25 May 2013

Kuala Lumpur: the shophouses

Of the many architectural works that attracted my eye during my recent short break in Kuala Lumpur, the old shophouses were some of the most colourful and character-filled.

As the name suggests, these buildings were a practical combination of shop on the ground floor – which might also include some kind of service provider like a barber, or a cottage industry like a lantern maker, or a community space like a school – and living accommodation, for one or more families, on the upper one or two storeys. 

This building type is common throughout southeast Asia, where examples can be seen in those admirable cities that have preserved their historical heritage, and is similar in many ways to the British terraced house, with no separation but rather a single partition wall between the individual structures.

Kuala Lumpur suffered a massive fire in 1881, devastating for the people of the time but fortunate for lovers of these architectural gems, as, afterwards, the British Resident instructed the locals to rebuild a version of traditional attap (wooden houses) but with clay bricks and tiled roofs. Though many shophouses are now sadly crumbling and decrepit-looking, and overshadowed by modern concrete and glass monstrosities, the use of more permanent construction materials has ensured that many have survived into the 21st century.

These are narrow but deep constructions – an approximate size would be 20 feet x 80 feet but there is nothing standard about these buildings! Their narrowness may reflect the fact that buildings were traditionally taxed by the size of their street frontages, or it may be due to the practicalities of obtaining wooden beams to span the building’s width (rather than having to build inner supporting walls).

There is usually an open court-yard in the middle of the building to provide natural light and ventilation throughout the structure, and all shophouses were required to have a five-foot-wide covered walkway (called kaki lima in Malay) along the street frontage, to allow pedestrians to walk in the shade during the summer, to keep dry during the rainy season and to shelter from vehicular traffic. This eminently sensible idea dates as far back as 1573, when Phillip II of Spain included a similar decree for constructions in South China, and can also be seen in the historical buildings of Manila and Singapore.

In inner-city Kuala Lumpur the oldest shophouses can be found along what was High Street but is now called Jalan Tun H.S. Lee (jalan is the Malay word for road). The oldest examples date from the 1880s but the more common are the neoclassical buildings dating from the early 1900s. Their facades incorporate elements of Chinese, Malay, Indian and European design, including Ionic columns, intricate egg-and-dart and Chinese mythological motifs in the plaster mouldings, and ornate wooden window frames and fretwork.

Another interesting feature along these old roads of Kuala Lumpur is that the roads are often higher above ground than the shop frontages. The repaving of roads and the addition of sewers and other utilities has, over the years, raised the road surface above the level of the five-foot walkway.

Though traditionally the shophouses would have been plastered an off-white colour, many of the modern survivors have been painted a riot of bright colours, ranging from sunshine yellow and peppermint green to lipstick pink. In Kuala Lumpur, some of the heritage walking tours incorporate shophouse-lined streets in their itineraries but it is easy enough to discover these beauties for yourself, simply by wandering the old streets of the Chinatown area. They are a feast for the architectural eye and deserve to be conserved and restored to their former beauty.