The Evolution of the Shophouse

Step back in time to 17th century Cholon, where shophouses dominated the skyline

The sun comes up. I am walking through the streets of Cholon as the first people awake. After they have done their morning workout and have eaten a bowl of pho, the shops open. Here in the old neighborhood you still find traditional ‘shophouses,’ deep buildings with shops on the street and living accommodation above them. The facades look a bit like Dutch canal houses—and at the same time they don’t, with all the Chinese characters and ornaments decorating nearly every shop window.

The neighborhood quickly comes to life. There is a street for motorbike parts, but also one for tools, and another one for rice. In the middle of the shopping area is the Ba Thien Hau Pagoda, built in 1760 by the Cantonese community. A Buddhist monk dressed in orange robes steps outside. He has a friendly face, “Nice to meet you, sir. Where are you from?” When I say I am from the Netherlands, he smiles and says he supported Holland in the World Cup. Then, more seriously: “Our temple is dedicated to the Chinese God of the Sea,” he explains. “He protects fishermen and merchants at sea.”

In the early years of Cholon, this help was more than welcome. The Chinese founded the city in 1872, by a tributary of the Saigon River. Because of overpopulation and conflicts, many people from southeast China made the long sea-voyage to Vietnam. The city they built—in effect the Chinese counterpart of Saigon—consisted of an efficient street pattern with terraced houses, connected to the water. It was basically the first form of urbanization in the area now known as Ho Chi Minh City. Later the French expanded the network of canals in the city. In combination with markets, temples and shophouses, it created a vibrant city. The Vietnamese name of “Cholon” fittingly means “big market.” The city was annexed by Saigon in 1931.

A 1931 photo of a Chinese grocer amidst his merchandise on display. Chinese from Canton built streets with rows of shophouses in Cholon: shops built in between houses on either side and with residential accommodation on the upper floors.
A 1931 photo of a Chinese grocer amidst his merchandise on display. Chinese from Canton built streets with rows of shophouses in Cholon: shops built in between houses on either side and with residential accommodation on the upper floors.

The commercial city captured the imagination of many European visitors. “Cholon shines bright and festively, like a sun from another planet,” young French author Fournier wrote about Cholon in 1929. During her evening stroll, she smelled the scent of fish sauce and saw nothing but shop windows with “Chinese signs with hidden meanings and rituals that have been written from top to bottom.” And she added that in those shops, “They make and sell anything. In the evening, it looks beautiful: many people are working in peace and quiet.” Cholon is the birthplace of the ‘shophouse’ in Ho Chi Minh City. A typical shophouse is a terraced house, flanked by other houses on both sides. The Vietnamese call them “nha po,” which literally means “house on the commercial street.” The shophouse is closely connected to life on the street.

When I was driving through the city, I noticed how much they dominated—they determine the look of the city. On the other side of the black river, there were old and new shophouses in bright colors next to each other. That was at the edge of Cholon. Of course, I had seen them in town before, but then they were part of the busy street life. The river created a distance that I apparently needed to understand the meaning of shophouses. As I was squinting my eyes while looking across the river, I imagined I was in Amsterdam for a moment.

I am invited to have a look in one of the shophouses by the river. I follow the owner through a hall, past the front room and a small storage room to the dining room and kitchen. Stairs lead to the bedrooms on the first floor. The owner tells me he used to keep the families’ valuables in the attic. He shows me the courtyard, where a girl is doing the dishes. Behind there is a crumbling building with a shower and a toilet.

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I carry on walking through the center of Cholon. Roll up doors allow the full width of the shop to be opened. When the roll up doors are closed at night, the street looks desolate. It is tricky to walk past the houses in a straight line: the pavement is cluttered with motorcycles and plastic chairs, and some electricity cables are hanging so low above the ground that people trip over them. It makes me walk slowly, allowing me to have a good look inside. What does the shop look like, what do they sell and what are the people doing? Usually the shopkeeper is hidden behind a newspaper somewhere among his goods. When a customer wants to buy something, they negotiate first. The price is brought down, and the shopkeeper takes a seat in a leather office chair behind an oak desk and writes the invoice.

Then he sits back down between his displayed goods, making himself comfortable.

I stumble upon an old building opposite a new block of offices. It is divided into several houses, each measuring no more than five meters. I end up talking to a woman who lives in one of the houses. She is happy for me to take some photos inside.

