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Penang Shophouses: Architectural Inspiration

Growing up in a shophouse in George Town brings back memories not of the building's architecture or historical significance, but that of a huge play area where my sisters and I would run up and down the five foot walkway, escape out the backdoor for badmitton in the alley, race each other to close the convertible roof canopy in the courtyard before it rained, and challenge each other to jump off the steep, wooden stairs.

It wasn't until I returned to George Town this year that I developed a real appreciation for the beautiful elements of the building, especially the dramatic details that don the facade.  I have since been on a photographic mission to capture these unique features.
 Shophouse facade: Decorative door with Chinese God of Longevity (寿星公)
A look into the past - an early style shophouse in Penang.
Inescapable Chinese feng shui influence: Look closely at the bats on this air vent. They symbolize the five blessings: good health, wealth, a long life, virtue and a natural death.

Shophouses are suffused with many features such as string courses, plaques, name and year plates.
When you slow down and take time to observe the shophouses, you will find many surprising elements including multi-coloured ceramic tiles, elegant plasterwork, and meticulous carvings. These charming features are great examples of how we can incorporate art and style into the decor of our contemporary homes.

What is a shophouse?
The term originates from the Hokkien word “diam chu”, simply because it combines the functions of house and shop. The ground floor is often used as a shop that opens to the street, while the upper floor is used as the living area for the family.  In some instances, the entire shophouse is used as a business or only as a home.

If you are a first time visitor to Penang, you will not escape the sight of shophouses spread throughout the island. However, the significance of these traditional terrace houses can easily be missed.

In George Town alone, there are about 7,000 shophouses, earning its reputation as the region’s largest collection of traditional shophouses built before World War II.  Built in rows and connected by party walls, these two or three storey houses shape the face of our historic town. Whether it’s a coffee shop, goldsmith, laundry, money changer, residential squatter or unoccupied, the shophouses create the outstanding urban form of Penang.
Dated as early as the 18th century, each style of shophouse has its own unique architectural and decorative features, representing different periods of George Town’s history.  The style of structure reveals the influence of Chinese, Malay, Indian and European styles - a mix of cultures that converged and adapted in response to the local environment.

The Penang shophouse is also a fine example of a green building, incorporating materials and designs that are suitable to the tropical climate. Every detail from internal walls, ceilings, roof tiles, to air wells, are designed to help with natural lighting, ventilation and cooling.

For anyone who has lived in a shophouse in George Town, do let me know your address. I'd be happy to take a picture of the house and share it with you.


Christina Schweighofer said...

Reese -

Thank you for expanding on the shophouses. I have been intrigued by this architecture ever since you first mentioned it in an earlier post. Some of the ornamental elements remind me of Vienna's Jugendstil buildings from the early 20th century. I guess the world was a village even then!

ilene said...

ooo....now you make me feel like returning to Penang now itself just to capture a picture of the place where I once stayed! ;)

Reese said...


Thank you for giving me the idea on shophouses. It ought to be written! Many people are not still aware of the importance of this unique built heritage.

Indeed, the world was a village even then. We'd be interested to see the Vienna's Jugendstil buildings.


Do share with us your picture if you managed to snap a pic of your old house in Penang:)

Cindy Lee said...

Reese, I lived in Chulia street with my aunt when I was a kid. I lived there for many years. Maybe one day I can bring you there :)

Cindy Lee said...

Reese, I lived in Chulia street with my aunt when I was a kid. I lived there for many years. Maybe one day I can bring you there :)