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A Glimpse into the Past: 9 Malaysian Heritage Buildings And Their History

Malaysia takes great pride in its historical legacy, leading to the preservation of numerous historical structures for the benefit of future generations. Considerable resources have been invested in safeguarding these remnants of our history.

But why exactly?

According to Unesco[1]:

Heritage encompasses tangible and intangible, natural and cultural, movable and immovable and documentary assets inherited from the past and transmitted to future generations by virtue of their irreplaceable value. The term ‘heritage’ has evolved considerably over time. Initially referring exclusively to the monumental remains of cultures, the concept of heritage has gradually been expanded to embrace living culture and contemporary expressions. As a source of identity, heritage is a valuable factor for empowering local communities and enabling vulnerable groups to participate fully in social and cultural life. It can also provide time-tested solutions for conflict prevention and reconciliation.

Heritage is an important part of our cultural identity. As heritage buildings are a vital part of our people’s national identity, it is essential to preserve these buildings to maintain our identity as a nation.

Here are 9 heritage buildings and their colourful histories.

#1: A White Gem Amidst the Bustle: The Loke Mansion in Downtown KL

Source: @wyewong

The landscape of Kuala Lumpur is dotted with heritage buildings, a notable portion of which once served as opulent mansions for the wealthy elite.

One of the more hidden heritage buildings is tucked away down a small street downtown, now dwarfed by the KL skyline. This opulent whitewashed mansion was once owned by tin mining tycoon Loke Yew[2].

From a humble background in rural China, Loke Yew embarked on a journey that led him to Singapore during the 1850s, followed by a relocation to Malaya. Here, he rapidly accumulated wealth through tin mining endeavours. By 1890, this Guangdong-born individual bought a property in Kuala Lumpur from Cheow Ah Yook, a fellow influential figure in tin mining. 

The mansion, originally built in 1892, only encompassed two floors; however, the project’s completion spanned more than 12 years. Remarkably, it stands as one of the initial residences in the Federated States of Malaya to be equipped with functioning electricity[3].

After Loke passed away in 1917, the mansion fell under different hands, from its occupation by Japanese soldiers during World War 2 to being converted into a police training centre during the 1948 Communist Emergency. From 1958 to 1970, it was abandoned but brought back to life as an art gallery, Samad Art Gallery and Artiquarium, and Lim Kok Wing Art School up until 2000, when it was unoccupied once again[3].

Up until 2006, the mansion, unfortunately, endured a state of disrepair, deteriorating into a breeding site for mosquitoes and serving as a refuge for the homeless and a den for drug users. However, a favourable turn of events occurred in 2006 when Dato’ Loh Siew Cheang, the managing partner of the Cheang & Ariff law firm, undertook the restoration of the mansion to restore it to its former glory[4].

Presently, the mansion proudly stands among its more contemporary neighbours. Its distinctive appearance, characterised by a white façade and an amalgamation of diverse architectural influences, including elements from Chinese, Dutch, and Moorish styles, grants it a one-of-a-kind presence in the city’s skyline 

#2: Rumah Pusaka Chow Kit: The “Degil” Centenarian

Before 2015, a traditional Malay wooden house was sandwiched between brick buildings in Chow Kit. Known as Rumah Pusaka Chow Kit (Chow Kit Heritage House), the house no longer stands in its original location. But don’t worry, it was not demolished. Quite the opposite, the old house now stands refurbished in the National Art Gallery[3].

And the story behind this particular house had drawn comparisons with Disney-Pixar’s Up.

Built in 1926 by Jaafar Sutan Sinomba (fondly known as Sultan Mengatas Sutan Sinomba), this little house had witnessed some of Malaysia’s biggest historical events since the British colonial era, including the Japanese occupation in WWII and the 1969 riots on May 13th.

Amidst the growing urbanisation, the house stood its ground, earning its nickname ‘Rumah Degil’ (Stubborn House). And just as stubborn as the house itself was its sole occupant, Jaafar’s granddaughter Normah Majawali who was born within its walls in 1932. Normah refused to move out or sell her family home, even for a million ringgit[5].