The woman pushes open the squeaky, steel gate. It is cool inside. A strip light hangs from the ceiling in the high front room. The harsh light shines on the blue painted walls. In some places, the white paint underneath is showing through. The black and white tiles on the floor are laid out in a checkerboard pattern. Many tiles are worn down, some are cracked. Next to the altar is a classic sculpture. “This old lion,” the woman says, “is 150 years old, and it is the pride of our family.’ We walk past dark brown cabinets and a large bed to a room at the back of the house where several items have been stored. Her mother is watching television in the corner of the kitchen. Sunlight shines down from the open roof. A pair of trousers is hanging to dry. At the moment, it is dry and there is no wind, yet when the monsoon rain clatters on the floor, the wind blows through the cracks of the shutters, and through the walls of the small courtyard. When we are back on the street, the woman points to the Chinese characters on the facade of the house: “This is a tribute to the community and the people who made this building.” Only now I realize the building used to be a temple, and has been transformed into shophouses. There are many of these hardly visible traces of history in Cholon. The woman explains why the inside and outside still have the original atmosphere: “My mother is very attached to the house and does not allow us to change its history.”

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The Canals of Amsterdam

In the middle of these shophouses that keep memories of grandparents alive, I wonder if there are really any Dutch influences in the shophouses of Ho Chi Minh City. I imagine I am walking past the canals of Amsterdam. There is a row of houseboats moored along the canal. I can hardly see inside the boats. They all have curtains blocking the windows. Wooden planks connect the boats to the quayside, where cars are parked. The street is narrow. The pavement is not much higher than the street itself. It is tricky to walk here, as the fences, flowerpots, bicycles, passers-by and steps force me to walk in the road. I walk past the canal houses and see shops, workshops and warehouses. A van is unloading goods. The main floor of the canal house is slightly above eye level. It is hard to tell what happens behind the old facades. They are either houses or offices, but I can’t get a detailed view of their interior. There are people living in the basement downstairs as well. When I look at the facades across the canal, I notice the alternating pattern of bricks and windows. The windows let enough light in, yet are small enough to maintain people’s privacy. The canal houses in Amsterdam were built after the canal ring was constructed in 1613. It would take another 50 years for the 17th century trade city to be completed. Amsterdam was a construction pit where the largest urban development project in the world took place. There was a great need for this as the city was growing rapidly: more than two thirds of the population in the provinces had moved to the city. That made the Dutch delta landscape the most urbanized area of Europe. In ‘Vande oirdeningh der steden,’ dating back to around 1600, Dutch engineer Simon Stevin explains why Dutch cities like Amsterdam were so successful. At the mouth of a large, navigable river, they benefitted from fertile land as well as boats from overseas passing through the city. According to Stevin, this location was unique and brought the Netherlands wealth and power. It also led to the exportation of the methods used for building the canal ring.

Without a predetermined all-encompassing plan, officials, land surveyors, carpenters, merchants and architects contributed to urban developments. The municipal council monitored only a few rules regarding urban planning. This meant specific problems could be solved with practical and lucrative solutions. For example, historian Jaap-Evert Abrahamse states the canals were not built because they would look nice—in fact, the rich citizens would have preferred living on a boulevard—but to obtain soil to elevate the land in the marshy delta. The canals also served as defences, ways of transport and were used as an open sewer system. Until 1850, Amsterdam remained a “clean virgin with smelly veins.” As I walk past the canals, the canal houses stand out. The Herengracht and the Keizersgracht were designed as large city homes for rich citizens such as merchants and shareholders.

In the 17th century, taxes were not based on the width of the facade of a house. Presumably, the houses are narrow because land prices on the street and the water, where there was light and there were people, were incredibly high.

There is constant momentum in the townscape due to the unregulated building process of the ‘new-style’ shophouses. Each house is different because they vary so much in height, material and color.
There is constant momentum in the townscape due to the unregulated building process of the ‘new-style’ shophouses. Each house is different because they vary so much in height, material and color.

The Canal House Goes Overseas

Simultaneously with the growth of the Dutch city, the power of the East India Company increased. This internationally-operating company built colonial settlements, using knowledge of urban planning and architecture from the Netherlands.

Batavia, now known as Jakarta, became the most important trade city in Southeast Asia. The spatial planning of the Dutch city was exported to Batavia. And here, too, canal houses were built. Would this be the source of the spread of shophouses through Southeast Asia? During an earlier stay in Jakarta, I pondered this question because of the many similarities between the capital of Indonesia and the district of Cholon in Ho Chi Minh City. In the old town center, the smelly canals are so dirty that they barely reflect the canal houses. On the Kali Besar—the canalized Great River that flowed right through old Batavia—a woman sells food on the street. She moves a few plastic chairs, unlocks the door and shows me her canal house. Once inside I am practically outside, as there is no floor or roof. The rich history of the city turns out to be in the hands of the poor people. Merchants and officials have left for the quiet, green suburbs of Jakarta.

