The Influence of a Multicultural Society on Penang's Architecture

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 This post was written by Kat Fatland

Penang owes its rich culture and architectural splendor to the various races that found a home on the island during its years as a port. Kat Fatland admires the diverse styles and designs these influences brought to her home city’s architecture.

In the 2008 inscription jointly establishing George Town and Melaka as World Heritage Sites, UNESCO states that these two towns “constitute a unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia.”

Upon a first read, the statement seems impossibly bold: after all, there are a myriad of architecturally interesting cities all over the region, what could possibly make Penang and its sister city so special? The answer, in short, is quite a bit. From Malay kampungs to Anglo Indian bungalows, from Chinese shophouses to Colonial-style churches, Penang’s list of international influences is all-encompassing. Like much of its heritage, the island’s architectural style reflects the serendipitous outcome of cultures coming together.

People And Penang

Penang’s architectural history could be said to have truly begun in 1786 when it became a British trading post. Thanks in part to founder Francis Light’s good relations with locals and regional traders, settlers started moving to the island en masse, coming from Arabia, Siam, India and China, Indonesia, and mainland Malaya. Soon, the city could boast a core group of permanent residents who began to set up shop throughout the island.

Penang happened to be in a very unique position to cater to the settlers’ wishes to bring with them something of their homeland. Unlike the surrounding areas, where systems of government could implement strictures on foreign or local architectural influence (in nearby Kedah, for example, no one could build a house taller than the Sultan’s palace), Penang could accommodate a host of diverse customs. Thus, the Indian traders brought with them their Anglo-Indian traditions, the Chinese brought their courtyard houses, and the Europeans brought their neoclassicist designs.


Smartly, instead of producing replicas of buildings from their country of origin, builders took note of what local Malay houses had to offer and adapted accordingly. Perfectly suited for the tropical climes, the typical Malay house was constructed largely from timber and atap. The houses were stilted to provide ample ventilation to the rooms above, and a sloping atap roof offered shade over the verandah. These features, along with the building materials, were largely borrowed by other traditions as they went about building their own abodes.

The Penang bungalow is a particularly apt example of the blending of many traditions into one regal household. The bungalow, derived from the Hindi term bungla, originally came to the island via India. There, the bungalow was a simple four-walled structure made of mud and later brick with a low, sweeping roof. These structures were commonly built for the lower class, while the upper class resided in the colonial-style pucka houses, characterised by their flat roofs, a form exemplified in Penang’s Suffolk house.


When the bungalow reached Penang however, it lost all low-class connotations. Here, the buildings were recreated using

Indian brick masonry and Malay-style timber. The form became popular among the families of Indian and Arab traders – the Jawi Peranakans – who chose to group together their bungalows in typical Malay kampungs (a term that gave birth to the English word “compound”). The Europeans, who also found the form useful, married the Malay and Indian traditions with their own traditions, building huge two-storey bungalows with well-ventilated stilted verandahs, sweeping rooftops, and European porte cochéres. These “Penang bungalows” can be found all around the island today.

Lucky Locations

While the Europeans and Jawi Peranakans gravitated towards the bungalow form, the Baba Nyonya families, made up of a Chinese trader with a local wife, preferred to reside right in the heart of the business district, as traders often considered the location where they first got their “big break” to be lucky.

The Baba Nyonya residential shop houses and dwelling houses are a form all their own, celebrated throughout Penang and the region. Whether business or residential, each shop house shares a few common characteristics: Each includes an intricately decorated air vent, commonly featuring the image of a peony (symbolizing wealth) and the bat (symbolizing good fortune).

Their façades reflect the time in which they were made, with simple single-shuttered second-storey windows representing the early South Chinese style, while the more intricately designed triple-arched and shuttered secondstorey windows represent the later Straits Eclectic phase.

And, of course, there are those wonderful five-foot walkways. First implemented in 1826, these public walkways were soon paved with intricate tiles, which protected both the walk and the building’s façade from water damage. The buildings themselves originally took to the Malay timber and atap materials, but after a series of fires, they were soon replaced with brick.

The Chinese residential shop house provides a perfect balance between function and symbolism. Designed to utilize every bit of space, each dwelling house has the same basic features: a Chinese screen a few feet back from the doorway to hold back bad energy, a courtyard providing ventilation and natural sunlight, a Chinese altar, and intricately designed doors, often featuring images of vases (peace and tranquility) and peaches (longevity). By the early 20th century, the Straits Chinese house became popularised. As wealth began to rise, it was not uncommon to see an ornately furnished dwelling house set up against a slum.

Splendid Structures

Perhaps the most materially ornate houses in Penang, as well as the most culturally diverse, are the mansions of Southeast Asia’s richest men. Penang’s famous green Peranakan Mansion, a townhouse once owned by Chung Keng Kooi, the Kapitan China of Perak, features Cantonese glassworks, Scottish iron gates, European floors, and a vaguely Venetian exterior. The Blue Mansion, the foremost capitalist Cheong Fatt Tze’s most grand abode, features art nouveau stained glass windows, Victorian floor tiles, and timber wall decorations.


Largely built according to the principles of Feng Shui, the Straits Chinese houses promote a sense of calm and wellbeing, or good chi, yet remain incredibly extravagant in design, signalling to any visitor that no material possession was out of reach.

Even the places of worship in George Town come from a diverse blend of traditions. Penang’s St. George’s Church was built in the European neoclassical tradition. The Kapitan Keling Mosque was built in the north Indian Moghul style. The Acheen Street mosque marries the colonial, Indian, and Malay style together, and the Sri Mariamman temple represents the classical Dravidian architecture of South India.

The sheer amount of depth to the architecture found on Penang could make any enthusiast swoon with delight. The buildings’ wonderfully diverse designs make Penang a visual delight enjoyed by locals, expats and tourists alike. Like every cultural element of this intriguing island, from its food to its local dialect, the city’s architecture tells a rich historical tale of the intermingling of traditions, and the fusion of two worlds into one.


Heritage Houses of Penang by Khoo Salma Nasution and Halim Berbar provided much of the material found in this article. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the architectural heritage of Penang.


Source: Senses of Malaysia May-Jun 2013
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