Emerald Hill was the site of a former nutmeg orchard which started to take shape as a residential neighbourhood in the early 1900s. The area was acquired in 1900 by businessmen Seah Eng Kiat and Seah Boon Kang, who then sold smaller parcels of land to new owners to build terrace houses and shophouses.
By the 1930s, a large number of houses at Emerald Hill were occupied by Peranakan families. Peranakans, also known as Straits Chinese or Babas, are the descendants of early Chinese immigrants who married locals and settled in Southeast Asia.
Many of the buildings at Emerald Hill are traditional shophouses linked by sheltered verandahs known as five-foot ways. The shophouses still retain their pintu pagars, which are fence-like pairs of revolving doors. Emerald Hill also has number of traditional terrace houses, which blend elaborate European elements such as neoclassical columns with local features such as colourful wall tiles and panels bearing Chinese motifs like flowers and birds. Emerald Hill was gazetted as a conservation area in 1989.