In the end, however, Normah was eventually compelled to part with her cherished old home in 2013 due to the challenges of maintaining it. Subsequently, the land on which the house stood was cleared in 2015. An architect, Tan Kay Chay, was engaged to design a new structure for the area previously occupied by the Stubborn House. He believed that the old house should be preserved. Consequently, instead of demolishing it, he disassembled the house with the intention of reassembling it at a different location[5].

Almost 90% of the wood components are materials from the original structure of the house. We have also made improvements to strengthen the structure of the house for safety purposes due to its age. – Azim Tan Sri A Aziz, ATSA Architects CEO[5]

On February 16th, 2018, the restoration of the house began by the National Heritage Department in collaboration with the National Art Gallery, Yayasan Hasanah, Malaysian Institute of Architects, Chow Kit Heritage House Conservation Group, ATSA Architects, and Seroja Klasik Enterprise as the contractor. Its new home was located on the grounds of the National Art Gallery on Jalan Tun Razak, not too far away from its original spot.

#3: Chow Kit Mansion: Revisiting The Grandeur Of The 1900s

Source: Rumah Tangsi

Loke Mansion isn’t the only opulent mansion owned by a tycoon named Loke in KL. While driving along Jalan Kinabalu, one can catch sight of the Chow Kit Mansion, with its bright yellow facade and European Neo-classical and Renaissance architectural facade[3].

Also known as Loke Hall (named after its owner Loke Chow Kit, a prominent figure in KL who opened the first department store in the city), construction of the mansion began in 1907, back when KL was still a mining town. Following their departure in 1909, the Empire Hotel Company Ltd bought the mansion and converted it into one of the most modern and popular hotels at that point in time.  In 1919, the hotel was further renovated and rebranded into the Peninsular Hotel. Despite these efforts, it gradually lost its appeal due to the ascent of other major hotels within the city[6].

In 1973, the property was occupied by Pertubuhan Arkitek Malaysia (PAM) and referred to as the PAM Centre. However, in February 1981, Alan Loke sold the property to Intan Development Sdn Bhd. Regrettably, they intended to demolish the historic mansion. Understandably, this sparked significant public apprehension, prompting PAM to actively voice these concerns to the Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur (DBKL) to prevent the demolition[6].

It was thanks to those actions that DBKL managed to acquire the property before it could be demolished and in collaboration with PAM, conducted an extensive refurbishment project to restore the ageing mansion to its former glory.

In September 2012, Chow Kit Mansion was designated as the National Heritage Building under the National Heritage Act 2005, and in December 2017, the 5-year-long conservation and renovation work was completed. Now known as Rumah Tangsi – after the road it was located on – the restored mansion is now used as a buzzing event space that hosts art exhibitions, wedding photoshoots, local bazaars and more[6].

#4: Arlene Terrace: How A Couple Came To The Rescue Of Neglected Shophouses

Source: The Star

Taking a stroll along the verandas of Jalan Pasar (formerly known as Market Street) in Ipoh, Perak, Michael Chan, a chartered accountant and corporate advisor, and his wife, Arlene, had their attention piqued by an intriguing colonial shophouse situated on the opposite side of the street.

Out of curiosity to know what’s inside, we asked around and got to know that it was available for sale. We managed to arrange for a viewing the following week. – Michael Chan, 56, chartered accountant and corporate advisor[7]

Upon stepping inside the building and subsequently paying a few more visits, they developed a deep affection for the place. The allure of its courtyards, louvred windows, timber staircase, and intricate baluster captured their hearts, despite the building being in a state of disrepair at that time. 

Originally erected around the 1890s, this intermediate shophouse boasted a distinctive dual-frontage layout, complete with an open-air courtyard integrated into its central portion. Adding to its uniqueness, the shophouse had not one, but two postal addresses: 16, Market Street, and 4, Market Lane, allocated for its front and rear sections respectively – a relic of the British colonial era[7].

Although it was in dire need of refurbishment, Chan did not immediately make any offer to acquire the shophouse as they had just started conservation work on Arlene House, aka the Kapitan Chung Thye Phin Building across the street, another heritage building with a rich architectural history and past.

By chance, it was only after a year had passed, in 2013, while walking along the verandahs again during lunch, that we found out the shophouse was being boarded up in preparation to be torn down!

