Ah Tong Tailor

Refurbishing a Shop House in George Town, Penang

A George Town shop house feature: the interior airwell

Our shop house, we think, is  “Southern Chinese” Eclectic style, built between the 1840s and the 1890s. This is what we glean, anyway, by comparing our house’s facade to those pictured in this pamphlet put together by CHAT (Cultural Heritage Action Team), an organization of folks concerned to protect George Town’s tangible and intangible heritage.

Long before we ever imagined becoming homeowners here here we wandered the streets of George Town as tourists, admiring its lovely old shop houses and wondering what was behind their wooden doors and shutters. Now we know of course. You can too, in a way — the CHAT site has a great cutaway diagram of Penang shop house features that can be viewed here.

Shop houses are built attached, in rows (row houses is what they might be called elsewhere). Ours is a working class shop house, not nearly as large or as grand as the one pictured in the CHAT diagram. If you’re imagining Peranakan interiors — lots of gilt and dark wood — that is definately not our place.

But our house features some of the same elements, the most important of which is the interior airwell, a large rectangle in the center of the house, bordered by one wall, that’s cut from floor through the roof. It is this feature, more than any other, that endeared us to George Town’s shop houses. For us it’s an amazing thing to have the interior of your house open to the sky, to the elements, to air and to sun and to rain. Imagine having it rain inside your house. The airwell was designed to let in light and to aid ventilation and it is an amazing invention. Even without ceiling fans going the ground floor of our house remains fairly cool on sunny days. (This may also be because our house faces east so when we do get direct sun it’s at the coolest time of the day.)

These photos are for the most part from the very first time we viewed the shop house. We didn’t see it again until we were owners.

This first one is looking into the shop house through one of the front windows. The wooden shutters are intact. The former owners, a tailor and his wife, were still hard at work on the day we stopped in, but assured us that they were ready to retire.

This was important to us. At the time that we bought our house property in George Town was changing hands like crazy — a result, mostly, of the city having been designatd a Unesco world heritage site the year before.  Many of GT’s houses are owned in bulk by family trusts or Chinese clan associations, and dividing into separate titles multiple properties originally listed together on one is time-consuming and costly. So in those days especially entire blocks of shop houses were being bought and sold at one go. Many long-time George Town residents are tenants, and so it wasn’t uncommon to see a swathe of shop houses cleared of occupants after a group of properties had changed hands.

We’re not making judgment call on buying property and evicting its tenants; it happens all the time in cities all over the world and is inevitable when urban areas undergo gentrification. It’s especially inevitable when a city becomes attractive as a potential tourist destination — making property more sought-after — as George Town did as soon as it was named a Unesco world heritage site in 2008.

The tailor’s tools

We only knew that we ourselves could not bring ourselves to ask a long-term tenant to leave any property we bought, so we passed on those occupied by renters. Ah Tong Tailor felt OK to us not only because we liked the house but because the owners weren’t living there and were only using the building as a place of business (a very old business, to be sure). They said they were ready to leave. We very much hope that that was true.

This is a view from the house’s airwell looking out through the front windows. Our house is about 110 feet long and around 14 feet wide. The floor is cement, probably poured directly over original terra cotta tiles — which kind of kills us. We could try drilling through the cement to excavate the tiles but it would cost a fortune and the likelihood of saving them is very small. So we’re leaving the cement. It’s got its own mottled history.

In the photo below we’re looking from the airwell out in the opposite direction, to the back of the house. The wooden wall with the window isn’t a permanent structure. In many shop houses rooms are created on the ground floor by building those sort of wood-paneled “boxes”. They’re usually raised off the floor by a few inches. This one comprises two bedrooms, judging by the (unfortunately unsalvageable) furniture that we found inside.

The bit of blue tile on the left wall marks the indoor “kitchen” — there’s a sink there, and a burner and a teapot on the table in the middle of the room. The door in the back on the right leads to the courtyard, which is where the real kitchen would have been. Running along the wall opposite to the outhouse was an approximately 12 foot long rough cement bench where gas burners would have sat. In Malaysian and many other Asian homes “stinky” cooking was traditionally done out of doors. Even today most homes have a “wet kitchen”.

