11 July 2015: Penang Shophouses—A Handbook of Features & Materials

Penang’s architectural heritage is one of the finest in Southeast Asia. Whether you are interested in interior design, preserving a shophouse or simply exploring architectural history, this book is a valuable resource.

shophouses-1The historic and culture-rich inner city of George Town has been undergoing rapid changes in landscape, living standards and lifestyle aspirations for quite a while. Many of the structures, dating from early 19th century are no longer in their original state. “Few buildings today remain as they were first designed” writes Dr. Gwynn Jenkins in the foreword to Penang Shophouses: A Handbook of Features and Materials, the focus of this week’s newsletter. It’s a view that is also shared by many others, including Koh Shim Luen, the artist and author of The Straits Shophouse: George Town & Malacca, who described the changes as falling anywhere between lovingly restored or recklessly defaced. Clearly, the risks of improper conservation-restoration can be mitigated by first acquiring thorough knowledge of the work involved.

Tan Yeow Wooi is a Penang-based architect who has devoted 30 years (and counting) to documenting heritage buildings and conservation-restoration work. His recently released book,Penang Shophouses: A Handbook of Features and Materials, is a pinnacle of achievement – the product of tireless and painstaking research into the minutiae of design, materials and techniques of shophouse styles as they evolved from late 18th century to middle decades of the 20th century. “It serves as a valuable guide”, says Dr. Jenkins, “for young designers, architects, contractors and owners, who don’t remember [or know] the old and original forms but want to return to the traditional ways, and to conserve a living heritage.”


A variety of tiles from different architectural styles and periods.

This book begins with a substantive introduction to the main features of the six major shophouse form in Penang. The next five chapters covers the different parts of the shophouse structure: roof types; walls; doors and windows; floors and staircases; and paints and colours. All the materials and features are shown with clear images, listed with the name, material composition and dimensions, if they are available.

“The best form of protection is to educate the public, especially property owners, on why heritage buildings should not be destroyed” says Tan. Promoting an awareness of shophouse conservation is even more imperative today – some of George Town’s built heritage are already beyond help and many more are threatened. As a reference guide, Penang Shophouses: A Handbook of Features and Materials works effectively on several levels, for both professionals and laypersons. Its métier, as a survival kit for the ‘silent monuments’ of Penang and George Town’s legacy, puts it in, without a doubt, a class of its own.