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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.

More about Penang Shophouses

With the listing of George Town as a UNESCO World Heritage site two years ago, residents and visitors have found a new appreciation for the history and culture of the island.  The shophouse has become a symbol of this movement, representing the beautiful architecture throughout Penang as well as the traditional businesses that continue to thrive.

Because of the growing interest in heritage on the island, a site called "Penang Shophouses" was created by the Cultural Heritage Action Team (CHAT).  CHAT is formed by a dedicated group of volunteers consisting of conservation architects, historians, heritage practitioners and educationists. As part of their effort to protect the built heritage of Penang, Penang Shophouses shares information such as visual guides, historical and architectural details, renovation do’s and don’ts, and most importantly, explains why these shophouses are an integral part of the island.

Reclaiming the five-foot walkways

At the front of many shophouses in the George Town area, you will see a sheltered walkway specially designed for pedestrians. This unique feature is known as the five-foot way or simply “kaki lima” by the local community.

As the name suggests, the walkway was a clever design from the British administration where all shophouses had to be connected by a covered sidewalk with a minimum width of five feet across. The main function of the walkway was to provide pedestrians relief from the hot sun and frequent downpours.
Most of the original five-foot walkways are lined with intricately-designed tiles. Each decorative pattern is distinctive and timeless.
As a child, the geometric tiles became the source of many hopping games on and between the lines. It served as our playground in the shade as we waited for the school bus.
Another tile art form can also be found adorning the shophouse wall, creating a colorful tapestries on the doorsteps.
Unfortunately now, the five foot walkways are claimed by private shop owners even though they are public space. Many modern businesses pour cement or place dull colored tiles over the top of the original tiles because it is a cheaper alternative than fixing it.Other owners may keep the original tiles, but place fences around the walkways to prevent public usage.

With guidelines and resources available on shophouse restoration, we can now hope that modern architects are starting to pay attention to the original designs of the walkways and to protect this unique heritage feature.

Windows into George Town

Each time I walk by the historic shophouses in George Town, I find myself drawn to the windows. They create an image in my mind of what the streets looked like over a century ago. An image I want to capture in photos and in drawings.