Conserving Pre-war Shophouses for Posterity

Text and photos by Lau Sook Mei

Nos. 2-22, Jalan Chung On Siew - 25/7/2010

Recently, rampant demolitions of old shophouses in Ipoh have become a major cause for concern. The latest blow involves the entire block of pre-war (pre-World War Two) shophouses, eleven units in all, bordered by Jalan Chung On Siew and Jalan Chua Cheng Bok in New Town

Stripped off their roofs.

Despite its derelict condition, this row of shophouses is one of the very few remaining in Ipoh that has survived intact. Only four years ago, Oscar winner, Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee had come to town to film “Lust, Caution” at this particular site, set in Shanghai in the 1940s. Lee had told the press that he chose Ipoh because “Ipoh retained many pre-war buildings and their unique architecture…and Ipoh is a nice place.” But what would he think of Ipoh today?

From two storeys to one.

During a recent trip to Guangzhou, China, a friend found that the streets there echoed those of Ipoh Old Town. Why is this so? This style of the old shophouses in southern China was imported into Malaya as the Chinese developed the towns in the 19th & 20th century.

As history goes, Ipoh originated as an orang asli village with a few attap houses in the 1880s. “The great fire of Ipoh” in 1892 destroyed half the village. It was only after this incident that Ipoh Old Town was rebuilt and replaced by brick buildings in a town re-laid by W.P. Hume, Kinta Collector of Land Revenue. *

Most pre-war shophouses in Ipoh today were built  by Chinese migrants who slogged and became tin-mining towkays. It was not for nothing that Ipoh is known as “the city that tin built” or “the city of millionaires”. The legacies of these millionaires include theatres, schools, clan associations and community halls. More than mansions and monolithic structures, these historical shophouses embody the modern development of Ipoh.

Pre-war shophouses are mostly double-storey: the ground floor for business and the upper floor, dwelling. Neat reticulated rows formed a uniform skyline. A prevalent feature of these shophouses is the “five-foot-way” or verandah, a covered walkway formed by the overhang of the upper floor, marked by columns and arches. It provides shelter to pedestrians (and tourists) from the scorching tropical sun and rain. To help keep the city pedestrian-friendly, it makes good sense to preserve this ubiquitous feature of the shophouses on our streets.

While old shophouses are coming down, Hong Kong has taken the initiative to preserve their last remaining ones, considered rare and, therefore, worthy of conservation. In Hong Kong where land is scarce, most old buildings have been demolished and rebuilt. In Sept 2008, the Urban Renewal Authority of China-Hong Kong announced plans to preserve and revitalize ten 1920s shophouses with five-foot-ways on Shanghai Street, Mong Kok for their historical value; the project is expected to be completed in 2015.

What about Ipoh? Do we only begin to preserve them when there are only a few left? We hope not. We must not repeat the mistake other cities have made.

The once lovely shophouses reduced to a rubble.

Applying the rules of conservation: reduce, re-use and re-cycle, old shophouses on our streets are a “green” resource. When we conserve our built environment -buildings, greens and space – we retain the history of our city.  Pre-war shophouses like those on Jalan Chung On Siew are (were) an asset. They could be successfully re-used for boutique hotels, eateries, offices, and other businesses. But alas, their heritage value: cultural, historical and aesthetic, are not understood and appreciated. The authorities were too eager to approve re-development, demolition included, when they should be protecting our common legacies for posterity.

Fall of the last wall...going...



In an ethnically and culturally diverse country such as ours, we should retain our old shophouses for the benefit of tourism and local pride. They are the history and the living evidence of that glorious past, a natural attraction unique to tourists. There is nothing to lose but much to be gained through preservation and conservation.

(1) The Town That Tin Built, The Straits Time Press, 1962
Kinta Valley: Pioneering Malaysia’s Modern Development


8 Responses to “Conserving Pre-war Shophouses for Posterity”

  1. 1 Ruth Iversen Rollitt September 7, 2010 at 2:35 pm

    What a tragedy! What do the ‘big’ people think they are doing? Demolishing all the old (and sadly badly maintained buildings) and replacing them with ghastly horrors? What is going to happen to the soul of Ipoh? Once known for its beauty and wonderful shophouses and buildings it is now becoming a nightmare. And I hear one is considering applying for UNESCO World Heritage Status! What a joke. By the time they get around to it – there will be nothing left. My father was an architect in Ipoh for 40 years – he left many fine buildings which have either been demolished or ‘vandalised’. I was born in Ipoh – have always been proud to show it off to friends from any where in the world – now I am almost ashamed. Think of what you are doing!!!! Ruth Iversen Rollitt

