Chinese shop houses and cultural change in Penang

Chinese shop houses and the legacy of a former East India Company settlement, George Town, Penang, Malaysia: fascinating insights from Gwynn Jenkins.

The neighbouring houses (pictured above and below) demonstrate cultural change as the settlement in George Town evolved to become part of the World Heritage Site.

Both houses would have at one time looked the same – Chinese shop houses with a traditional “Southern Chinese" eclectic façade, overhanging eaves, on Chinese Chi Tou brackets, timber shutters, and green ceramic air vents tiles for the bressumer wall.

The facades were often altered to follow new trends in design whilst the interiors and hierarchy of spaces followed cultural norms. The decorative porcelain cut and paste shard work was used to decorate houses of the wealthier Chinese. The house below is where, on 14 November 1910, Sun Yat Sen made his rousing fundraising speech at the Penang conference of the Tongmenghui party.

Its neighbour pictured above shows the influence of the RIBA architects when they arrived at the turn of the 20th century. Elements of fashionable Edwardian Baroque architecture evolved into “Straits Baroque” on major new buildings, particularly buildings of commerce and the homes of the new Chinese elite. Familiar decoration of swags and cartouche began to appear on lesser buildings, such as this shophouse, introducing glazed transom lights, decorative columns and restyled capitols, though keeping traces of Chinese details such as the ‘cloud’ motif on the column panels.

Gwynn Jenkins is a member of our International Advisory Committee. She contributed to the UNESCO nomination for George Town and Melaka and she continues to research the technical influences and urban evolutions along the early trade routes from Calcutta to Canton.

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