One of the most striking features of Petain Road is its many shophouses. Shophouses and their residential counterpart, the terrace house, have been a quintessential part of Singapore’s urban landscape ever since their basic design was laid down in Raffles’ Town Plan of 1822. In essence, these buildings form a continuous row of units separated by common party walls and linked in front by a sheltered verandah popularly known as a five-foot way. The ground floor usually served as a business premise, while the upper storeys were occupied by the owner or rented out to other tenants.
At last count, there were over 200 shophouses lining Jalan Besar, a tangible record of architectural tastes from the 1880s to the 1960s. The earliest surviving shophouses along Jalan Besar, built in 1888, are simple structures with minimal decoration and a narrow frontage. Later developments, particularly shophouses built in the 1920s and 1930s, are highly ornamented and express the wealth of a Malayan rubber and tin boom.
An unmatched example of architecture from this era is this row of 18 double-storey townhouses. Built in 1930 for Mohamed bin Haji Omar, the houses reflect a contemporary obsession with glazed ceramic tiles, which cover the ground facades and even the upper storey columns in lavish numbers. The townhouses were built in a style often known as Chinese Baroque. In the past, songbird enthusiasts would gather near the houses to display their pets in cages.