Back to Main Page




Dr. A. Ghafar Ahmad

Paper presented at "Minggu Warisan Baba dan Nyonya" , Universiti Sains Malaysia , December 3, 1994

babahous.jpg (129040 bytes)

History of the Peranakan Cina

When Princess Hang Li Po of China was given in marriage to Sultan Mansur Shah, who reigned Malacca from 1459-1477, she was accompanied by 500 Chinese youths who later stayed on a hill called Bukit Cina. One might say that the Peranakan Cina of Malacca are descended from these youths. Others say that the Peranakan Cina are the result of inter-marriage between the Chinese and the local non-Muslim Malays including the Javanese, Balinese, Amboynese and Bataks who were brought by the Dutch in the 17th Century from Indonesia. Their descendents became known as the Peranakan Cina or the Straits Chinese and are always referred to as the Baba Nyonya. Such communities later flourished in the former British colonies along the Straits of Malacca or the Straits Settlements, namely Penang, Malacca and Singapore. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Straits Chinese concentrated in other urban areas of Kedah, Perak, Selangor and Johore.

In Malay language, the term Peranakan, which comes from the word anak or child, means those who are descendants of an inter-marriage between a Malay and any other ethnic groups. Such term can be applied to local-born Peranakan India, Peranakan Orang Putih or Peranakan Cina. For the Peranakan Cina; Malay food, costumes and language are assimilated into their culture so much so that they are also known as the Baba Melayu. However, most of them are either Buddhists or Christians. The Peranakan Cina in Penang speak a distinctive Hokkien dialect incorporating Malay words; so do their counterpart communities in Medan, Phuket and Rangoon. While the Peranakan Cina of Malacca and Singapore speak a Malay dialect with Hokkien words. Today, the Peranakan Cina mostly of the new generations speak a mixture of English, Hokkien and Malay.

During the Dutch and British colonisation, the Peranakan Cina began to embrace the European style and allied themselves with the foreigners. They came to be identified as an urban white-collar community with high social class, noble lifestyle and living in colonial bungalows or verandahed Anglo-Indian villas; and they also sent their children to English-speaking schools. Those who are into business live in highly decorated shophouses of the Straits Eclectic style. There has been little information on the architectural style of the Peranakan Cina even though there have been a number of accounts written on their social and cultural aspects. The Peranakan Cina are not only associated with their special Nyonya dishes, beaded slippers, embroidered Kebayas and antique collections but also their Straits Eclectic style of architecture. The Straits Eclectic style of architecture began to develop in the 19th and early 20th century. The style combines Eastern and Western elements which in the early 20th Century introduced ceramic artwork and elaborate plaster renderings. Such architecture include shophouses, temples, clan or association buildings and villas or colonial bungalows. In Penang, we may see examples of the Straits Eclectic style along a number of major roads including Magazine Road, Sultan Ahmad Shah Road (Northam Road), Burmah Road, Prangin Creek and Muntri Street. In Malacca, the buildings can be seen along Tun Tan Cheng Lock (Heeren Street) and Hang Jebat Road (Jonkers Street), some of which dated back in the Dutch period.

The main purpose of this paper is to examine the Striats Eclectic architectural style, with a special reference to local shophouses and colonial bungalows. This is primarily due to the fact that these types of buildings reflect more significantly on the social life of the Peranakan Cina in Malaysia. Furthermore, the number of such buildings is greater compared to Chinese temples and clan or association buildings. This paper is divided into two parts. The first part discusses the shophouses followed by a discussion on the colonial bungalows in the second part.


A shophouse or row house has two or more storeys and is a commercial and private structure. The tenants usually use the first floor for commercial purposes such as sundry shop, light industry or warehouses; and reside in the upper floors. The building is not free standing, rather it is connected to several other shophouses to form a shophouse block. This shophouse is repeated to create streets and town squares found in many urban areas in Malaysia. Sometimes, the tenants use both the ground and upper floors for residential. This type of shophouse is normally referred to as terrace house. In such a case, the building has a big entrance with a timber bar locked into the door head, metal-bar and louvered-panel windows on the ground floor and a few openings at upper floors. Shophouses usually have a narrow frontage between 12' to 18' and their length varies greatly from 60' to 140', topped with a pitch roof of not more than 30o. They are often designed in a symmetrical organisation in which the entrance is located in the middle with windows on both sides. A shophouse is characteristically features a five-foot way (kaki lima) or verandahed walkway. This covered five-foot way, typically an arched opening, joins one house with the rest on the street front. Thus, creating a continuous walkway on the front facade of the shophouse block.