  2. 2 Lynn Lees September 7, 2010 at 8:59 pm

    Cities around the world have found creative re-uses for historic buidings in central areas — and I don’t mean just court houses and palaces. They have maintained their civic identities and pride through preservation of their architectural heritage. Ipoh’s shophouses are beautiful, well-designed places, which if knocked down all will soon regret. Why trade in better, more interesting buildings for bland, often badly produced contemporary ones?

  3. 3 HeriHong November 5, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    What is hard to understand is that the row in Jalan Chang On Siew is actually classified in the Ipoh Draft Plan by the town planning department as buildings to be preserved. Yet, the Buildings Department of MBI approved re-development of the site. Are the departments working together or are they fighting each other, and why?

    Shame on Ipoh.

  4. 4 Kenny Chong January 23, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    Personally, to me this is an issue not about developer or government, just. It is the culture, the society in certain environment where there are little understanding or much appreciation or awareness of such importance and values in history, authenticity in our life and future. The people need to be made aware of such issues. Most might carry a selfish attitude, if it is not their house being demolished, maybe there are not many ones like Sook Mei who posted this message. When I read this thro Ipoh echo, I feel so distress n total disappointment. Are there any solutions?

  5. 5 perakheritage January 25, 2011 at 1:25 am

    Hi Kenny, welcome to the PHS blog. Much has been said and debated about the importance of preserving our heritage for posterity. I agree with you that our society still lacks the understanding and appreciation in this field. In the pursuit of material goods in a material world people tend to pay less attention to the values of history or even forget about their own roots. I would say that if only the authorities and the MBI were serious in preserving our local heritage and not so easily and readily approve demolitions much could be saved. To do that proper guidelines need to be observed like what’s being practised in Georgetown, Melaka and even Taiping. Stakeholders and the public may start to learn a thing or two from here. Well, sounds like the “chicken and egg story” that we come across much too often. Anyway it’s good that you are concerned about the issue. Do share about the importance of preserving our heritage so that more people will be aware…

  6. 6 Rachel Chung October 1, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    This road was named after the father of my great grandfather, Chung Mok Yen, who was a philanthropically learned man, prominent tin miner and developer. I started to visit the sites a few years ago on researching my family history. I am very upset and sad to see this today.

    These priceless buildings alongside Jalan Chung On Siew can be an asset to the town of Ipoh for its history and monumental significance. I have hitherto no inkling about the ownership of these pre war buildings except hoping to procure more information on restoration and the feasibility of undertaking in future.

    I am not surprised the contribution and foundation laid down by our ancestors to the town of Ipoh generations ago will be wiped out from history as though they have never existed one day. Without their hard work and sacrifice, progress witnessed today is factually impossible.

    The current situation is very alarming and we ought to create awareness on issues pertaining to the preservation of the heritage in Ipoh. Now, I understand why my great grandfather has made notable efforts to have my grandfather’s generation sent abroad post colonial days. He has a vision despite not adopted by some Straits Chinese..

  7. 7 perakheritage October 2, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    Hi Rachel, welcome to our blogsite and thanks for sharing some info about your family. It’s really great to have a descendant of Chung On Siew dropping us a few lines. It is indeed very sad to see a whole row of pre-war shophouses gone. Incidentally, we found out that these buildings were not built by Chung On Siew. Nonetheless, it still saddened us.

    I agree with you about creating awareness and preserving our heritage before it is gone. That is what PHS is trying to do. But the sad thing is that there’s not much we can do when a demolition has been approved by the local council. However, we will try to work out something with them.

  8. 8 HeriHong October 4, 2011 at 11:07 pm

    Awakening from the fallout of the tin market crash, old buildings in Ipoh are generating quite a bit of interest. Heritage is one thing, re-development is another. Yet, any city worth its salt would preserve its historic environment, its assets and its distinctive qualities. They are what make the city unique and different from others. We must protest in any way we can to stop this rampant demolition in the name of ‘development’ – re-building on built-up area is ‘re-development’ and that is more than a building or a town planning issue; that is also about social history, a people’s identity and their aspirations for the future, with an enduring pride for the past.

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