Having been charmed by its built heritage over a year ago, we made a quick acquisition offer to the owner to save it despite not having the chance to inspect it again.

We were successful after some counter-offer negotiations, thus saving it from being demolished and losing its rich historical heritage legacy. – Michael Chan, 56, chartered accountant and corporate advisor[7]

The couple would name the shophouse “Arlene Terrace” and would undergo the hard work of restoring the house to its former glory, a process that took over two years, in 2014 and 2015. After its restoration, Arlene Terrace would play host to the Funtasy House Trick Art 3D Museum, turning it into a popular tourist spot in the city[7].

#5: Carcosa Seri Negara: A Mansion Steeped In Constitutional History

Source: @other_henry

If you have seen the movie “Crazy Rich Asians,” you might recognize this location as the residence of one of its main characters. However, well before it gained cinematic fame, Carcosa Seri Negara played a vital role in our country’s independence movement[3].

The manor comprises two colonial-era mansions – Carcosa and Seri Negara. Carcosa was built in 1896 and was the official residence of the first Federated Malay States Resident-General, Sir Frank Swettenham, while the smaller Seri Negara was built in 1913 as a guest house for royalty and other dignitaries. Both buildings were gazetted as National Heritage sites under the National Heritage Act 2005[8].

It was here that the Constitution of Malaysia was drafted during the Independence Movement between 1955-57. It was also where the Federation of Malaya agreement was signed in 1957. The mansion was transferred to the care of the Asian Heritage Museum (AMH) on a 3-year lease in 2017, with visitors being able to tour the historic mansion’s grounds and learn more about our country’s history through exhibits held inside the mansion.

Sadly, the museum’s lease was terminated in 2019, and the mansion is currently under the possession of the Malaysian government which has yet to open it to the public[3], raising much concern about the historic building’s state.

#6: Rumah Penghulu Abu Seman: A Traditional Malay house From Kedah

Source: @mathildouille

Amidst the towering skyscrapers and bustling shopping centres, this unassuming wooden house exudes an air of quaint charm. Yet, its unassuming appearance belies a rich history as one of the oldest surviving traditional Malay houses. Originally located in Bandar Baharu, a small village in Kedah, the house was once the property of the local headman. Its construction unfolded gradually between 1910 and the early 1930s, as it took shape over time[[9].

In 1996, Badan Warisan Malaysia, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to conserving Malaysia’s heritage, undertook an ambitious initiative involving the rescue, relocation, and restoration of the old house. This endeavour involved transporting the house from its original location, which was more than a 4-hour drive away in KL, to Kuala Lumpur itself[9].

Today the house stands as one of the finest remaining examples of Malay vernacular architecture and is one of the few such buildings surviving in Kuala Lumpur. The adjacent Badan Warisan Heritage Centre building is also worth noting as it is a restored colonial bungalow built in 1925[9].

#7: Sin Sze Si Ya Temple: The Oldest Taoist Temple In KL

Scattered across Malaysia are numerous Chinese temples, and among the oldest is Sin Sze Si Ya. Constructed in 1864 by Kapitan Yap Ah Loy, this temple stands as a tribute to the patron deities Sze Si Ya and Sin Si Ya, who supported him during the Selangor Civil War and played significant roles in his advancement. Widely recognized as the oldest Taoist temple in Kuala Lumpur, the temple holds a unique historical significance[10].

Located just a short 3-minute walk from Central Market, the temple serves as a quiet place of worship amongst the hustle and bustle of Chinatown KL. Sin Sze Si Ya Temple is often visited by city dwellers, from students praying for good luck in their exams to people who want their fortunes told[10].

The temple has even become the subject of a research project by Universiti Malaya, seeking to preserve its historical legacy.

#8: Vivekananda Ashrama: The Site For Early Jaffna Tamil Immigrants

Source: @oom_tommy

Built in 1908 by Jaffna Tamil immigrants in honour of Swami Vivekanada – an Indian Hindu monk who is considered a patriotic saint in India – the Vivekananda Ashrama is dedicated to his work in providing education and spiritual development for the youth and community[11].

