#AboutMyCulture Challenge: A Shophouse Story from My Hometown - Penang

in aboutmyculture •  last year  (edited)
Here, I would like to share a culture story about my hometown, Penang. Everyone has their own unique story to tell about their hometown or life. It can be through the food culture, the architecture, the lifestyle, the festival or any other things. My story will be more oriented to architectural approach and here it goes.

There are just so many kinds of culture that I am exposed to and influenced. Plus, living in a multi-cultural country like Malaysia, it is hard to say there is any single culture that can represent the country. Nonetheless, I would like to reduce the scope down to my hometown, Penang. I want to highlight the very culture that I think which affect my perspective on life and the way I perceive my childhood.

The cultural product that I choose for this curation is SHOPHOUSE. An architectural piece that came to Penang during the British colonization period.

A collective of facade treatment for shophouses that we can find. This is the diversity that I would love to see rather than just pure generic design. For me, this added a personal touch within a constraint

A spectrum of architectural style for Penang's shophouses.

Who would ever think of one of the key person to change the history of China was staying in Penang and held several meetings that contributed to the success of the China Revolution. The person was Sun Yet-sen, the father of China.
Old photo that showed the famous Campbell Street in Georgetown.

The reason that I choose this as my cultural topic is that it relates to me from different aspects. My childhood started from living at the shophouse. There were a lot of memories from shophouse. In Penang, especially in Georgetown, we can find lots of heritage that consisted by different typologies of shophouses. During 2008, Penang and Malacca (another state in Malaysia) together were awarded the UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Since then, the tourism industry for Penang and Malacca boomed. Shophouses were one of those components that played an important role in term of the revitalization. There were a lot of investors buying up the shophouses and starting to revamp those into hotels, cafés, restaurants, galleries, and museums.

This was where I had my breakfast during my childhood, where I stayed nearby with my parents that had a shop there before.

This is how a typical food outlet at the ground level of shophouse. Locally, we called it "Kopitiam" eaning coffee shop whereby the locals enjoyed their meals plus a smooth and fragrant local coffee.

A kopitiam shop owner brewing a cup of coffee with filtration method. This practice is getting lesser as the Italian style coffee brewing had taken over the local coffee culture. I guess it is much profitable to go for Western style than using the local way.

My first love of coffee started from this local breakfast set with iced coffee. This was introduced by my grandmum who used to baby sit me when my parents were busy with work during daytime. This is indeed nostalgic and I still eat this breakfast set time to time.

However, the continuous acquisitions of the properties had caused the local property and land price to skyrocket. Some places in Penang have a similar land price with Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia! This is insane. Despite that, I still can see investors are willing to refurbish the old shophouses into new ones. It is better than letting the buildings to deteriorate and collapse. Later, I will show some examples of the current, refurbished shophouses.

Typical scenery that you can find in Georgetown with two sides of shophouses spreading along the street.

Firstly, I would say that I didn’t know how to appreciate the shophouse at my early age. The shophouse that I lived in was a combination of old carpentry workshop at the bottom and office with restrooms at the top. The lighting and ventilation of the shop were terrible due to the storage of woods and other machinery, blocking most of the openings. Nonetheless, I started to appreciate the beauty of shophouse when I studied it during my architectural study.

Illustration about the genre of shophouses in Penang and also Malacca.

Here are some interesting features of the shophouses that I want to highlight:

  1. 5 feet walkway – a setback requirement for the shophouses. Besides being a pedestrian walkway, it acted as a buffer zone to reduce the rainfall right at the entrance of the shophouse. In addition, the entrance also acted as an easy loading access for the shops with the main road at the front.

  2. Courtyard – this is the crucial part for shophouses to have good ventilation and natural lighting. With the courtyard, all the heat will disperse through the air well of the courtyard in the middle. Daylight can also penetrate the center of the long shop house, making the building brighter and less dependent on artificial lighting. Unfortunately, the development nowadays does not appreciate the value of courtyard and optimizing all the buildable area. Thus, I found that the new buildings are very dependent on artificial lighting and ventilation, which I personally not so fond of. The developer would rather want the profit from the area of courtyards (sellable area) as courtyard by guideline is not sellable and acted as an accessory space only.

  3. Fengshui – The shophouse typology was also duplicated to residential houses during the British colonization era. Thus, we can see the space arrangement is very well tied with the Fengshui. With the first welcoming space to be a welcoming living room for the guests, then segregated with featured wall and courtyard. Once the house owner invited the guests to spend more time around, by passing through the previous spaces, then only they can access to the private living room, kitchen and dining room. At the top level are all the bedrooms. If we were to be observant, some details like the private living room will be higher in terms of floor level in comparison with the first living room (to show the ownership and respect to the elderly and ancestors), the stairs usually end with certain numbers (1, 2, 5, 10, 13, 14, 17 or 22), and also courtyard will be a rainwater collecting area (a sign of collecting wealth) are all applied Fengshui.

An informative sectional perspective of a typical Chinese Eclectic shophouse that you can find in Penang.
Just knew that this was drawn by my senior and uploaded on his blog during 2012! A shophouse that was used to be a part of mews refurbished into a hotel.

Another sketch by him on his blog. Here we can see how's five feet way looks like.