Now we’re in the small courtyard, which is is cemented over, looking at the rear outdoor wall of the house. The courtyard is enclosed by very high walls and will make a nice little private outdoor space. Just outside our courtyard in the alley is a small temple — built illegally obviously, because its wall is close enough to ours to make carrying building materials (or furniture, when we finally do move in) in and out through our door unfeasible. There’s enough space for us to get out in the event of a fire, and that’s what’s most important. We have no desire to anger any god or spirit by asking the temple’s builder to dismantle it.

This courtyard wall will look different when we’re finished with the refurbishment — a timber frame visible on the wall’s interior tells us that the original window was actually much larger.

But now I’m getting ahead of myself.

One thing not visible here: the downstairs “bathroom”. It’s actually an outhouse in the corner of the courtyard next to the exit out into the alley behind us. We plan to leave it there. And vastly upgrade it!

Now we’re upstairs looking down into the airwell.

Alas, we will have no rain inside our  house. When the ground floor was cemented over the lovely granite well into which rain would fall was filled in. Our contractor reckons that the ground floor was built up with cement to deal with flooding during heavy storms. We considered excavating the well, but George Town has drainage issues that have yet to be addressed (though it’s been promised they will be). There’s no danger of rainwater rushing into our house via the front or back doors, but the thought of  backwash through the drain in the interior well was enough to convince us to leave it cemented over.

There is however a semi-translucent retractable roof over our airwell, so we can open up the interior of the house during fine weather.

The wooden stairway tops out in the middle of the first floor, which is made of wood (much of which must be replaced). The ladder on the left leads up to a fairly roomy crawlspace — not high enough for either of us to stand in but probably roomy enough to have served as sleeping and/or storage quarters at one point.

This is a view out the back of the house. The door leads to a very rudimentary bathroom and there are two rooms on the left, one right behind the other. The airwell is also to the left.

Here we have another view of the upstairs hallway, standing behind the stairs and looking out to the front of the building. The airwell is on the right. This area was divided into three rooms, two side-by-side at the front and one behind, facing onto the airwell. The front rooms get fantastic light and the photographer has claimed this space for his office. We’ll have just two rooms here.

We love the rustic wooden latticework that tops the wooden walls; its common in shop houses like ours. The lattice lets light into the interior rooms that otherwise get light only from the airwell. We want to keep it but we need air-con for sleeping and for our offices. This is especially so for Dave, given his photo equipment and boxes and boxes of slides. The answer probably lies with glass or plexi panels over the lattice.

Below we’re standing in one of the front rooms looking out to the staircase. The original wooden double doors are still there and in good shape. All of the double wood doors upstairs in fact are useable, as is the heavy single timber door that leads out back to the upstairs bathroom.

On that first day we spent a lot of time upstairs looking at Ah Tong Tailor’s walls. Not at the blistered, moisture-seeping plaster or the termite-eaten boards, but at the evidence of all the years lived in that house.

Note: Yes, we’re playing with blog themes, trying to find a good balance between text and photos. We’re new to WordPress and finding this process rather tedious. Until we get it figured out, photos that appear small can usually be viewed larger just by clicking on.

31 Responses to “A Look Inside”

  1. Martin Klein

    A lovely old house full of history. Looks enchanted …and in need of some careful renovation. Wish you best luck with that because it also looks quite challenging, all in all… 🙂

    PS: A suggestion for the blog theme: I’d use a dark background like most picture blocks do. The cool white kind of smashes the ‘feeling’ of old heritage in the photographs.

    • Martin Klein

      Sorry about mention the ‘challenging part’ once again? I didn’t want to be funny… It’s just because, until right now, I could’nt see my comment a few weeks ago actually received your blog… Obviously even WordPress logins with Facebook can be tricky sometimes…:) So, please, replace ‘quite challenging’ with ‘interesting’ or ‘like a lot of fun’… 🙂

  2. robyneckhardt

    No worries Martin — it *is* a challenging project! Interesting and to date fun, but definately challenging. Thanks for reading, and for the comment. I’m going to have the photographer take on the blog theme!