The ashram served as an important site for Sri Lankan Jaffna immigrants in KL, with historical records showing that the place was a centre for mathematics and it was also a community gathering point. In the early 1990s, various dance and vocal classes, yoga lessons and other spiritual activities were also held at the ashram[12].

This building was also officiated by the first Malaysian prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman in 1958. That was how important the building was.

Besides that, the Ceylonese architecture of the building is of great aesthetic value. It is symmetrical and there is also a monument there. – Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, former Tourism and Culture Minister[12]

When the board trustees had planned to sell the land upon which the ashram stands to F3 Capital Sdn Bhd, transforming it into a 23-storey luxury apartment, it led to much public protest. Following significant public contributions and efforts to preserve the historic building, the 112-year-old ashram was finally gazetted as a national heritage building in 2016 by the National Heritage Department (JWN)[13].

SVAB (Save Vivekananda Ashram Action Committee) chairman G. Gunasegaran described the decision as “pure happiness.”

We are grateful to the Government and everyone who came together to make this happen.

Nothing is impossible when the community stays united. – G. Gunasegaran, SVAB (Save Vivekananda Ashramam Action Committee) chairman[13]

#9: Agnes Keith House: Home Of A Wordsmith

Source: The Vibes

Considered one of the highlights of a visit to Sandakan, the residence holds a significant place in Sabah’s history as it was the home of Agnes Newton Keith, author of the book “Land Below the Wind”[14].

Born on July 4, 1901, in Illinois, USA, Agnes found her passion for writing on the cusp of adulthood. She first visited Sabah in 1934 whilst accompanying her husband, Henry George Keith, a conservationist who worked for the British North Borneo Company[15].

The charming wooden house they stayed at played a big role in Agnes’ tales. The original house fell victim to the ravages of WWII, it was among the earliest enduring timber structures to be reconstructed in 1947. In this restoration effort, Henry opted to build the new home on top of a hill rather than in its previous location[16]. After some time in disrepair, the Sabah Museum Department began restoring it in 2001 and it was opened as a museum in 2004, filled with reproduction furniture of the period as well with antiques and the type of items which would have been in the house during Agnes’ time[14].

Besides being a popular tourist destination, the house has also gained a reputation for supposedly being haunted, with mysterious apparitions having been sighted by Agnes herself![15] Recently, the Sabah government had even made plans to host haunted tours at the house, following the reopening of the tourism sector after the worst of the pandemic passed[16].

Explore our sources:

  1. UNESCO. Link.
  2. K-A. Augustin. (2023). Loke Mansion: The Hidden Home of Malaya’s Richest Tin Tycoon. AirAsia. Link.
  3. Janet. (2021). 11 Heritage Buildings In KL With Secret Histories To Know To Help You Impress History Buffs. The Smart Local. Link.
  4. W. Yeng Kong. (2017). The white house: The story of Loke Mansion. Time Out. Link.
  5. Restoration of Chow Kit’s ‘Rumah Degil’ from 1926 almost done. (2018). The Star. Link.
  6. Rumah Tangsi – The Mansion of Loke Chow Kit. Kuala Lumpur City. Link.
  7. W. Li Za. (2023). Malaysian couple saves and transforms 120-year-old heritage building in Ipoh. The Star. Link.
  8. Bavani. M. (2022). Left in the dark over fate of two mansions. The Star. Link.
  9. Rumah Penghulu Abu Seman. Malaysia Traveller. Link.
  10. E. Rush. (2017). Sin Sze Si Ya Temple 仙四师爷庙, Kuala Lumpur | Malaysia. Malaysian Nomad. Link.
  11. M. Ho. (n.d.). 8 things to know about the Vivekananda Ashrama. Poskod.My. Link.
  12. E. Ng & E. Zachariah. (2015). Vivekananda Ashram to get heritage status after owner’s appeal rejected. EdgeProp. Link.
  13. Bavani. M. (2016). 112-year-old Vivekananda Ashram is now a heritage site. The Star. Link.
  14. Agnes Keith House. Malaysia Traveller. Link.
  15. N. Wong. (2021). Agnes Keith: the American author who loved Sabah. FMT. Link.
  16. R.Chong. (2021). Spooktacular Sabah: Agnes Keith House first stop in state’s haunt jaunt push. The Vibes. Link.

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