Architectural Styles of the Shophouses

One may realise that there are several different architectural styles of shophouses on the street of either Penang, Malacca or towns in Malaysia. Some have stylistic trends of the different periods on the front facade while others have undergone renovation or used modern materials in an effort to increase their property values. Generally, there are four architectural styles of shophouses in Malaysia, which are:

Early Shophouse (18th Century).

The front facade appears to have a continous row of panelled or louvered shutters, timber walls and plain masonry pilasters on the upper floor. Attap was used in the early shophouses but was banned due to fire regulations and later replaced by Chinese clay tiles. The profile of these tiles has changed slightly over time from a V shape to a more rounded shape which is lighter and smaller in size.

Traditional Shophouse (19th Century).

The front walls were made of masonry which became more decorative with either plaster figures or ceramic renderings. A frieze decoration right below the eaves was added displaying paintings or ceramic shard work. Louvered shutters are remained but either iron or timber grilles were inserted in the windows. The top parts of the pilasters were often enlarged to support a purlin at the end of the eaves. In the late 19th Century, the pilasters were much taller and often decorated with plaster renderings.

Straits Eclectic Shophouse (1900 - 1940).

See below for further discussion.

Art Deco Shophouse (1940 - 1960's)

Most of the shophouses built in 1940s began to adopt the European style of Art Deco by having long and thin rectangles, circles or continuous horizontal bands on the front facade. Decoration were restrained on the front walls. Reinforced concrete is widely used to create more cantilevered plans, some were placed over windows serving as shading devices.

The Peranakan Cina are usually associated with the Straits Eclectic style. The following discussion focuses on such architectural style.

Straits Eclectic Style

In the early 20th Century, shophouses in the Straits Settlements began to adopt Western architectural styles with an emphasis on full-length French windows with a pair of full-length timber shutters, an arched or rectangular transom over the window opening, pilasters of classical orders; and plaster renderings. In the early 1900, reinforced concrete was used to allow wider roof overhangs and more elaborate cantilevered brackets which sprung from above the pilasters.

Unlike the early and traditional shophouses which have a continuous row of windows, the Straits Eclectic style developed with the breaking of the facade into two or three moulded openings. Such style became popular among the Peranakan Cina community in either Malacca or Penang. In some shophouses, the pilasters placed between openings, the spaces above the arched transom and below the openings were decorated with plaster renderings such as bouquets of flowers, fruits, mythical figures and geometrical shapes. In addition, some of the window or door panels were beautifully carved. These decorations among other things reflect not only the wealth of the owners or tenants but also their status or position in the local community. One of the main differences between a Peranakan Cina shophouse and a pure Chinese shophouse is the presence of these highly intricate ornaments and carvings.

The Peranakan Cina shophouses reached it richest phase with the addition of coloured tiles on either walls or floors. It is not known wheather it was the Dutch or the Chinese who first brought or introduced ceramic tiles to Malacca. Coloured ceramic tiles are not only popular in the Peranakan Cina shophouses of the Straits Eclectic style but they are also used by the Malays to decorate their main stairs. In the shophouses, the ceramic tiles are usually placed on walls below the front windows on the ground floor facing the street. Flowers and geometrical designs are usually painted on the tiles. Furthermore, coloured floor tiles made of terra-cotta are commonly seen in the Straits Eclectic style, particularly in the verandahed walkway and inside the shophouses. One may spot these features on the shophouses along Magazine Road in Penang and Tun Tan Cheng Lock Road in Malacca.

