An Ingenious Architecture

Very possibly the most ingenious building design in Penang to come out of the early 20th century is the double-storey shophouse. Till today, you’ll still be able to see evidence of its genius – where work and family lives collided harmoniously in one space, under one roof, resulting in saving time in terms of commuting to work and adding it toward precious family time instead.

The dual role that the shophouse allowed had always made George Town a ‘living’ town even at night, after the work day ends. This was because with families residing in the same spot as their businesses were run, noise and family activities continued long after shutters were drawn over their ground floor stores or offices.

The rule of thumb when it came to a shophouse was, the family lived upstairs or on its second floor while the business was run from its ground floor which opened directly to the road with the exception of a five-foot way for pedestrians that also acted as a breathing space before the road. Normally, shophouses were built long but narrow with an air well situated in the middle that allowed in sunshine for light and sufficient ventilation.

Today, these shophouses continue its useful role, mainly as a workspace and in a few cases also as a dwelling in George Town. Most of the shophouses have been restored and given a new lease of life as trendy eateries, hotels or boutiques. However, a handful still retain the trades of yesteryears. You may glimpse these traditional businesses while wandering through town as examples of the wonderful usage of space and imagine the division of work and family life.

Old-School Coffeeshop
They are ubiquitous in Penang. In George Town itself, you’ll find these Chinese coffeeshops at almost every street corner. What you’ll see is a few stalls in the front as well as within the interior and a drink-making station in the back. Often, their breakfast menu dissolves into a lunch one and as evening dawns, dinner. Seeing their long hours, it was most convenient for families to live above the coffeeshops then and for some, still do now.

Textile Shop
Along Lebuh Chulia, in those days, textile stores were aplenty during the time when Penang was a duty free port. Today, however, you’ll find some along Jalan Penang, closer to Upper Penang Road and also Lebuh Campbell. They are still popular among shoppers when cultural or religious festivals such as Hari Raya, Deepavali, Christmas or Chinese New Year, hit. Another occasion that always call for fabric is, of course, wedding.

Traditional Barber
A place where men are groomed (above the neck), the barber is an institution when it comes to haircut and a close shave – no pun intended. Here, RM10 can stretch to both haircut and a shave. In the old days, it was also a social spot for men to sit and exchange news and gossip.

Chai Diam Ma
The old style provision or grocery store is fast fading away due to hyper markets and large supermarkets with myriad choices that are inexpensive. Still, it is worth noting that these are neighbourhood stores designed for last minute convenience and they normally sell everyday needs such as toiletries, fresh produce for quick meals such as vegetables and eggs, as well as stationery, toys, tea, coffee, biscuits and the like.

Chettiar Kitangi
Before banks existed in a big way in Penang, chettiars in Penang were often big property owners but property rental wasn’t their only revenue. They also had money-lending service to the people and on Jalan Penang, close to Little India, you’ll still see them in existence. They often shared their space with one or two others for economy of space as well as rent. Pretty shrewd, they were and still are.

Image credit: Leonard Selva