The Writing on The Wall

11 May 2017

George Town clears the way for an invitation to look a little closer at the details of its heritage buildings. To get you started, here’s a guide to the meanings behind some architectural elements.

On World Heritage Day, Penang Island City Council (MBPP) councillor Khoo Salma Nasution held a press conference about five-foot ways at the Penang Apprenticeship Programme for Artisan (PAPA) office.

With the launch of its new programme, MBPP aims to clear at least 10 percent of the 600 identified buildings this year that have permanent structures blocking pedestrian access to five-foot ways. The modest press conference venue is packed with not only press but many concerned and vocal residents of George Town. Right outside, holidaymakers navigate the streets; a mix of sunscreen, cameras and harem pants.

Now more than ever, all eyes are on the city’s heritage walls as businesses capitalise on Penang’s street art boom, renting out quadricycles and plotting mural trails for tourists to hunt down photo opportunities.

“The city is much more than a street art destination,” Khoo, also a writer, publisher and vice-president of Penang Heritage Trust was recently quoted saying. Her plea was for the authorities to focus on making the city more liveable for locals.

With cleared five-foots ways, pedestrians will not only be safe from traffic, sun and rain, but are also able to have a closer look at the façades of the city’s heritage buildings, many of which carry motifs that trace the ancestral cultures of some of George Town’s people.

George Town opened as a trading port in 1786 and the Chinese started arriving in waves. Aside from economic contributions, the Chinese brought with them their cultural beliefs and practices that shaped the aesthetics of their buildings.

Many animals and objects are deemed auspicious because their names are similar in sound to favourable themes like prosperity, wealth and happiness. The word for “bat” and “good fortune” sound alike in the Chinese language. Bats are commonly seen in fours along with one homonym character on air vents; representing the five blessings – health, wealth, long life, love of virtue and peaceful death.




Some take the play on homonyms a step further by featuring an upside-down bat, playing upon the phoneme dao, which can either mean “upside down” or “to arrive”. An upside-down bat would thus come to signify “the arrival of good fortune”.


The word for vase, ping is identical in sound to the word for harmony. Vase motifs appear frequently on doors and pillars of Chinese and Peranakan houses; conveying the sentiment of peace to those that walk in and out through the entrances.



The emblem for wealth is modelled after the ancient Chinese coin. People would pass a string through the round coin’s square cut-out in the middle for easy storing. Coin motifs are often seen on ceramic air vents or wooden lattices.


The roofs of George Town are often missed but a quick shift of gaze upwards reveals gables that mimic the five elements of wood, water, earth, fire, and metal; an influence of the Guandong and Fujian districts in China. A feng shui reading of the owner-occupier of the building would be the determining factor of the gable’s form.



The MBPP’s struggle with clearing five-foot ways is only a glimpse of the bigger battle the town is fighting to protect heritage in the face of tourism and development. Much like getting your roof gable’s element right for better luck, the battle requires calculation, consideration and sometimes, modification, as the occupants of the city change in time.

Khoo pledges that the MBPP will take action to restore the five-foot way because it “promotes our cultural heritage, reaffirms our local way of life and fosters a more inclusive society” – codes that, if stuck to vigorously, should help George Town through its balancing act.

Text and photos by Adeline Chua

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