Most of the shophouses throughout all stylistic periods were built with a series of gable and pitch roofs; with the exception of courtyards or air wells and balcony. Some have a jackroof which is a raised mini-roof locating at the peak of the main roof. The space between the two roofs is filled with patterned grilles or timber louvres. It provides both cross and stack ventilation which reduces the internal heat build-up especially during day time. Load-bearing walls at both sides of the shophouse support the roof load through timber purlins which span horizontally across the width of the building. The walls are at least 15" thick from ground to first floor and 9" onwards. After attap was banned, Chinese clay tiles of a V shape were widely used. The tiles are similar in origin to those used in the Mediterranean roofs, being introduced to Malacca by the Portuguese. In the early 1900's, the inter-locking French Marseilles tiles were introduced to the shophouses in the Straits Settlements. However, these terra-cotta tiles were later replaced with modern roofing materials including metal and asbestos sheets.

A typical Peranakan Cina shophouse usually has the first hall (ruang tamu), second hall (tiah gelap), one or two courtyards or air wells (chim chae), ancestral hall, bedrooms, bridal chamber and kitchen. In those days, visitors to the house were normally allowed to the first hall. The second hall or tiah gelap was usually used by the unmarried Nyonyas to peep through small openings dividing the first and second halls. Now, as the social life changes, the younger generation of Nyonyas no longer hide in the tiah gelap.

Besides the presence of the intricate plaster ornaments, carving and coloured tiles; the Peranakan Cina shophouses are usually filled with antique furniture. During the colonial periods, the interior of the Peranakan Cina house was decorated with Chinese blackwood furniture including the family altar, chairs, side tables as well as ornately carved teak cupboards with intricate mother-of-pearl inlay frames. Porcelain figurines, Nyonya cockery and coloured ceramic wares were finely displayed in these cupboards. This elegantly decorated interior is a portrayal of higher social, economic and political status of the Peranakan Cina in those days.

In the early 20th Century; apart from buildings, the Peranakan Cina also owned large acres of rubber estates and tin mines and had employed many newly arrived Chinese immigrants. However, many of the rich Peranakan Cina had suffered greatly not only from the Depression period in the 1930's but during the World War II; particularly the Japanese occupation of Malaya. During the War, they had to abandon their properties including rubber estates, shophouses and bungalows for safety reasons. After the War, the Peranakan Cina had gone a period of degeneration and deprivation. "Their identity became diluted partly as a result of the changed structure of Malaysian society and also due to the conversion of many Peranakan Cina to Christianity."

Colonial Bungalows

The period between late 18th and early 20th centuries can be considered as the golden age of the Peranakan Cina in Malacca and Penang. Most of the Peranakan Cina were westernised during the period and many preferred living in European-style villas or colonial bungalows. Generally, a colonial bungalow is a two-storey residential building which expresses the Western and local architectural traditions modified to a greater or lesser degree by the use of local methods of building construction and building materials. Often such building responds to the local climate. This can be seen from the introduction of verandah, front porch, internal courtyard, ventilation grilles, big openings and high ceilings. The term bungalow was originated in the 17th Century Bengal of India which means indigenous hut or bangala. The bangala hut was constructed of mud-walled structure raised a foot or two above the ground, enclosing by a verandah and with a roof curved at the ridge. The Europeans, mostly the British adapted the bangala hut and modified it to suit their needs by adding more bedrooms and bathrooms but retaining the front and rear verandahs for natural ventilation.

Colonial bungalows or villas were built in many parts of the British Empire including India, Jamaica, Australia, Singapore and Malaysia. For example, in Malaysia, particularly Georgetown; colonial bungalows can be seen along Sultan Ahmad Shah or Northam Road, Macalister Road, Burmah Road and on Penang Hill. Such buildings were built in late 19th and early 20th centuries which mostly combined the architectural styles of the Anglo-Indian, Straits Eclectic and Malay. Many colonial bungalows in Malaysia including the ones in Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, Taiping, Malacca and Seremban have been maintained, conserved as well as converted to other uses such as a restaurant, a tourist information centre, an office and a bank. However, some were vandalised, improperly maintained and left abandoned.

