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by Assoc. Prof. Dr. A. Ghafar Ahmad


The Malaysian Chinese population were the immigrants from the southern provinces of China. They were divided into several different clans including the Hakkas, Foochows, Hainanese, Teochius and Cantonese. during the British period in the early 19th Century, the Chinese, who had come to the Malay Peninsula via Penang, Malacca and Singapore, were employed on tin mines and rubber estates. Some of them were hired in trade, as craftsmen and skilled mechanics, others worked in sundry shops as shopkeepers. Due to the discovery of tin fields between 1850 and 1870 in some parts of Perak and Selangor states, and the increasing demand for tin ore in tin-plate industry in Europe; the Chinese immigrants, in a large number, drifted to work in tin mines.

The Chinese who were hard-working labourers eventually changed completely the pattern of society in the Malay Peninsula. Many new settlements and urban centres were developed, among them Taiping, Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur. The Chinese were not only settled inland permanently but had brought their customs, religion and language as well as the Southern Chinese architecture.


The Southern Chinese architecture in Malaysia can be classified into residential such as the traditional shophouse and terrace house, religious such as Buddhist temple; and public such as clan or association building. The traditional Chinese shophouses and terrace houses are the two most popular residential buildings found in many urban areas in the country.

(i)  Shophouse

A shophouse, normally has two or more storeys, is a commercial and private structure. The tenants usually use the first floor for commercial purposes such as sundry shop, light industry or warehouse, and reside in the upper floors. The building is not free standing, rather, it is connected to several other shophouses, which create a shophouse block. This shophouse is repeated to form streets and town squares.Building materials such as brick, plaster, concrete and timber are commonly found in shophouses.

(ii) Terrace House

A typical traditional terrace house has one-storey with a street-level porch in front. Usually, this type of building has big entrance doors with timber bars locked into the door head, metal-bar and louvered-panel windows; and a few openings. The building is often designed in a symmetrical organisation in which the entrance door is located in the middle with windows on both sides. Depending on the tenant's wealth, the terrace house sometimes has glazed tiles at the base of the front walls. Like the shophouse, the terrace house uses brick, plaster, concrete and timber as major materials.

(iii) Religious Building (Buddhist Temple)

Although there are a great number of Chinese embracing Christianity and Islam, the majority are still Buddhists. Like the mosques, the Buddhist temples can be found in villages as well as in small towns and cities. These temples possess significant characteristics which contribute to the Southern Chinese architecture. A typical Buddhist temple will have overhanging eaves made of clay tiles jointed by mortar, ornamented figures of people, angels, flowers or animals located on roof ridges; a big entrance door in the middle, windows of simple geometrical shape; and colourful mosaic tiles.

(iv) Clan or Association Building

Since the Chinese are divided into several different clans and communities, there are many kinds of Chinese association buildings. These association buildings are intended for social gatherings, ethnic festivals and ceremonial functions. Architecturally, a typical Chinese association building has a one or two storeys, an ornamented clay-tile roof similar to the ones on the Buddhist temples, a big entrance door, a front porch typically large metal bars cover the windows which have both louvered panels and canopies.


By and large, the styles of the Southern Chinese architecture in Malaysia have been influenced by three major factors which are history, climate and religious beliefs. The historical factors play an important role in the Southern Chinese architecture. Many traditional buildings including shophouses and association buildings have adpated the local and colonial architecture into their building facades. Some have arches and classical columns to support the building structures. Large openings are provided for ventilation purposes.

A second factor that has influenced the styles is the climate. Most buildings have large openings, louvered doors and covered walkways. These elements were designed in response to the warm and humid climate of Malaysia. The use of jack-roof and air-wells, which can be seen in many old shophouses and terrace houses,are a few examples of building elements that repond to the local climatic conditions.

Finally, the beliefs among the Chinese in supernatural spirits have been a primary concern in erecting any building. The concept of "Feng Shui", which literally means wind-water, is a geomantic system by which orientation of sites are determined in persuant of harmonic relationships with the cosmic forces. Ornamental symbolism plays an important part in the convevance of meaning in placement. The use of bright colours such as red, orange and yellow has become a characteristic of the Chinese buildings in which these colours represent an ethnic rite. The emphasis of ornamentation on the temple and association buildings is considered important among Chinese believers.

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Chinese Street in Kuala Lumpur



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Clan House



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Typical Terrace House



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Buddhist  temple