The term five-foot way refers to the covered walkways that are common in many parts of Asia. The upper floor of a building extends outwards supported by pillars at the edge of the pavement creating an arcade or verandah. The idea was to protect pedestrians from both the fierce tropical sun and the equally fierce tropical downpours.
The buildings themselves are often referred to as shophouses. The family business would invariably occupy the ground floor while the living quarters were up the stairs. The pillars often became advertisements for the business conducted within.
The earliest known plans for such arcades can be traced back to Batavia (now Jakarta) from the sixteenth century. It is believed that Sir Stamford Raffles picked up on the idea during the time he was governor of Java (1811–1815). He ordered the construction of verandahs five feet wide around all shops in Batavia. After he founded Singapore, in 1819, the five-foot way became an established architectural feature.
The verandahs were supposed to be public spaces but the occupants of the buildings were very territorial, regarding them as extensions of their own property albeit with public access. They were often used to display merchandise or sublet to hawkers. People would also dump rubbish in them since maintaining cleanliness was the responsibility of the authorities.
Attempts by the colonial government to evict the hawkers, and the harsh punishments meted, out were met with outright resistance leading to three days of unrest known as the verandah riots in May 1888.
By the early twentieth century, the style had been incorporated into all of the Straits Settlements and across other British colonies on the Malay Peninsula. It became known as “Straits Settlement Style” and came to be widely adopted across Southeast Asia. Today they can be found in Thailand, the Philippines, Brunei, and Burma. In 1878 the style was also adopted in Hong Kong. From there it spread to southern China where the buildings are known as qilou.
Some of the best examples of the style can be found in Singapore and Penang where they have been lovingly preserved and painted in a kaleidoscope of vibrant colours.