Chinese ShopHouses – The South East Asia Urban Vernacular Architecture Wonder

I am raised in Kuala Lumpur. Remembering during the teenage times, after my SPM few months, I would always love the walk around Pasar Seni towards Berjaya Time Square the area. The area has had some Chinese shophouses too, but I would never realize their existence until I came to Penang. It’s been 3 years since I came here, I would be very honest to say that Malaysians have much more to do to appreciate Georgetown and its Chinese shophouses. The reason why Georgetown is recognized as UNESCO heritage zone is because Georgetown has the largest stock of Chinese Shophouses like this in South East Asia.

This picture is taken at Chulia Street. I won’t go into detail about the ” Core and Buffer Zones” of Georgetown Heritage site.  But it’s buildings like these light up the unique theme in Georgetown. It’s because of its density that forms the urban fabric that gave me the feeling of the past instead of over commercialized area such as Petaling Street. I blog about Malay Participatory Design in their Malay House HERE, this time i would like to share more about “Chinese Shoplots”


The shophouse is a vernacular architectural building type commonly seen in Urban South East Asia cities. Vernacular simply means domestic or Native, something from Local, while Polite suggested the other way. There are normally 2-3 stories height, with a shop on the ground for mercantile activity and a residence above the shop. This type of building form isn’t strange as Chinese traders spread across the region bringing this practice everywhere. I have seen it in Kuala Terengganu, Singapore, Ipoh and Malacca personally. But so far, one could really talk a lot about this particular building architecture in Georgetown, because within Chinese Shophouses there are a lot of types as well.


Any Architecture Building Forms speaks different language as their elements gives the overall theme impression to the users. Here are the elements:


One reason why i love the urban fabric of Georgetown Heritage zone is because chinese shophouses has narrow fronts and deep rears, possibly 5 to 8 times the length of the width. This gives them minimal space and more focus to decorate the entrance elevation. Which most of the time it will be done by a 2 or 3 arch windows with horizontal louvers. This gives more filling to the elevation content as some tends to add facade ornamentatino.

One reason relates to taxes, i.e. the idea that buildings were historically taxed according to street frontage rather than total area, thereby creating an economic motivation to build narrow and deeply. Another reason is building technology: the timber beams that carried the roof and floor loads of these structures were supported by masonry party walls.


Chinese Shophouses come together as a group. It’s different compared to Gothic Architecture or Roman Greece Architecture as these architecture suggest focus on a single building with it’s specific elements too. There’s nothing between 2 chinese shophouses but a party wall. The unique view of Chinese Shophouses must be seen as a group or a row along the streets as it’s the repetitive elements that suggest a horizontal grid offset from the road. The 2-3 floors height certainly emphasize it’s horizontal element more in comparison to vertical.


One of the most distinguish, most said character of the shophouse is actually five foot walkways. This is a covered walkway along the road and is within the shophouse property line but it is for public use, it provides pedestrians shade from sun and rain. It’s a result from the  Raffles Ordinances (1822) for Singapore which stipulated that “all houses constructed of brick or tiles have a common type of front each having an arcade of a certain depth, open to all sides as a continuous and open passage on each side of the street”. This practice spread to other States in British Malaya and by-laws with requirements for “verandah-ways of…at least seven feet measuring from the boundary of the road …..and the footway within any verandah-way must be at least five feet in the clear.”

The five foot walkway provides an interesting secondary urban fabric as the pedestrians walk through different shophouses with mysterious depth of sight. Often the five foot walk way also runs the shophouses business by extending premises to the walkway.. or even trying to gain visual publicity to the public by exhibiting their items outside their premises.


With the depth of up to 35 meters, Chinese shophouses have a variety of open to sky spaces to admit natural daylight as well as natural air. It’s often that this area would be a family dining or living space as the void creates a sufficient lighting and ventilation area. It’s one of the most spectacular thing because with this element, the entire depth of the shophouse seems to be lighted up.


When it comes to building technology, Chinese Shophouses use load bearing walls, with wooden stilts as a beam, and with wooden planks laid on top of it. Therefore the width of the building varies depends on the stress capability of the wood. This Load bearing wall is also known as Party Walls which separate most shophouses from their neighbours. They transfer the weight of the roof and upper floors down to the ground, unlike the post and beam system we have today. The benefit of this masonry system compared to post and beam system is that it serves as a barrier to the spread of fire in a crowded urban settlement.


