Malaysia: shophouses of Georgetown, where East meets West

The decidedly Old World shophouses of Georgetown, full of lurid detail, mixing the best from East and West.

Why visit?
The shophouses of Georgetown are a unique manifestation of overseas Chinese architecture. Combining Chinese designs and principles of feng shui with European building techniques, they really offer the best of both worlds.

And in many ways, old Georgetown is more Chinese than China. Cultural traditions that have long disappeared in China proper (thanks, Mao!) continue to exist in this cultural oasis. 

The island of Penang. Map.

GEORGETOWN IS THE Singapore that wasn't.

Both cities are located on small islands off the Malay Peninsula, inhabited by ethnic Chinese (mostly Hokkien and other Southern Chinese). After independence they both ended up as part of Malaysia. But where Singapore got quickly booted out, set its own economic course, and never looked back, Georgetown and Penang remained part of Malaysia, and became something of an economic backwater as (ethnic Malay) power was concentrated in Kuala Lumpur.

And so where most Asian metropolises project a late 20th or early 21st century feel (skyscrapers! glass! steel!), Georgetown looks decidedly Old World, a harmoniously preserved cityscape of humble houses and a few colonial institutions.

The understated star of old Georgetown is the shophouse, a typical Straits Chinese building consisting of, you guessed it, a shop with a house on top. Although there are shophouses in other parts of South East Asia (including Singapore), Georgetown is rumoured to have the largest number of them, and they are all clustered together in the old center.
Somebody forgot to build the skyscrapers....
Downstairs, the shop. Upstairs, the house. 
You can hardly call Penang a Minor Sight- the island attracts large number of visitors, but most of them come for its beaches (decidedly over-rated) and its food (justifiably highly rated). And although the now UNESCO-listed old town attracts lots of visitors too, I still feel its worth drawing your attention to the humble shophouse and its many varied forms.
A few prime specimens. 
A good place to start is the shop 41 Living Story on 41 Love Lane which is a restored shophouse that also displays some panels about the house's history, including excellent information provided by Georgetown's Heritage Resource Center.  

With your newfound knowledge, walk the streets (or the five-foot walkways) and you'll soon turn into a shophouse-detail spotter. These are all humble houses, but many of them are rich in decoration, drawing inspiration both from the West (Renaissance arches, Corinthian columns, Venetian blinds) and from the East (butterfly windows, feng shui mirrors, colourful tiles). Who said that 'never the twain shall meet'? Clearly Kipling was wrong.
Renaissance arches and Corinthian columns provide a touch of the West...

...and butterfly air vents a touch of the East (they allow circulation of hot air trapped under the ceiling.)
A riot of colourful tiles lines the entrance of many shophouses.
Each shophouse also features a five-foot walkway, a covered verandah, which, as most of them are connected, make it possible to move around whilst staying cool- or dry in the case of a tropical downpour.
Five feet of shade. 
In many ways, Georgetown is more Chinese than China. Sixty years of Communist rule wiped out many Chinese traditions, disregarded as either superstition or bourgeois behaviour, most dramatically during the Cultural Revolution. 

In the sleepy backstreets of Georgetown, this old-fashioned culture survived and thrived, as witnessed by the many small shrines, feng shui bagua mirrors and clan houses that serve as community centers. So far it has withstood both the onslaught of the Banana Pancake Trail, which arrived a few decades ago, and boutique hotel fad, which sees whole houses gutted of their interior and converted into pricey hotels with pretty facades that would make Potemkin proud. 
Keeping the bad luck out- reflecting right back at you, the passer-by.  
Small shrine in a five-foot walkway. 
Calligraphy on an old door. Drop us a message if you can read it!

Getting there:
Once you get to Georgetown, the job is done. If given the chance, always opt for the ferry that shuttles between the mainland and the Georgetown jetty for that proper 'The Eagle has landed' feeling. The bridge from the mainland is strictly for cheats.

Wander through the many streets and alleys of the old center, keeping in mind that the most-picturesquely dilapidated shophouses are often found off the main tourist drags.

Be sure to check out one of the best preserved Chinese mansions in George Town, the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, which we've described here
Picturesquely dilapidated- and overgrown too!

Useful links:
The Heritage Resource Center information panels are mandatory reading for anybody interested in these houses.


  1. Hi there. The Calligraphy on the door is " Fu Hai, Shou Shan" it is an expression is literally translates as "Your age ancient as the mountains, your happiness wide as the sea" and is a expression of blessing/ well wishes. - From Singapore!

  2. to add, the original full phrase is 福如東海, 壽比南山 (fu ru dong hai, shou bi nan shan). It means: Good fortune as wide as the Eastern Sea, and Life as long as the Southern Mountain.

    1. Hi Paisley, thanks so much for the translation. That's really good to know. Cheers!


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