It is difficult to prescribe a good example of the colonial bungalow which represents the true architectural style of the Peranakan Cina. However, the architectural styles, grandiose scale, decorative building elements and lavish interiors of the bungalows became very much the distinctive characteristics of the rich and elite Straits Chinese communities including the Peranakan Cina. In the early 1900, some of the Straits Chinese elite gave up living in their shophouses and moved in to these ostentatious bungalows. Typical characteristics of the colonial bungalows built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries include raised structures, projecting porches with arches or classical columns, high ceilings, wide verandahs, big openings or French windows with semi-circular fanlights, plastered brick walls and hipped roofs with short ridges. Some have internal courtyards, stables, circular driveways, ample gardens and servants' quarters. In these bungalows there were marble or timber floors, coloured tiles, fine chandeliers, mother-of-pearl inlaid blackwood furniture and teak cupboards filled with Nyonya wares.

The colonial bungalows were basically of load-bearing brick-wall construction. The upper floors of the colonial bungalows were usually constructed of timber including Chengal and Jati while the ground floors were made of either brick, concrete or Portland cement finished with red Malacca clay floor tiles. In some bungalows, marble slabs or patterned mosaic tiles were laid. Furthermore, unpolished granite slabs were used sparingly either as the trimming to floor egdes, airwells and verandahs or as paving in airwells, courtyards and patios. Both external and internal walls which were made of brick were rendered with lime plaster prior to lime-wash painting of white, pale yellow or light green colour. Before reinforced concrete was introduced, many bungalows had timber staircases with timber handrails and cast-iron or timber balustrades. Balusters of green glazed earthenware were usually found on the first floor verandahs.

The colonial bungalows occupied or owned by the Straits Chinese families including the Peranakan Cina were distinguishable from the European residences in terms of their architectural details and uses of the internal spaces reflecting the social customs. For eaxample, the ji-ho or the sign hung above the entrance door, security bars to windows, and the pintu pagar or fence door. The size and number of rooms are also distinguished. More rooms were needed to accommodate the extended family household tradition. In regards to the uses of the internal spaces, the front hall or sitting room area of the Chinese bungalow functioned as the reception hall while the dining room, rear verandah and side rooms formed the private family area. The family ancestral altar was usually placed in the front hall of which the arrangement is similar to that of the shophouses.

Like the shophouses, the colonial bungalows owned by the elite Straits Chinese suffered immensely during the 1930's and after the World War II. Ms. Khoo Su Nin described this situation in her book entitled Streets of George Town Penang:

"Houses were looted and emptied of their valuable contents. Within a few years, much wealth was dissipated to feed the numerous dependants and hangers-on. The oversized family jewels worn by the Nyonyas were dismembered and traded for some of the comforts to which the gentle-born were accustomed to. After the war, some currencies and deposits had become worthless. The most substantial assets which had not been taken away during the war were lands and houses including the large family mansions, the holiday homes, the terrace house properties. Members of large extended households who lived in harmony under the same roof during better times now came back to fight over what was left of the family fortunes."


What is truly unique about the Straits Eclectic architecture in Penang, Malacca and other parts of Malaysia is the richness and wide range of architectural vocabulary derived from the hybrid of western and eastern styles and traditions. The future generations of this country, particularly the descendents of the Peranakan Cina may not only learn the architectural and historical values of the shophouses and colonial bungalows which were of importance to such community but also the cultural aspects and social customs. Based on the discussion, it is important that the Peranakan Cina are associated with and recognised by their architectural significance in addition to their food, crafts, antique furniture and social customs. Even though they no longer enjoy the high social and economic status of the golden age, the Peranakan Cina architecture should be part of the architectural heritage of Malaysia. Efforts should be made to conserve their unique architecture including the shophouses, association buildings and colonial bungalows.


Heritage Buildings of Penang Island George Town, (1994), unpublished.
"How the Peranakans were born", Sunday Star, 6 February 1994, sec. People in Sunday Plus.
Khoo, S. N., (1993), Streets of George Town Penang, Penang: Janus Print and Resources.
Lee, K. L., (1988), The Singapore House 1819 - 1942, Singapore: Times Editions, Preservation of Monument Board.
Pulau Pinang, vol. 2, no. 6, 1990.
Pulau Pinang, vol. 3., no. 1, 1991.