There are again many types of Chinese Shophouses, there’s one time where colours began to be significant. Imagine a whole row of repetitive shophouses, what is one of the thing that differs one from the other? COLOURS. Within this topic itself, there would be a lot of information as colours have meaning behind it in relation to their users. By the mid-20th century, pastel colours (rose pink, baby blue, light yellow, etc.) became popular, and they remain the colours that most people most strongly associate with these buildings. However, many contemporary or restored shophouses have now taken to using very bold colours, including deep reds, black, silver, gold, purple, etc.

The ornamentation is also highly significant as it tells the story of the building.  Traditional shophouse facade ornamentation draws inspiration from the Malay, Chinese and European traditions. European neo-classical motifs include egg-and-dart mouldings and ionic or corinthian capitals on decorative pilasters. From the Malay building tradition, elaborate woodwork has been borrowed in the form of carved panels. fascia boards, louvres, screens and fretwork. Finally, from the Chinese tradition comes mythological motifs like phoenixes. Other traditions include the use ofPeranakan pastel coloured glazed tiles, often with floral or geometric motifs.

For more example, this is a model of the Chinese Shophouse i took from URA Center.

As you see, the three models above suggest a sufficient lighting throughout the depth. Even though it is as deep as 35 meters, but the overall section strongly shows a sufficient direct sunlight opening that enables daylight to reach every single part of the building.

These are some of the pictures i took inside a guesthouse which were modified from a chinese shophouse. Well it still looks exactly like how i have elaborated. Note that the Daylight looks just so beautiful and certainly any artificial light could not imitate the effect of it.

Note the horizontal louvers window blinds that is able to be adjusted to determine the amount of daylight receive.. or simply just open the window fully to get maximum lighting. The Staircase also plays an interesting element in the house actually as it could be very steep and have a straight flight without any landing in the middle unlike our current Uniform Building By Laws have enforced its rules for stairs design with specific measurements.

More pictures of Day lighting.


As the chinese shophouses have existed up more than 100 years, several version has been made, this can be due to the building technology, or culture evolution.. or fashion or trends.


This is a scanned copy i did from the information leaflet i got from Singapore URA Center. It’s a documentation of the types of chinese shophouses existed in Singapore, stating their evolution of designs.


Any heritage building has its danger against modernism or development. Despite being known as the UNESCO heritage area, Georgetown constantly faces threat as greedy developers play around the corner of laws to get lands for their development. On the other hand, also due to maintenance cost, a lot of owners are not able to renovate their heritage building but rather tear it down.

The conservation works in Georgetown is taking up, but still not fast enough, this is what i concluded after walking around this heritage city and observing the progress. There are a lot of attention to it but more can be done. The building technology we rely on today is post and beam and concrete and many companies or labor work specialize on that, but unlike for Chinese shophouse where it’s about masonry and timber works.

The cost to renovate these buildings takes expertise and rare materials, hence flying the cost and making it slow to be recovered. It takes time.

But we see that new urban infill projects are taking up the pace of respect by doing their best by imitating the designs a bit.


Sourced from TheStar recently,

THE cost of buying a pre-World War II shophouse in George Town, Penang, has reached RM2,000 per square foot — equivalent to the price of the poshest Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC) condominium units.

According to informed sources, one businessman from Bukit Mertajam recently snapped up RM20mil worth of pre-war property, including shophouses, in one day.

The Even derelict property is now seeing interest. The defunct Nam Wah Hotel & Bar, located at a prime location in Lebuh Chulia, was sold for RM7mil last year. The property comprises double-shophouse units with a land area of 14,000sq ft.

Such shophouse properties are often turned into “heritage” hotels, charging an average of RM300 to RM400 per room per night.

Local entrepreneur Seah Kok Heng, 42, says he spent RM3mil in 2008 to acquire three derelicts, triple-storey shophouses located at Rope Walk or Jalan Pintal Tali.

Then, he spent another RM10mil to restore and transform the adjoining units into the Chinese-themed 1881 Chong Tian Hotel, where certain suites sell for over RM2,000 a night.




Hopefully that this helps you much =) Feel free to email me or leave a message if you would like add/update some information regarding chinese shophouse! Thank you to sources such as WIKIPEDIA and GOOGLEd Images.