and modern plumbing and fittings were introduced. The result is significantly changing the streetscape, hiding what is still living inside the shophouses, and on how we appreciate the shophouses.


Bogor was developed as a plantation and hinterland outpost of Batavia, the capital, since as early as 17th century. It was originally christened as Buitenzorg, meaning ‘free from care’, by G.W. Baron van Imhoff in 1745. He took over a plot of land and built a plantation/ retreat house. After he became the governor general of the Dutch East India, he established Buitenzorg as the capital and sequentially the plantation house became the palace. However, the foundation as a modern city was only established after the establishment of the Great Post Road (1811) by the British-French occupation (1811-16). The road connects Bogor with Batavia and later on (1884) the newly established Bandung. By the late 19th century, the area was developed as private lands and eventually turned into a modern colonial city.

Apart its succesive role as a retreat resort and the capital for the governor-general, interestingly the city also grew as an important commodity distribution node for the Priangan area (West Jawa). The structure of the city is fairly simple. The Buitenzorg Palace was placed at an end of the axis of the Great Post Road facing north, at Batavia, while the Chinese quarter occupies the south part of the Great Post Road. The native was entitled to dwell downhill at the west side along with the Arab settlers, with an axis leads to the Palace.

Since then, new urban infrastructures, settlements and more colonial administrative buildings were introduced into the city. Without any significant local aristocratic culture – as compared to other capital cities – it seems that only the Dutch set the examples of ‘modern’ dwelling. Local prominent Peranakan community – mostly Dutch-educated – might have greatly influence the dwelling culture in introducing a new living standard as it shows a tendency to opt for Dutch lifestyles; plantation houses (landhuis) or villas with ‘tropical lifestyle’.

Until the early 20th century, the shophouses were only developed only within the market and temple precinct and along the first few hundred meters of the Great Post Road. This structure enabled typical shophouse plan to grow; narrow but elongated plots.

A unique feature that was commonly found in Bogor shophouses is actually the absence of the inner courtyard. The location of the courtyard is usually developed into a space which is closer to the idea of a modern living and dining room [Fig. 4 & Fig. 5]. The light well was covered by a roofing construction that still allows natural air and lights penetrating indirectly to the space beneath [Fig. 6]. Wet activities; such as bathing and cooking; were mostly moved to the backyard. Rain water is controlled by elaborate gutter construction. This might be influenced by a modern lifestyle and new standard of hygiene. And interestingly, this feature does not necessarily exist in prominent Chinese family houses only but also in smaller rental shophouses.

Another interesting case from Bogor is a townhouse that attempts to merge a Chinese shophouse typology with a free-standing landhuis typology [Fig. 7]. The design interestingly tried so hard to put a typical free standing villa into  a typical plot of a shophouse. As expected, typical features of Chinese shophouse typology are absent: there are no courtyards, kitchen and wet area are organized at the back, and leaving a narrow alley at the side as the source of fresh natural ventilation and light. Unfortunately this interesting townhouse might be the only one left in Bogor.


Slightly younger than Bogor, Bandung was initially a modern colonial city built deep in the hinterland of Priangan region. Early Bandung urban nucleus was only made up of some amenities established by the colonial government to support the town’s function as a plantation and distribution node of colonial export commodities. At this period, early 19th century, Bandung was simply a plantation estate dominated by rural landscape typology. After the Dutch finally opened up the region from monopoly isolation, Bandung grew as an important center and attracted new comers from nearby towns and regions. Many of them were Europeans, Chinese, Arab, and natives from Cirebon, Cianjur, Batavia (Jakarta), Bogor, etc. Due to its importance and friendly climate, Bandung was considered as a jewel for the Europeans and developed with care.

Shophouse development trend in Bandung had only begun during the late 19th century. Native merchants from nearby regions and cities were engaged in specific commodities trading for local consumption around the Pasar Baru area. They lived in shophouses which might be similar to those of Cirebon and nearby cities. These native merchants dominated craft and batik clothing trading (imported from Central Java). In this period, the Chinese population was very small and probably only made up of Peranakan families originated from nearby existing cities. They probably initially resided along Pecinan Lama Street, within the precinct of Pasar Baru. Therefore, the shophouse typology was not exclusively Chinese. During the turn of the century, the shophouses dominated only at the surrounding of Pasar Baru and some part of the western Great Post Road. Secondary streets were built accordingly to the orthogonal east-west axis and formed dense grid urban pattern.

During the 1920s, the Dutch municipal government imposed town planning guidelines concerning visual continuity of the street side buildings. Street side buildings were required to provide pedestrian walkway, canopy overhangs, and continuous façade. The guidelines regulated street sides and orderly building appearances similar to European urban streetscapes. Corner buildings were also required to have distinctive looks and appearance to ensure facade continuity within a block and to provide streets with ‘gateway’ nodes. As the result, shophouse facades along the Great Post Road tend to be more elaborated with details and permanent with the use of reinforced concrete than those along the secondary streets. Modern art-deco styling was the fashion. More interestingly, corner plot shophouses were required to give special articulation on their facades [Fig. 8]. Few corner shophouses[2] are simply common shophouses with facade treatment, but some are no longer carrying shophouse characteristics. Because of their strategic locations, many were tall, big, and some were even designed as corporate commercial buildings.

Contrary to the full attention given to the streetscape, the colonial municipality did not interfere with the inner block/ pocket arrangement, and let the occupants freely arranged and extended their dwellings. This lenient policy is most apparent around the Andir market, which was established after the 1940s [Fig. 9 & Fig. 10]. The establishment of Andir market had triggered further westward development of shophouses. A Chinese developer, Yap Loen, developed a whole block. The periphery was developed as shops with continuous roofline, while the pocket was sold as plots. The kiosks are minimal in appearance. They consist simply of party walls, single continuous roof, and wood planks openings. The developer seemed only care about selling the kiosks without bother developing the inner block land into units. Therefore, the remaining inner block was left to further speculation. The unregulated sale of land had caused the inner block was subdivided freely. This is why many shophouses in this area have peculiarly irregular plot and layouts.

