Malaysia’s history of immigration and colonisation has left a rich tapestry of architectural heritage. This includes Sino-Colonial architecture, which has become an intrinsic part of our cities and suburbs to this day. Among the most eye-catching buildings in this style are the grand homes that merchants built for their families, a symbol of legacy and prosperity.
Marrying Dutch and Peranakan influences
Sino-Colonial architecture is inspired by building styles in China and Europe but adapted to suit conditions in Southeast Asia. Perhaps the most prominent of the Sino-Colonial styles is the ‘Straits Eclectic’, which finds its roots within the Peranakan Chinese community, as far back as the 15th century in urban centres controlled by the Dutch and Portuguese.
Most commonly associated with shophouses and terrace houses, the Straits Eclectic style also includes Melaka townhouses. Those that were built in the mid-18th century or earlier were greatly influenced by the Dutch row house tradition, but were also incredibly diverse in its patchwork of styles; columns and pilasters could be Doric or Corinthian, windows were Venetian, Chinese or Malay imitative with louvers or solid shutters. The roofs were tiled with Chinese clay and had rounded gabled ends, a key feature of this period.
By the later part of the 18th century, these townhouses became bigger and more flamboyant, with single storey buildings extended to three storeys, and modest wooden façades giving way to plaster moulding and figures. Successful Straits-born Chinese merchants who married locals purchased these townhouses in the late 19th century and transformed them into lavish residences. The interiors of these homes featured Dutch-influenced fixtures, including hand-painted tiles and Victorian lamps, creating the signature style of the affluent Peranakan home of the time.
Today, the most beautiful of these townhouses, located on Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock (also known as Heeren Street), have been restored and turned into tourist attractions, including the Baba-Nyonya Heritage Museum.
Symbol of prosperity
Even more grandiose are the Sino-Colonial mansions found in Kuala Lumpur, built during the late-19th and early-20th centuries by wealthy Chinese businessmen who were exposed to European art and culture.
These mansions featured Neoclassical designs and Palladian motifs but also incorporated feng shui principles in orientation, design and flow, giving them a distinctive Euro-Asian flavour. These grand homes were also liberally decorated with symbolic ornamentation, such as Chinese murals, figures and sculptured reliefs that bore special meaning to the families.
Rumah Tangsi, formerly known as Loke Hall, is one such example. Located along Jalan Kinabalu, the intricate mansion which boasts a bright yellow exterior, was constructed between 1903 to 1907 for Loke Chow Kit, one of the richest businessmen in Kuala Lumpur at the time. Designed by prominent Indian Muslim architect, A.K. Musdeen, it included the main mansion, a suite of offices, an interior courtyard, stables and a carriage house.
The design of Loke Hall - a hodgepodge of European styles - is said to have been influenced by Loke Chow Kit's European travels. More familiar local structures were also incorporated, such as sections that resemble typical shophouses, except for the elaborate decorations. The main townhouse, built in the style of the Palladian villas so often used by colonial administrators in Malaya, also has an elevated treatment, creating the feel of a Baroque-period European manor.
The north wing annex, which once housed Loke Chow Kit's mining business, features Neoclassical touches, such as columns with decorated capitals, as well as a Regency-style balcony terrace and eclectic ornamentation, like Flemish gables. Other aesthetic features include decorated pediments, hooded moulds and emphasised keystones for arches and windows, timber-louvered windows and fanlights, eclectic mosaic tiles, Regency-style cast-iron balconies, double loggia for the internal courtyard, balustrades and blind arcades.
In the last century, Loke Hall was turned into a hotel, housed the Second Guards Brigade headquarters after World War II and then became the home for the Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM). After PAM moved to their new custom-built offices in Bangsar, Loke Hall went through a major restoration and was gazetted as a cultural heritage site. Now known as Rumah Tangsi, it is a Neoclassical popular venue for conventions, weddings, and live performances.
Unfortunately, another grand home, Bok House, once touted as one of the most beautiful buildings in Kuala Lumpur, did not enjoy the same fate. The imposing mansion once stood right across from KLCC, and showcased a Neoclassical Greek style that was adapted to suit the tropical weather with its generous verandas and balconies. Modeled after a Palladian villa, the grand home boasted Greek columns and other classical elements, such as imitation Greco-Roman statues in its front hall. It was also known for its wood-paneled dining room, art nouveau chandeliers and high ceilings, as well as lavish East-meet-West décor, such as European oil paintings, stained glass displays, mother-of-pearl Chinese furniture and Peranakan tiles.
Bok House was built between 1926 to 1929 for Chua Cheng Bok, a philanthropist and entrepreneur, and the family continued to live in the house until 1958. In the 1960s up until its closure in 2001, the mansion housed an upscale French restaurant called the Le Coq d'Or. Unfortunately, Bok House was demolished in 2006 to make way for redevelopment. The W Hotel, which was opened in 2017, now stands in its place.