Anatomy of the Penang Shophouse

By Lim Wan Phing

July 2024 FEATURE
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Terracotta roofs of George Town.

MIXED DEVELOPMENTS AND integrated communities are a trend today among property developers. But long before the shiny brochures promoting these new home concepts appeared, shophouses in George Town stood as a one-man mixed development flaunting residential, commercial, retail and entertainment outlets, all in one urban community.

Over 200 years ago, as rapid urbanisation took place at the periphery of Fort Cornwallis, the influx of migrants and settlers led to the creation of a town centre, and the shophouse form was born.

A five-footway linking the heritage homes that line George Town.

A Peep Into The Past

Defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a shop opening on to the pavement and also used as the residence of the proprietor,” the shophouse is a building type found in Southeast Asia, of which Penang is thought to have the largest collection in any one location.

George Town alone has about 7,000 shophouses, where historically, a family business would operate on the ground floor, with accommodation above providing convenience, shelter and security. Simply put, a shophouse serves as a “shop” and a “house”. Talk about integrated living.

Today, with a UNESCO World Heritage badge in the bag, rapid gentrification is taking place and is once again changing the landscape. It can be argued that there is now more “shop” than “house” as older residents sell up and move out, making way for boutique hotels, cafés, galleries and retail stores, among others.

Colourful and playful tiles that can be found in heritage shophouses.

To Protect, Safeguard and Enhance

But like all cities with a rich cultural heritage, there is a balance to be struck between preserving the historical values of a property and generating economic income from repairing, renovating, conserving and adapting it for new life and new uses.

In 1791, Captain Home Popham drew a map showing that the earliest shophouses were built along the grid of streets adjacent to Fort Cornwallis. This makes present-day Lebuh Pantai (Beach Street), Lebuh King (King Street), Lebuh Penang (Penang Street) and Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling (Pitt Street) the most historic—but also the most fragile—enclave.

Enter safeguarding organisations like George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI), consultants like Think City, non-governmental bodies like Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) and heritage enthusiasts like Penang Hidden Gems. Even the Municipal Council of Penang Island (MBPP) has published a detailed “Guidelines for Conservation Areas and Heritage Buildings”. Architects also play a pivotal role, with one such person being the late Tan Yeow Wooi. His book, Penang Shophouses: A Handbook of Features and Materials (2015), now serves as an important reference guide for conservation work, and comes in especially handy for professionals, investors, property owners, landlords, tenants, contractors and interior designers.

Gable ends are shaped to express the five Chinese elements—metal, wood, water, fire and earth.

Drawing on many years of research and practical experience, Tan outlined the evolution of Penang shophouses into six eras and styles; the Early Penang style (1790s–1850s), Southern Chinese Eclectic style (1840s–1910s), Early Straits Eclectic style (1890s–1920s), Late Straits Eclectic style (1910s–1930s), Art Deco style (1930s–early 1960s) and Early Modern style (1950s–1970s).

There are overlaps in each era, which create sub-styles. But each is starkly defined by the sign of their times. As Penang’s society became more affluent with the boom in tin and rubber, simple and basic styles gave way to more ornate and gaudy ones. It returned to a more practical, minimalist style post-World War II as people recovered from hardship.

In the grand scheme of things, Penang and Malaysia may be small on the map, but the world was highly interconnected even in those days, easing the availability of materials, changing tastes and a more international outlook as time passed. For example, Paris’s International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in 1925, which kick-started the Art Deco movement in Europe and the US, evidently also reached our shores. It is visible for all to see with present-day buildings like India House, Burmah Road Gospel House, Dato Kramat Market and Hin Bus Depot.

The six main shophouse styles in George Town. From left: Early Penang style (1790s–1850s), Southern Chinese Eclectic style (1840s–1910s), Early Straits Eclectic style (1890s–1920s), Late Straits Eclectic style (1910s–1930s), Art Deco style (1930s–early 1960s) and Early Modern style (1950s–1970s).

The Bare Bones Of A Shophouse

Tan’s book opens with a general overview of evolving architectural styles in Penang, but focuses mainly on the anatomy of a shophouse. With plenty of photos and sketches, it makes possible for even non-technical readers to digest the information related to roofs, gables, ceilings, beams, walls, columns, doors, shutters, windows, air wells, floor tiles, balustrades, staircases, paints, colours and finishings. He furnishes the pages with delightful details such as cooling materials used (terracotta tiles for floors and lime mortar for walls), the five types of roof gables designed according to the five elements of Chinese philosophy (gold, wood, water, fire and earth), and how the popularity of tiles evolved from six-inch European majolica ones in the 1920s to plain-coloured Japanese tiles in the 1940s to tiny mosaics in the 1960s.

Heritage shophouses, often built in a row, are the predecessors of the modern-day terraced homes—a testament to a community working and living together. The ones that came after—in the 1950s, as internationalisation and individualism crept in—evolved into a group of mixed-use shophouses designed in a block to look like a single building.

From there, the suburb was created, leading to the creation of service roads and rows of homes built behind shophouses, as found in townships like Jelutong and Air Itam. Back in the day, the archetypal shophouse played a dual role— business and residence. But as work-life balance became more important, people understandably no longer wanted to live where they worked.

Window shutters on a building.

Now, society’s needs are changing again; and as new models of housing are being explored, we see the rise of mixed-development townships where communities can live, learn, work, play and explore healthy lifestyles in residential hubs that have commercial, retail and entertainment uses integrated or at close proximity. We see it in the up-and-coming The Light City by IJM along the Tun Dr. Lim Chong Eu Expressway. In the inner city, millennials and young couples choosing the nomad-rental lifestyle are contributing to the rise of co-living spaces and shared housing.

That said, modern architecture can still take a leaf out of the heritage shophouse blueprint by incorporating some of its timeless features: natural ventilation, local materials, high-quality craftsmanship and the use of communal courtyards as shared space.

Whatever the evolution, perhaps we will realise that what we want out of our work and home lives, how we mix our “shop” and “house”, and how we integrate our communities are not so different from what our ancestors wanted after all.

A restored wooden door in George Town.

Lim Wan Phing

is a freelance writer based in Penang. She has a short story collection, Two Figures in a Car published by Penguin SEA.