The condition of the front part of these shophouses is most likely in original condition; the shared structural and construction elements among units makes it difficult to renovate and develop them. On the contrary, the back part can be developed and reach up to two or three-storey high to accommodate increasing demand of dwelling and commercial space.

Some notes on recent developments

In Indonesian context, the shophouse typology doesn’t always easily being referred as urban architectural heritage due to several reasons. Most shophouses are still functioning as purely utilitarian structures; as dwellings cum stores or storages, free from any decorations and ornamentations. Only those which belong to prominent families have distinguished characteristics. Shophouses in small hinterland towns appear much simpler and utilitarian than the ones in big coastal cities. Some in colonial administrative towns has distinguished ‘European’ characters maybe due to the Chinese’s social status in the colonial’s bureaucratic structure or simply a choice of lifestyle.

However most shophouses appear as common urban structures without any distinctive features therefore they were given no special historic values. As common and utilitarian structures, they were also constantly changing due to addition, alteration, demolition, and reconstruction.

In political and social reason, shophouses were identical with the Chinese. Political instabilities associated shophouse typology as a target of racial resentments during riots. During the political crisis and May Riot of 1998, Chinese properties – including shophouses – were target for looting and vandalism.

During the 1970s-1980s, pre-World War 2 shophouses were facing a more systematic danger because of rapid urban developments, road widening washed out shophouse facades along main roads in major cities. Despite the fact it only altered the front part of the shophouses, the defacement had changed many streetscape of the Chinese quarters, once friendlier to pedestrians and public activities now turned into automobile-oriented streets.

The lack of understanding and attention on specific urban charateristics also leads to generic urban design guidelines. What I had witness in Bogor, the imposition of generic building setback guideline has been steadily changing the Chinese quarter characteristics. No monument/ heritage protection imposed on ‘common’ shophouses. Shophouses were often ‘blamed’ for traffic congestions on the old streets because attracting visitors and providing no space for parking. So that as the result, new buildings erected far beyond the facades of the old shophouses and leaving the front plot as parking area. This has cut off the pedestrian linkage and altered the scale of the public space.

Another less interesting side of the shophouse typology that it has been already became a commodity since long time ago. Landowners built typical row of shophouses for rent. In some cases, there were even private developers built up a whole urban block with narrow kiosks as the street front and sell them individually. Interestingly, as the city grows, the inhabitant encroached the pocket behind the frontage and built non-linear shophouses. The land speculation system has produced a different situation for the shophouse typology to grow and evolve. For the last 20 years, shophouse typology had been regarded as an object for economic speculation, mostly by individual developers. An individual can turned a wide plot of old structures or typical land plot in major streets into a row of four or five identical shophouses. Shophouse is even functioning as a currency; a plot of land can be advertised according to how much shophouses can be built upon it.

These generic shophouses are often designed as an empty space supported only by a bathroom and a staircase to access the second and third story. However, even they are still named as ‘shophouses’, they are rarely function as ‘houses’. Most of the time, the higher stories are left empty.

Without a proper building guideline and urban management law enforcement, this practice leads to the destruction to the city: the uncontrolled land value due unhealthy speculations, the urban homogenization and uncontrolled population densification, and it directly leads to the traffic densification due to changing land use pattern.


Figure 1: Large townhouses in Cirebon with original facade (Photo: author)



Figure 2: A big Chinese townhouse in Cirebon; facade, plan, & axonometric drawing (Widodo, 2004)


Figure 4: A long shophouse in Bogor showing both an open courtyard and a roofed courtyard


Figure 5: A rental shophouse, with a covered courtyard (Sopandi, 2002)


Figure 6: Shophouse roof variants in Bogor (Sopandi, 2002)


Figure 7: A townhouse/ villa ‘hybrid’ in Bogor (Sopandi, 2002)




Figure 8: Corner shophouse variants in Bandung. Source: Yofianto, “Pengendalian Tata Ruang Kota Melalui Perancangan Segmen/ Bagian Kota”, Parahyangan Catholic University, 1992.




Image ImageImageImage

Figure 9: Two shophouses in Andir, Bandung (Widodo, 2004)

[1] The source of information in the paper is mostly based on shophouse inventory research and surveys conducted between 2000-2004 on three Indonesian cities (Bogor, Cirebon, and Bandung) under the Department of Architecture, School of Design & Environment, the National University of Singapore: (1) Sopandi, Setiadi. “Vanishing Dwelling Culture: The Transformation of Shophouse and Chinese Quarter in Bogor, Indonesia (From Late 19th Century to 1990s)”, 2002, Master Thesis, (2) Widodo, Johannes. “Study on Transformation and Modernization of Chinese Diaspora’s Shophouse Architecture and Dwelling Culture in Indonesia”, Research Project R-295-000-035-112, 2004.

2 Numerous studies on the corner buildings of Bandung had been conducted in ParahyanganCatholicUniversity, involving documentation and typification of available corner buildings along the main street sides of Bandung. One of the most comprehensive study was done by Yofianto (1992) which classified 4 variants of corner buildings within Bandung commercial area according to their dominant exterior characteristics. Yofianto, “Pengendalian Tata Ruang Kota Melalui Perancangan Segmen/ Bagian Kota”,ParahyanganCatholicUniversity, 1992, unpublished bachelor thesis.


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