Built around 1880 as a residential townhouse, the building is a very fine example of a Straits Settlements merchant’s home. Unusually long at over 130 feet (40 metres) it retains many of its original features – an intimate courtyard garden, a handsome timber staircase, geometric floor tiles, and large beams spanning lime plaster walls. The interior displays original blackwood Straits Chinese furniture and ornately carved wooden screens. The old-fashioned Nyonya kitchen preserves the original firewood stove and kitchen utensils.
A special feature of the shophouse is the atrium around a central courtyard. A shophouse may have one or more inner courtyards. They serve as air-wells for ventilating the often long and narrow buildings.
The front courtyard is usually attractively decorated with plants, improving the ambience of the living space.
The back courtyard, where the water tank and bathroom are located, serves as a washing area.
The kitchen is the domain of the womenfolk, the Nyonya. The kitchen in this house retains its original 1920’s firewood stove.
It also showcases some cooking implements, including a pewter steamboat, a wooden noodle press, a copper water boiler, two charcoal burners, wooden rice tubs, clay curry pots and enamel tiffin carriers.
Before and after photos:
The title deed for 120 Armenian Street dates to 1875, and the house was already shown on the 1893 map. The house is deemed to have been built circa 1880.
When the road now called Kampong Kolam was made behind the house, the back portion of the house was renovated in 1924. The alterations were designed by the well-known architect Chew Eng Eam. The green colour scheme and some decorative features were probably introduced at this point.
After the Second World War, the house was used as a warehouse for storing goods for Ch’ng Eng Joo. A moveable zinc awning was installed at the front air well. A photograph of part of the house in 1953 shows the carved wooden front doors. Sometime after that and some years before 1992 – the facade was altered. The wooden door was replaced with a collapsible metal grill. The timber louvered shutters were replaced with timber-framed glazed shutters.
After 1992, the house was progressively restored. The roof was repaired, the front air well was opened up and the gutters replaced. The facade renovation was only undertaken in 2010.
Penang Shophouse Architecture
A shophouse is by definition a terraced house that combines the functions of a shop and house. However, in Penang, a terraced house is generically called a ‘shophouse’, even if, as in the case of 120 Armenian Street, it were designed chiefly for residential use. In the building plans such a house is identified as a ‘dwelling house’. Under the UNESCO dossier submission, it has been decided to call the better quality merchant houses ‘townhouse’ to distinguish it from the vernacular ‘shophouse’.
Like other heritage ‘shophouses’ in Malaysia and Singapore, the Penang shophouse is typically a long, double-storey building with a narrow frontage. The ‘five-footway’ or front verandah of a row of such houses join up to create a continuous arcade. Internally, timber partitions and a largely timber upper floor span an otherwise solid masonry building with thick party walls.