  3. Kitt

    Wow, that’s a really amazing space. I am looking forward to seeing what you do with it. And I’m glad you acquired it without having to evict the previous tenants. Good karma.

  4. Jennifer Gibas

    Can you take a picture of the teeny tiny alley temple? I would love to see it. Looking forward to seeing the renovations!

  5. KC

    I’m glad you didn’t let the “challenging” task deter you! On another note, I used to work in the Peranakan museum in Malacca (a town that has sadly lost its character, despite the UNESCO heritage listing), and the layout is almost exactly the same. It’s a pity your well was sealed over. Rain inside the house truly is magic.

    • robyneckhardt

      KC – Yes, we spent a bit of time in Malacca earlier this year for an article and it has indeed lost so much character. Love the houses there — usually a bit wider and longer, with real courtyards (even gardens) out back, and I love the Dutch influence on some … the “barn” windows and doors. But not much social fabric left to Malacca’s old town while there is still much in GT (hope it stays that way). A friend gets rain inside her house and it is indeed magic. Her well also floods…. not so magic. 😉

  6. travelfish

    Wow – what a place. Look forward to following the blog as you work it all out. Indeed a great shame about the well — a lot of the places I looked at recently in Phuket town still had the well and it was quite a focal point. Like you, love the airwell effect — aside from ventilation, it’s also a common feature of this style of shopfront because the angle of the ceiling is too shallow to support such deep roofs, so they run two (or three in some cases) to bridge the depth.

    Will you try and retain any of the evidence on the walls in the last few pics – could be interesting.

    • robyneckhardt

      We’re trying to keep some of what’s on the wood dividers … not sure how that will go as so many have to be discarded bec of termite damage. Doors we are trying to keep as is .. wash only, no sanding and paint or varnish. Walls are difficult. So much water damage that the plaster has to be stripped and redone. With limewash this time. All in all we’re trying to keep as much “old” as possible. But when you need to repair damage that has its limits as you probably know.

  7. cameron stauch

    Hello Robyn and Dave,
    It will be exciting to read and see you manage your house project.
    In thinking of the renovation my immediate thought was Dave’s equipment.
    I too love the lattice work and feel of your home’s layout. Best wishes with the renovaitons.

    • robyneckhardt

      Thanks Cameron! It’s tricky with these houses. In the end it has to be liveable …. and that means inevitable changes/disruptions to flow etc (eg glass over the lattice work so we can have aircon). We’re trying to strike the best balance we can, keeping what is possible to keep.

  8. akismet-64accae3ba0be25996173ecd82d514e6

    Hey Robyn, please delete my testing comment…just wanted to make sure you have comment moderation on and can delete this comment after you read this. Welcome to WP, if you have any questions, feel free to send me an email and let me know. I will see if I can help. Just a feedback about the font, it’s very hard to read. Not sure if it’s me (have been sleep-deprived and feeling extremely sleepy now!), but I tried a few browsers and they are harder to read compared to Eating Asia.

  9. Chris

    Congratulations on your purchase. We are very excited to find out what your plans are for the house and how your project is coming along.

    I am one of the owners of 36 Stewart Lane. Send me a message sometime if you want to talk about your restoration experiences.

  10. Preeta

    Oh, Robyn, this place makes my heart ache so, and in a good way. Gosh, it brings back such a heady rush of ancient memories I didn’t even know I had. I feel like I can smell the air in this building. I’m so excited to see what you guys do with this space.

    • robyneckhardt

      Hi Preeta — we’re excited too! And nervous. Glad you’ve looked in. Hope the end result doesn’t disappoint.

