The shophouse is a vernacular architectural building type that is both native and unique to urban Southeast Asia. Shophouses typically consist of shops on the ground floor with residential accommodation on the upper levels. Walkways called "five-foot ways" are overhung by the upper floors, keeping pedestrians sheltered from the elements. By the late 19th century as the population of Singapore burgeoned, middle-class Straits Chinese families started moving out of the overcrowded central areas of Telok Ayer, Tanjong Pagar, Neil Road, and Duxton Hill to areas such as Orchard Road, River Valley Road, and Emerald Hill.
This photograph shows the same row of terraced three-storey shophouses taken by G.R. Lambert & Co. The photograph on this page was taken earlier than the one on the facing page. This can be deduced, firstly, by the numbering system employed by the firm. The photograph on this page is numbered 71, while the one above is numbered 111. Secondly, the plaque hanging above the entrance of the middle shophouse indicates that the owner, most likely a wealthy Straits Chinese, had acquired official titles from the Chinese Qing government. The plaque on the first image indicates a lower 4th rank (chao yi di), whereas the plaque in the second image reveals a status upgrade (guan cha di). The shophouse to the right has also changed from being an eating place to one that sells books.
The architecture, a hybrid form popular in late 19th century Singapore, reflects Victorian cast-iron work for the windows and grilles, carved panels and louvres recalling Malay building tradition and the liberal use of animals, flowers, motifs from legends and inscriptions of Chinese origin. Many shophouses can still be seen today, their exteriors conserved under the law, but with their interiors reflecting 21st-century sensibilities.
G.R. Lambert & Co. opened for business in 1867 in Singapore with a shop located at 1 High Street. Responsible for the most comprehensive photographic documentation of the topography and peoples of Southeast Asia, nothing more was heard or known about the firm nor the photographer, G.R. Lambert, until 10 years later.
Gustave Richard Lambert in 1877 occupied Schleesselman's studio at 30 Orchard Road. Returning from Siam (Thailand) where he had taken over from Henry Schuren as the official photographer to King Chulalongkorn, he reopened his own Orchard Road studio in 1880. Lambert departed Singapore around 1886, leaving the business in the hands of Alexander Koch. Koch expanded the business such that, from the mid-1890s to the 1900s, the company had two studios: one was located in town at Gresham House, Battery Road, and one was situated in the suburban area of Orchard. During its heyday, the company also maintained regional branch studios in Deli (Sumatra), Kuala Lumpur (FMS) and Bangkok (Siam). Besides being the official photographer for King Chulalongkorn, G.R. Lambert & Co. was also the official photographer to the Sultan of Johor, Abu Bakar. The rise of the postcard trade (the first local issue of picture postcards in Singapore was in 1897) was an appealing development that could not be ignored by commercial photographers such as G.R. Lambert & Co., and by the end of 1910, the firm was offering a choice of 250 different views, with a turnover of 250,000 cards annually.