A visualization of how a modern kitchen fit in the shophouse sketched by him as well.

In terms of functionality, it suits the needs of the community of that time. During that era, the Chinese who migrated to Penang and other parts of South East Asia are mostly not that wealthy. Thus, this shophouse typology suits their demand which is to combine residential and commercial space at a single spot. From my research last time, some of the shophouses may host up to 2 to 5 families and own by a tycoon in the area. I cannot imagine the hardship of living in such cramped spaces during that time, with so little privacy and poor hygiene quality.

Nowadays, most of the shophouses are refurbished and repurposed as commercial permises. The locals no longer occupied the place as their home and many of them had sold off the property to live in better condition houses.

A lot of the shophouses were sold and refurbished, like into boutique hotels.

In terms of social-cultural value, it created different clans. With the planning arrangement of the shophouses, they acted like a protective wall to protect the clan house in the middle. Naturally, it gave birth to a strong bonding clan community that worked together to survive. The arrangement itself created a closed community that was good at that time. Eventually, this had led to competition when good times came and there was a lot of fights between clans. Still, the fight did not stop the clans to prosper and each of the clan houses were heavily decorated, contributing to the social-cultural part. However, these clan houses were one of the best-hidden places for the locals to hide during the WWII as Japanese marched and conquered Penang as well. Some of the clans’ houses were not that lucky and got destroyed by the bombardment. Now, we still can appreciate different details from the shophouses and able to differentiate the clans that were used to occupy the permise.

This is how the arrangement of the shophouses with different clans' house in the middle. This is where those "big clan boss" in the olden days stayed.

In terms of social economy, it created micro-economy that supported each other. The locals used the shophouses to carry out different businesses like coffee shop, market, mechanical shops, jewelry shops, pharmacies, clinics, and so on. With a similar space and area, people are able to carry out different activities and formed an inter-dependent ecosystem during that time.

Now, it is more likely to be either commercial and hospitality activities like F&B outlets, souvenir shops and hotels. This had largely impacted the original image of having a variety of economy activities happening around the place. Unfortunately, this is how things evolve and we have to let go what is the past and embrace the future.

There are still advertisement billboards used by the shophouses owners. As of now, it is more to conservation and the owners have to maintain the features.

The biggest difference between Penang and Malacca shophouse is the planning guidelines for the design and construction of it. In Penang, all shophouses were built under the British planning law whereby each shophouse has its specific boundary to build and the assessment tax and quit rent were paid based on the total floor area built. While in Malacca, the shophouses were based on Dutch planning law whereby each shophouse has to pay their tax based on their width of the building they owned. However, there was no law that limits how long can the building extend in terms of length. So, if we were to visit any shophouses in Malacca, especially those near to the river, they were very long and linked to the edge of the river.

Penang copy.jpg
Another fun fact to know about: The shophouses in row 1 as shown were developed later than row 2 which we can differentiate through the setback required. In the early days, the British government only required 5 feet setbacks while the requirement now is 20 feet from the front.

In conclusion, the shophouse typology has a great impact and bear a great historical value to my hometown from different aspects. As a Penangnite, I would like to understand more about the culture and history behind the scene in order to appreciate and learn how to conserve the heritage pieces. If not now, then eventually, all will be gone by the hands of greed.


This is a submission for the contest initiated by @sndbox and authored by @aaronli. To know more about the contest, you can check it out here!


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Been to Penang once, loved the whole environment and particularly the food and those short buildings.

Congrats on getting through the challenge, this post is a super interesting cultural experience.

Most welcome @prch! Gonna take some time to go through your article (so formally done!). Congratz :)

Your posts are wonderful but underrated. so I've nominated you for a free week-long upvote service (about usd $1 each upvote) generously organised by @sjennon.

I was chosen and have been grateful to her for the virtue. So I'd like you to experience her kindness. Please don't mind my meddling in your business.

Good luck!

Haha, whoa. Great thanks there man!
We are all moving and building the brands together. Let’s keep each other supported :)

Just drop you a comment at your post too!

Wow, what a detailed post about the shophouses we have!!! There are a lot of architectural knowledge too from your post! Extensive effort in capturing the photos and expounding on every single details, salute @kimzwarch! :)

Took me sometime to gather all these info :) haha thanks for dropping by and immerse in my shophouse story.

I was super impressed with the effort you put in, honestly. I read yours first because I wanted to make sure I wasn't writing something another Malaysian has written, and went through the list of other participants so I don't repeat with something that has entered earlier. I respect and love what I read when I came to yours. I'm sure the judges will do too. All the best. I also want to see the best to win! :)

Ah, research work! Haha
Yours is very thorough too and the message is clear that our country is indeed a rojak :P
Hope both of us can win :P huat ar

those colourful facade tho. will never going to see it in today shop office. anyway, i thought the facade elevation are one block, remind me the the feature looks like kawloon wall city. Good one.

Basically, the proportion still the same but the colour and architectural style are different. Ya, pity nowadays they go for uniformity. Kowloon is kinda extreme though haha

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the detail just awesome. Thank you for the best info.

@ocd team, you should check out this post

Thanks @bboyady! Hope to share some juicy story, quite fact driven ones.

what a great story! I love it so much!

Thanks @aaronli for such a great topic for me to express.