Shophouses

SHOPHOUSES

The joint inscription of Melaka and George Town, the Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca as a UNESCO World Heritage Site on 7 July 2008, was based on the Outstanding Universal Values (OUV) of cultural diversity embodied and embedded in living heritage and built heritage. OUVs are a set of ideas or values which are universally recognised as important or as having influenced the evolution of mankind as a whole at one time or another.

WHAT IS A

SHOPHOUSE ?

Simple in design, most of the shophouse buildings used soft burnt clay bricks as the main construction material.The thick brick walls kept out the midday sun, lime-plastered walls and terracotta floors dispersed the cool moisture from the swamps beneath, while louvred shutters kept out the glaring sunlight but allowed the cool breeze in.

The earlier shophouses were small, with just a pitched roof and a kitchen at the back under a single-storey terrace and open airwell which took away the heat from the charcoal-fired stoves. As more land was cleared and the owners grew wealthier along with increasing needs, the shophouses became longer, separating each pitched roof with an airwell to cool the building. They were originally built and used by the Indian and later Chinese migrant population, who brought with them influences from their homelands.

By the 1900s, European architectural and engineering professionals had come to Penang, bringing with them new technologies and building forms influenced by Western architecture.

Owners of traditional shophouses were eager to adapt to modern styles, and began to refashion their facades to the latest styles, whilst maintaining the strict hierarchical use of space within the shophouse.

SHOPHOUSE CHARACTERISTICS

A typical shophouse has these characteristics:

  • Facing a street
  • Built in a row, next to one another along a street, with no gaps or spaces in between
  • Contains a single party wall separating shophouses on either side
  • Low rise, two to three storeys
  • Narrow and long, sectioned by airwell
  • Five-foot way (kaki lima or goh kha ki)
  • Multi-functional, combining residential and commercial use
  • The ground floor is typically used for business and trading
  • Proprietors lived on the upper floor
  • Decorative façade
  • Façade colour (off-white, indigo, ochre, baby blue, light
    yellow, etc.)
  • Façade ornamentation with influences from Malay, Chinese
    and European traditions

FEATURES OF A
SHOPHOUSE

The features of a shophouse are distinct, and yet similar throughout the different styles found in George Town. The illustration shows the features of a Southern Chinese Eclectic Style shophouse.

SIX MAIN SHOPHOUSE
STYLES IN PENANG

There are six main shophouse styles in George Town, Penang. Each style has distinctive architectural and decorative features which represent the different periods in George Town’s history.

EARLY PENANG STYLE
(1790S - 1850S)

General Characteristics and Structure:

  • Single or two storeys with five-foot way
  • Simple in detail and low
  • Lime plaster on structural brick wall and pillars
  • Square pillars supporting slanting beam (rafter) with projecting eaves

SOUTHERN CHINESE ECLECTIC STYLE
(1840S - 1900S)

General Characteristics and Structure:

  • Two, sometimes three storeys with five-foot way
  • Taller than Early Penang Style shophouse, simple decoration, but more decorative by 1900s
  • Lime plaster on structural brick wall and pillars
  • Square pillars ending with Chinese pillar head (bracket)

EARLY STRAITS ECLECTIC STYLE
(1890s - 1910s)

General Characteristics and Structure:

  • Two, sometimes three storeys with five-foot way
  • Similar height as Southern Chinese Eclectic Style, mixture of Chinese and European decorations
  • Lime plaster on structural brick wall and pillars
  • Square pillars ending with Chinese pillar heads and later European pillar heads (capitals)

LATE STRAITS ECLECTIC STYLE
(1910S - 1940S)

General Characteristics and Structure:

  • Two or three storeys with five-foot way, sometimes with a compound garden
  • Generally shorter in height, with intensive use of both Chinese and European decorations
  • Lime plaster either on structural brick wall and pillars or reinforced concrete construction
  • Square pillars ending with either Chinese pillar heads (brackets), European pillar heads (brackets) or capitals

ART DECO STYLE
(1930S - 1960S)

General Characteristics and Structure:

  • Two storeys with five-foot way and compound garden for residence
  • Similar height to Late Straits Eclectic Style. Simplified architectural features with either horizontal or vertical emphasis
  • Shanghai plaster finish over reinforced concrete (RC) construction of beams and pillars with cement or clay brick infill
  • Pillars and beams de-emphasised and incorporated into façade

EARLY MODERN STYLE
(1950S - 1970S)

General Characteristics and Structure:

  • Two storeys for individual shophouse, three storeys for corner shophouse, and three storeys for row-houses designed to look like one building, mixture of commercial and residential
  • Same proportion as Art Deco Style, simplified clean linear functional features e.g. shading canopies and fins
  • Lime or cement flat plaster finish over reinforced concrete (RC) construction of beams and pillars with cement or clay brick infill
  • Façade design and structure merged
  • Five-foot way sometimes without pillars (cantilever upper
    floor)

These shophouses continue to function as they were originally intended, playing a dual role as a place of business and that of residence. Most shophouses are still in a good state of conservation.

FIVE_FOOT WAYS

Five-foot ways are shaded public walkways along the shophouses, giving shelter from the heat and rain. They are a significant feature of the streetscape that still exist in George Town. Many of the five-foot ways, however, are obstructed or blocked by shop displays, physical barriers and motorcycles.

Note: The information on this page has been produced through a joint effort by Arts-ED, George Town World Heritage Incorporated and the Cultural Heritage Action Team.