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Shop Houses in Penang

What is George Town without the shop houses in Penang? A dead, boring city, for sure. The shophouses give characters to Penang Heritage City. Besides historical events attached to some particular units, they played a major role when Penang started the bid to be listed in UNESCO's World Heritage Cities program.

The features and styles of these shophouses evolve over the years. They started from simple early shophouses with cheap attap roof and wooden structures.

Late eclectic shop house in Penang
Colorful, elaborate decoration is common for
Straits Chinese Late Eclectic Style Shophouse

Later on, in its heyday, just before World War II, the design, details and effort to decorate the facade went over the top. The only limiting factor to its design was how much money the owner was willing to spend to maintain and beautify its facade. The more elaborate and expensive shop houses showed how influential or affluent the owners were.

Architects agree that the styles of the shophouses were influenced by the mix of cultural background of all major races residing in Penang at that time.

However, all of them had common traits: two storey shoplots (later on, some were built with three levels), narrow in width, stretched long on the side, with covered sidewalk (5 foot walkway - in Malay, we call it "kaki lima").

There is a reason why the shop houses were built with really narrow width.

The average width was about five meters. Shophouses were built following the design from Holland.

Strait chinese early shop houses style
A row of plain Straits Chinese Early Shophouse Style

In Malacca, where the Dutch ruled for about 200 years, the shop houses were taxed according to the width of its front elevation.

Naturally, smart landlords built their property to minimize the tax. Since the length of the shop was not taxed accordingly, some of these shops could reach up to thirty meters long!

Penang and Singapore were also part of the Straits Settlement colony during the British rule. Hence, shop houses in both places also followed the same architecture.

The more prominent examples were owned by Straits Settlement Chinese (also known as Baba and Nyonya). The shop houses are mostly Straits Eclectic Style.

An airwell (a section in the middle of the building with no roof) was built to cool the building before air-conditioning was invented and long vertical windows on the top floor facing the roadside help for extra ventilation too.

To release hot air trapped in the building, jack roof was built also. Jack roofs could be seen on some of the later examples of the shop houses in Penang.

A typical shop house serves a few purposes. It is a trading center during the day (the front part of the ground floor), as storage, kitchen and bathroom (the back area of the lower floor), and as living areas in the top floor especially during the night.

Shop houses as private residences
These shop houses are residential homes, they have front yards with fences.

However, there are some rows where the shophouses are used exclusively as private residences only. Most of the time, the rows enjoy long narrow fenced front yards as part of their property.

Here is the summary of the styles of shop houses in Penang. Starting from early 19th century to present time.

Each style has distinctive features to differentiate from one style to another. If you are like me, with a sudden liking to these marvelous pieces of art and architecture, you will be able see the differences as well as the similarities which keep changing over time.

There is a direct relationship between the level of prosperity of the nation and the luxurious and elaborate design each shop house presented.

  • Early shop houses style (1800 to 1850's)
  • Early transitional style (1840 - 1900's)
  • Neo-classical Style (19th to early 20th century)
  • Early Straits Eclectic Style (1900-1920's)
  • Late Straits Eclectic Style (1920-1940's)
  • Art Deco Style (1930-1950's)
  • Early Modern Style (post WWII till 1970's)

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