  11. Rose George

    hi Robyn. I love this blog as much as your eating asia one! A couple of years ago I rented a little house in s-w France to write a book. A huge house came up for sale in the village; it had been a restaurant, cafe and small hotel. Untouched aesthetically for about 60 years, nicotine-walls etc. It was madness to buy it, but I did because, something like something you said in your first post about Ah-Tong, when I went inside and closed the door, the house made me smile. I can tell that when the house is full of people, it likes it. That sounds daft. Anyway, best of luck with your renovations. Such a beautiful place. I wrote a book on toilets and sanitation – and still have copies of the Malaysian toilet standards somewhere! – so if you need tips for upgrading your outhouse, let me know….

    • robyneckhardt

      Hi Rose — I love that you just bought a house on the spot bec it spoke to you! We’re moving along but have many months to go. But we still feel we made the right decision, maybe even more so now. Happy New Year!

  12. luke_bkk888

    Wow, I really really like the idea of doing up a shophouse. Shortly I’ll be doing up an old Chinese Junk to make a home out of. The boat is in Malaysia at the moment. An equally ambitious (definitely a little bit bonkers too!) project I’m sure you’ll agree.

    Will be following your progress and wishing you all the luck in the world.

    • robyneckhardt

      Hi Luke, thanks for the good wishes. Same to you! Taking on a boat seems much more brave than taking on a house, somehow. Will you be blogging about it? I’ve never been on a Chinese junk and I can’t even begin to visualize how one would turn it into a home, but it sounds like a fun project.

  13. smallestforest

    So envious that you’re going to be living in Georgetown! Just got back from a two-week foodie-on-the-loose stay there. I love the old shophouses, what joy it would be to live in one, and in G*town! A dream I will probably never be able to afford, even if I could find one for sale.
    Thought of looking for your Ah Tong’s…just to say hello and tell you that I’m a big fan of both your shophouse renovations, and your food blog, but didn’t want to seem weird. 🙂

    I changed my blog to Manifest after I ahtongtailor…then decided the photos were too small, and have just done another theme shift. Funny to come back here now and find you’ve shifted, too.
    My debt to you for inspirations runs even to log themes! Now I guess I am “seeming weird”

    • robyneckhardt

      Nat – not weird at all, it’s nice to know that our (and Ah Tong’s) story touched you in some way. You wouldn’t have found us there, probably (the sign is still up) but our super skinny old-dude contractor is usually on the scene. It’s going swimmingly. We got lucky with him.

  14. Fiona Ngoh

    Hi Robyn!

    I’m a Malaysian currently residing in Macau for the past 5 years but planning to settle down in Penang with my 2 teenage kids. Both my husband, Mano and I really loved pre-war shophouses and have been contemplating on getting one in Georgetown. I hope we are making the right decision! 😉

    • robyneckhardt

      Hi Fiona – prices have gone through the roof in the last couple years, sustained I guess by the UNESCO world heritage designation, and properties right in GTown are harder and harder to come by. I really love the mid-20th century semi-Ds in places like Pulau Tikus too, and if we hadn’t found this one that’s probably where we would have looked next. If you do invest soon I think that in GTown at least prices will at least hold. I do wonder how big this property bubble can get before bursting, though.

      • Fiona Ngoh

        Hi again!

        Mano’s just started work in Singapore and would be able to make an overnite trip just to view some of the properties I saw on iProperty website. They are certainly not cheap! I’m eyeing one at MYR620,000 but I can’t seem to get hold of the agent in charged. No answer when I called her handphone!

        Anyway, will keep on trying coz I plan to uproot the kids (once again!) early this July when they are having their summer hols. I will enrol them in a local school and am checking out this Hutchings School in GTown. My only worry is whether they would be able to cope with their Bahasa Melayu in school!

  15. John

    This is an amazing project – I have seen similar renovations done in Singapore in Emerald St area and they are so beautiful. A functional design many years ahead of its time – real Chinese thinking in the concept and design. Lets have some pics of your progress. Kind regards – John – Australia

    • robyneckhardt

      Hi John– Thanks for the comment. Yes, at this point we are waaaay behind in updating the blog. The good news is that the project is STILL in progress and we have tons of photos. We will try try try to update within the next month.


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