In the 17th century, Batavia looked like the center of Amsterdam because of its network of canals surrounded by trees, and rectangular blocks that were divided into small, deep canal houses. As the frugal East India Company spent hardly any money on public buildings, the prosperity of the city was mainly reflected in its civic architecture. The facades of the houses were usually symmetric and the lay-out was simple: one door with cross windows on either side. On the first floor, the front of the house would have one or two windows. Facing the street, on the ground floor, would be a room that could serve as commercial space. Behind this would be a smaller room facing the open courtyard. The number of courtyards depended on the depth of the building. The dining room and kitchen would be at the back of the house. The canal areas of both Amsterdam and Batavia were finalized around 1660.

Interior of an old shophouse
Interior of an old shophouse

As I am curious about the urban history of Jakarta and the influence that the Netherlands have had on it, I make an appointment with Candrian Attahiyyat, head of archaeological services. His office is located in the former Dutch town hall on the main square of Batavia. On my way to his office, I notice the city is not made for pedestrians: there are hardly any pavements, or they are too narrow. Perhaps this is a legacy of the Dutch colonial period. In Attahiyyat’s office, light shines in through a high window. When I ask whether the Dutch have influenced the characteristics of the shophouses, he explains that Chinese immigrants in the old Batavia were allowed to build their own homes within the rational Dutch system of urban planning. Just like in Dutch cities, the Chinese homes along the waterways were focused on trade. The commercial architecture of Amsterdam mixed with that of the trading cities in the south east of China.

This is also described in travel reports by the Englishman James Cook, says Attahiyyat. In 1726, there were 1,242 Dutch houses and 1,200 Chinese houses within the city walls of Batavia. These numbers show that there was a fine balance between Dutch and Chinese people.

I shake his hand, and step outside, pondering: as far as I can see, the concept of the shophouses spread as a result of blooming trade and increasing population density in the cities of Southeast Asia. The dominant position of China in commercial trade caused knowledge and skills to be exported from Batavia to Vietnam.

Traces of history: Chinese signs on the front of a house
Traces of history: Chinese signs on the front of a house

Wind and Water

Back in Ho Chi Minh City, I realize the shophouse offers a range of opportunities for a more sustainable city. The terraced houses result in compact, low buildings, high in density. This saves a lot of energy, as most journeys can be made by foot. The buildings have been adapted to the climate in many different ways: tenants have built rows of balconies above each other against the sun, they use sun boilers to heat their water, they use evaporating water to cool down their houses and patios have been designed to allow for air circulation. These small-scale solutions reduce the use of air conditioners, and help the people save money. One Vietnamese architect who puts this into practice on a daily basis is Vo Trong Nghia. His firm Wind and Water is named after feng shui, an ancient Chinese philosophy about living in harmony with nature.

When I worked for him in 2012, he gave me a few tips: soften the city with green facades and roofs and cool down the houses with patios. This retains the water much longer, and the space inside will be cooled without using electricity.

The building “Stacking Green” is a tribute to the small, rectangular house. The front and backside of the four-meter-wide and 20-meter-deep building consist of concrete planters. Rainwater is collected in a tank and is used to spray the plants. The green facade and roof protect the tenants from sunlight, noise and pollution. A skylight and the open, green facade allow wind to blow through the houses—a refreshing change from the tropical heat.

For now, this ‘reappreciation of the shophouse’ appears to have only limited impact, as the focus is still on the modernization and westernization of the city. But in Singapore, for example, maintaining the few remaining old districts with shophouses has become policy. Initially these districts, too, were replaced by modern, high-rise buildings. But when it was realized that the historical city was a tourist attraction, it was possible to save parts of the old Chinese districts. This district is now the most important source of income in terms of tourism.

Perhaps Ho Chi Minh City can take an example from this, and brand itself as shophouse city—putting its cultural heritage on the agenda once and for all.

The Vietnamese architect Vo Trong Nghia designed a housing tower in Ho Chi Minh City in 2011, with ‘green’ gables made up of cement plant containers. They protect the residents from sunlight, noise and air pollution.
The Vietnamese architect Vo Trong Nghia designed a housing tower in Ho Chi Minh City in 2011, with ‘green’ gables made up of cement plant containers. They protect the residents from sunlight, noise and air pollution.

