Art Bars

31 August 2018

From geometric patterns to elaborate curlicues and floral motifs, here’s a look at the vintage household grilles of Malaysia.

Vintage wrought iron railings, window grilles and gates are a classic feature of the Malaysia middle-class neighbourhood landscape. Heated, crafted and then painted by skilled metalworks craftsmen, these grilles articulate a language of Malaysia’s post-Merdeka architectural identity. While much has been studied of the Malay house or colonial heritage shophouses, the humble grilles usually found on housing estates with their unique designs (think geometric patterns, elaborate curlicues, flowers and foliage motifs), are equally deserving of the spotlight.

Flowers are a popular motif. Note the unique character in the centre.

Architecture should speak for its time and place. Be it colonial architects who began replicating the European buildings that they knew, or wealthy Malaysians who spent time in Europe and attempted to introduce wrought iron designs at home, history – including our colonisers – has played a part in influencing Malaysian architecture. Wrought iron gates and grilles are a testament to how colonial architecture did not just influence our design identity through Unesco-site shophouses or protected heritage mansions, but also through something as simple as the unassuming terrace home.

An example of a modern geometric design.

Apart from serving their basic purpose of keeping out intruders, these vintage grilles add a sense of warmth and a distinct design aesthetic to the cookie cutter homes and shophouses in Malaysia. For example, the residential estate of early Petaling Jaya.

A whimsical design of flowers and stars.

In A Review of Malaysian Architecture 1957-1987 (1987), it was recorded that after the government established Kuala Lumpur as the commercial and administrative centre, the idea of a residential satellite town was proposed to support the fast-growing population of the capital. The satellite town, comprising of separate developments such as Taman Paramount, PJ Old Town, Seapark and so on, slowly grew to become the Petaling Jaya that we know of today. To make it affordable for the middle income buyer, these early houses in PJ had mostly simple and plain designs.

These seemingly plain homes had one redeeming factor – the grilles. Seen as a form of art applied to buildings, these wrought iron grilles all sport graceful, classic silhouettes. While some houses may have similar designs, others went for custom-made patterns. For example, a Chinese household may have grilles with the chinese character for “blessing” weaved into the design, a kindergarten may sport grilles with designs of playful dolphins and seahorses painted in bright green and white, while another home could feature a simple grid-like composition studded with five-petaled blooms. A drive around the neighbourhoods of PJ and OUG would reveal a myriad of designs. They’re practically an outdoor gallery.

Longtime resident of Seapark and homeowner Mr Wong says, “When I was growing up, these houses in PJ were sold for around RM10,000 each! But remember it was a time when our monthly salaries were only RM40 and a bowl of noodles cost 10 sen.’’

The 62-year-old adds, “I bought this house around 40 years ago. I’m still keeping these original grilles. I think they look quite nice, especially after my wife planted orchids on them.”

Pretty grilles in a PJ alleyway.

In those days, the purchase of a home or building a home meant that it would be passed down through the generations, hence the careful selection of grilles, doors and tiles. Mrs Wong adds, “Back then, we would ask around and whichever ironworks sifu is good at making grilles, we would call him.” Blacksmiths may take their time to create some stellar work, but mushrooming housing developments meant that gradually, these craftsmen no longer had the luxury to create intricate designs.

According to Lim See Chen, factory manager of Liang Yee Metalworks in Bangi which still makes these custom grilles, “Vintage grilles began going out of style in the ’90s. People were looking for simple designs.” As tastes changed and demand increased, craftsmen started to manufacture simpler designs to facilitate mass production, and this slowly led to the current scene of standard black grilles.

A combination of curlicues and diamonds.

What if one would like to order a custom vintage grill or gate today? Lim says, “It’s tough, but doable. Just bear in mind that if it takes one day to create a normal grille, it would take two to three days to create a custom vintage grille. Price-wise, it may [cost] three times more as well. The price of vintage grilles are on the rise, with some fetching even higher prices than stainless steel gates!”

Lim See Chen, manager of Liang Yee Metalworks, hopes to see more youths join the industry.

A metalworker welding grilles in a factory.

Lim believes that the lack of craftsmen is one of the main contributing factors driving up the cost of grilles. “With [fewer] youths joining the industry, and many vintage metalwork craftsmen retiring, I foresee that these grilles would disappear in a few years’ time. Even our factory only has two masters left who know how to create these grilles.”

As production of these classic gates slowly fade and many of the grilles are discarded, these fast-disappearing suburban fixtures need to be documented more than ever. As they play the role of illustration, graphic design, and sometimes even typography, it’s only fitting that these beautiful works of art are taken care of to see another day.

By Jamie Khong
Photos by Teoh Eng Hooi

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