Visitors to Penang will not miss the shophouses spread throughout the island state. In its capital city of George Town alone, there are around 10,000 shophouses most of which were built before World War II.
Constructed in rows and connected by party walls, these two- or three-storey shophouses shape the face of this historical city, declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2008. Each shophouse has its own unique architectural and decorative features, representing different eras of George Town’s history, and revealing the influence of Chinese, Malay, Indian and European styles. This mix of cultures, converged and adapted in response to the local environment over time, has become a main attraction to visitors and investors alike. A retired couple, Scott Berry and Naoko Takagi, smitten by these old shophouses of Penang decided to acquire, restore and call one their home. TIMBER MALAYSIA details their adventure as well as their passion to use traditional materials including recycled wood during restoration work to reinstate the shophouse to its original form.
Scott and Naoko have always appreciated old houses and their dream was to own a town house that comes with an air-well and traditional features such as timber doors and shutters. Coupled with their intention to reside in Penang under the “Malaysia My Second Home” programme, buying an old shophouse in George Town would fit in with their plans nicely. But with several shophouses to choose from, it took Scott and Naoko a while to decide where in the historical city they would like to live. Scott, from the UK, recalled how they ended up buying their dream shophouse at Chulia Lane, which is sited within the core zone of George Town World Heritage Site.
“We wanted a view of life on the streets from our shophouse, not just one of another shophouse or shophouses right across the street. When we were shown this shophouse (number 17C), which is situated right at a T-junction with Market Lane and has a back lane that can be connected to Love Lane, we decided to buy it,” said Scott. Due to its geographic location and proper arrangement of space and openings, the house is well-ventilated.
This two-storey shophouse was built in the 1930’s, and belongs to the “Late Straits Eclectic” style of shophouse. It is a small-size single section shophouse measuring 3.25m (10.65 feet) wide and 14.47m (47.43 feet) long, which give a total area of 47m2 (505sq2). Originally, the ground floor consisted of a front walkway (five-foot way), a hall in the middle, and a kitchen and toilet at the back. The upper floor consisted of two bedrooms. Formerly, No. 17C functioned as a sundry shop known as Sin Heap Aun. It was later rented out as a residential house before being sold to Scott and Naoko in November 2008.
Having passed through the hands of various owners, most of the features of the shophouse were no longer in their original state. Scott then engaged the expertise of a well-known local conservation architect, Tan Yeow Wooi, to conduct some research on the history of the shophouse’s architectural and decorative features as well as to undertake the overall restoration process.
“My major concern was to do away with anything modern like the collapsible metal front doors. And the previous owners might have thought that they were keeping up with the times by painting over the original and beautiful woodworks. All these had to be replaced to reinstate their original form,” said Scott.
As such, in the restoration process, the collapsible metal door at the main entrance that had been changed to a shopfront about 20 years ago was removed and replaced with a new center timber “comb door” that is traditionally Chinese in design.
A new brick wall at the front was erected to accommodate the installation of this door, whose sliding timber strip openings were made by a local carpenter. It incorporates an antique, gilded carved timber panel, which was bought from China. In addition, wood-framed windows and fan-shaped air vents were installed on the wall according to their original positions in the front of the shophouse. The upper floor front façade windows were also recreated using original materials, such as timber shutters stained with dark brown shellac, and glass panels.
Inside the shophouse, the original staircase was very steep and was inconveniently close to the door that opens up to the kitchen at the back. “So we swapped the positioning of the door and the adjacent window, and at the same time, moved the staircase back and altered it to become a dog-leg or half-turn stair. Besides creating more space, this stair design also created a storage space underneath, which is necessary for such a small house,” said Scott.
At the rear section, the asbestos roof covering the kitchen and toilet was completely dismantled to make way for the construction of a new kitchen and bathroom. Solid hardwood racks of two inches thick were installed in the one-foot thick masonry wall between the bathroom and kitchen. Inspired by the old shophouse wall cabinet design and the advantages of a thick wall, a smaller size wall cabinet was designed and installed on the part of the wall facing the kitchen sink.
A granite paved air-well was recreated, surrounded by an open kitchen and corridor-cum-dining area. Timber railings circumscribe the air-well, hence allowing visual connection to the ground floor as well as promoting ventilation. Incorporating a narrow piece of open ground for planting trees and cutting a small niche on the wall allow the air-well to become a garden or the center focus of the house, which can be enjoyed by the owners daily.
On the upper floor, the original two bedrooms had flat low ceilings, and no terrace was attached to the rear section. In the restoration progress, all the ceilings and partitions were taken down, leaving a single spacious room with a high ceiling of timber strips running parallel along the slope of the pitched roof. For the floors, ten-inch-wide melunak timber floor planks were installed after the replacement and levelling of damaged joists. The rear section was extended into an L-shape with a corridor leading to the toilet and an open shower at the end. The roof was covered with V-shaped terra-cotta roof tiles supported by a Chinese stag truss system.
For Scott and Naoko, owing and living in number 17C Chulia Lane, which is one of 3,800 pre-war shophouses sited within the UNESCO designated 259-hectare heritage area in George Town, is a life-long dream fulfilled. But even more fulfilling was the use of timber, mainly Balau and Merbau, to recreate the original eclectic design of the shophouse. As Scott puts it: “As timber was the original material used for different parts of the house like the roof trusses, joists, staircase, flooring, and front door and windows, it is only right that timber be used in the restoration. This is the house we love, and we will not trade it for anything else in the world.”