Wild Living in Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City is an example of how planning and chance can co-exist and even embrace each other. This city structure reminds me of ‘wild living’ a term coined by Carel Weeber in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad in 1997. He distanced himself from the ‘state architecture,’ where tenants lived in terraced houses in identical neighborhoods, and argued for private commissioning. He believed that anyone should have the opportunity to buy a lot and build a house on it.

Carel Weeber has been in Vietnam several times. In 1975—Weeber was 37—he made his first trip, which he documented in postcards. I find the complete collection in the archives of Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam. Many cards depict buildings and bridges shot to pieces and rice fields full of bomb craters. The pictures form a sharp contrast with the beautiful landscape we know today. Weeber also drew many cards showing the dominance of the water. One card depicts a fishing boat floating alone on the waters of Hanoi.

On February 21, 1975, he writes: “The neighborhoods look more like traditional Asian cities, Tokyo, Bangkok. The disorderly appearance of the neighborhoods camouflage the damage of the war. Ideal way of building.” Another note on a postcard, a day later: “The disorderly character creates such a powerful image that destruction is absorbed into it, it doesn’t disturb the image.” What Weeber described here is exactly what he later had in mind for the ideal image of ‘wild living.’ I ask Weeber about it.

“Before I came to Vietnam, I used to spend a lot of time in Japan in the 1960s,” Weeber says. “There, I came across self-regulating urban development. The similarities are striking.” ‘Wild living’ and grid cities are universal; the Netherlands are an exception. Weeber says that in Vietnam, private taste is beginning to determine what public spaces look like. The streets haven’t been designed by supervisors and are a mishmash of different buildings. The image of the city is created by random and unstructured private building. According to Weber, this is a gift to the city from its inhabitants. Weeber argues for neutral and facilitating urban development, where the spatial characteristics of the grid are combined with chaos, spontaneity and unplanned private developments. His ideals have a lot in common with the type of urban development that took place when the canal rings were constructed. In the 17th century, the local authorities did not get involved in architecture—everyone could build whatever they wanted—but merely ensured that the building regulations were adhered to. Weebers calls it “objective urban development,” independent of taste, and based on chaos, chance growth, geomorphology and geometry.

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Ho Chi Minh City is constructed from private developments, bearing a close resemblance to Weebers ‘wild living.’ The downside is evident: the construction of dominant new areas that have no connection to the city, and the ease with which some neighborhoods have been demolished. But on a smaller scale, it is clear that the unstructured construction of the ‘new style shophouses’ creates a dynamic cityscape. Every house is different, as heights, materials and colors vary greatly. The architectural styles differ, too. This eclecticism leads to a wide variety of neo-gothic, baroque and classical elements in the facades of the houses

On my walk, I meet Vo Van Thai, a shopkeeper in the Chinese medicine street Hai Thuong Lan Ong. He shows me an old photo of his house. “It was designed by the French around 1890, and built by the Vietnamese.” He proudly tells me his house is built with materials from France, China and Vietnam. The house has a French-colonial architectural style, with subtle decorations from China. “The ground floor used to be a Chinese medicine shop, but now it is empty,” says Mr. Thai. The old man is unsure about the future. “If I demolish my house and build a new one, I can sell it for a higher price. But that would mean the house that has been a home to my family for generations will be lost.”

Because of the growing economy and the lack of protection, many old shophouses have been demolished. New, higher shophouses bring in more money. Also, the city simply lacks the power and the money to maintain the traditional shophouses. The function of shophouses in Ho Chi Minh City changes, too. Whereas it used to be a shop or a workplace that was directly connected to the street, now I often see closed shop fronts with hair salons, bars, copy shops, restaurants and massage parlors behind them. Basically, the shophouses have developed into new types of buildings like shop-apartments, where shops are combined with furnished flats. Over the years, shophouses have proven to be a flexible work-living space—reflecting the vibrant street life in Vietnam.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 2009 architect Joep Janssen lived and worked in Ho Chi Minh City for four years and in his book, Living with the Mekong. Climate change and urban development in Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta, he gives a personal account of how Vietnam and the Vietnamese people cope with the consequences of climate change and urbanization. In a historical analysis he shows how the developments of the city, particularly Cholon, and its architecture have been influenced by French colonials as well as the canal ring of Amsterdam. Living with the Mekong. Climate change and urban development in Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta is available in English and Dutch, and can be ordered at: www.uitgeverijblauwdruk.nl, www.blauwdrukpublishers.com and Amazon.com.

IMAGES FROM LIVING WITH THE MEKONG (BLAUWDRUK PUBLISHERS)

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