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JMBRAS, VOL. 85, Part 2 (2012), pp. 7998

The Builders

Until 1875 there was no building industry in the western Malay states. In the
villages cooperative effort produced the houses and other structures that
were required. The larger residences of the ruling class were built by
mobilizing villagers to build in the same fashion but on a larger scale. The
colonial administrators had at first to use the same resources and
techniques to get what they required. Gradually, however, there was a
change to a different style using new materials and designs. In response to
government and commercial needs a building industry evolved. The information is patchy, but this article attempts to trace how it happened up to
1914, when the outbreak of war interrupted the supply of building materials
and imposed a standstill. The main focus is on Kuala Lumpur, but there are
references to Selangor and Perak generally.

Traditional Malay Building

The first step in building a Malay village house was the selection of an auspicious
site; a soil which was a greenish yellow, fragrant scented, tart-tasting loam
would bring prosperity to the occupiers, and the house should be on ground
sloping from south to north to bring absolute peacefulness.1 It was the general
practice to orientate the house to lie eastwest, to minimize the heat of the sun,
but principles of geomancy might be applied to produce a different result.2 For
guidance in both supernatural and technical aspects of building his house the
villager might well need the services of a bomoh or pawang, or employ a Malay
carpenter. For labour he would call on his sons and neighbours as part of the
traditional reciprocity of village life.3 After clearing and levelling the site, a party
under the leadership of the experts, ceremonial and technical, set off into the
forest to select, fell and extract the timber required for the main frame of the
house. They timed their departure for the end of the dry season so that the
* J. M. Gullick, on retiring from the Malayan Civil Service (194557), pursued a legal and
business career in London. He is the author of some 80 books and articles on Malayan
history, and is the most prolific post-war contributor to this Journal.
1 Skeat (1900: 141) on the site. Chen (1998) Vernacular Houses of the Indigenous Communities includes several informative and illustrated short essays. Chen (2007) himself describes
the changing style of the Malay house. Hilton (1956 and 1992) gives much detail relevant
to the main theme of this paper. Gibbs (1987) is very well-illustrated, but his text, in a
popular style, does not give the sources for his statements, some at variance with other
published work. These are merely selections, found helpful in this paper, from a large
number of titles in this field.
2 traditionally built on an axis running from east to west, Hilton (1956: 136). The arrangement appears to follow no special plan, Noone (1948: 126). Geomancy in NW Malaya.
Gibbs (1987: 79).
3 Winstedt (1909: 3).


8 MBRAS 2012


impending rains would raise the river level sufficiently to float the logs, and they
took with them provisions and equipment for up to three months.4 The trees
selected were often cengal (Balanocarpus heimii), as a hard dense wood; the
aesthetics of its appearance (when the house was built) were a factor as much as
its strength.5 After ceremonial to placate the spirits of the forestfelling trees
was dangerous workthe selected trees were felled, and the branches cut off so
that the logs could be hauled to the riverbank by buffaloes or, if available, by
elephant. Before the work of erection began there was a feast and a ceremony in
which the woman who was to be mistress of the house (ibu rumah) had a part to
play.6 To prolong the life of the upright posts they were not placed in holes in the
damp soil but on top of short pillars or footings of more durable materialhardwood, laterite, brick or cement (at various periods).7 The erection of the central
post (tiang seri) came first and was attended by special ceremony, including tying
round it pieces of cloth. The outer posts were assembled as frames with horizontal beams attached and placed on their pillars, without any attachment, i.e. the
weight of the structure held them in place.8
Much of the literature describes the differences of size, structure and style
of Malay houses. But there was a basic technique which determined their
essential characteristics. The size of the house was determined by the number of
posts (tiang). A 9-post house was the minimum, though a 12-post structure
(including a front verandahserambi) was more common:






The uniform interval (ruang) between posts was about 9 feet, calculated by
measuring from finger tip to finger tip across the outstretched arms of the
mistress of the house and adding one half, i.e. 1 depa.9 The posts were 5 inches
square and the horizontal beams 1 inches wide and up to 5 inches in depth.
No nails were used and the crossbeams were slotted into the upright posts by

4 Salinger (1994: 87).

5 Ibid. Beamish and Ferguson (1985: 14). Gibbs (1987: 80) states that the nine uprights
(tiang) of a standard house must be cut from the same log and erected in the same
relative positions as they held in the log.
6 Noone (1948: 131); Gibbs (1987: 74).
7 Hilton (1965: 137). Gibbs (1987: 70) states that originally the posts were buried in the
ground and that later rocks were dragged into place and chiselled into shape.
8 Chen (1998: 223) and Gibbs (1987: 945) have diagrams showing the sequence of
assembling the framework in place. Skeat (1900: 1435) and Evans (1911: 211) summarized
in Gullick (1987: 182) on the ceremonial.
9 Chen (1998: 16); Gibbs (1987: 73); Hilton (1992: 41).



mortise joints, tightened by hammering in wedges. The beams to support the

floor were about 4 ft above ground and the upper beams to support the roof were
at head height above that. Experience had shown that these measurements gave
the required stability and rigidity.10 The house itself could be larger by increasing
the number of posts, and additionsoriginal or added latercould provide a
kitchen (dapur) or porch; there were also several varieties of roof. The
non-load-bearing walls and the floors were of different kinds of local materials.
The purpose of this short and no doubt inadequate summary is to illustrate and
support the proposition that housebuilding in a Malay village was a craft but
not a profession. There were no builders as such.
Winstedt observed that the princes palace was only a carbon copy on a
larger scale of a villagers house. But its creation required mobilization of
manpower on a different scale. The men of one hamlet would build the central
hall, the men of another the kitchen, the men of yet another the front hall of
audience; a court official or some Javanese or Bugis adventurer would do the
carving. Every man brought his own adze and chopper.11 In some cases,
however, a Malay grandee imported a Chinese carpenter to do the job.12 If the
work or materials were out of the ordinary, he might be obliged to do so. When
the Maharaja Lela of Pasir Salak fortified his house in October 1875 in preparation for the coming revolt he employed a gang of seven or eight Javanese and
Chinese, presumably as specialists to supplement the general mobilization of his
people.13 In the 1860s Raja Abdullah of Klang built the lower storey of his
godown in brick, for which he must have imported Chinese masons, probably
from Malacca.14

The Pioneers of the New Age

When they arrived the colonial administrators had to make do with existing
buildings of the kind just described. In 1879 Isabella Bird found the district officer
at Kuala Selangor still living in a wretched habitation within the ruins of the
fort with a wall of stones and earth round it.15 First on the scene in Selangor was
Frank Swettenham, sent in August 1874 to Bandar Langat, where he and his
disconsolate police escort at first occupied a very unattractive residence an
old stockade with walls made of logs of wood a high-pitched roof of palm
leaves, very far from watertight. They slept on top of the log walls to avoid being
swamped by the high tides.16 As a more des res the Sultan offered Swettenham
the astana which would be vacant when he moved to Jugra. Swettenham

Hilton (1992: 417).

Winstedt (1909: 3). See also Chen (1998: 38).
Winstedt (1909: 1).
PCE (1876) (CO 273/86: 454, 540; CO 273/88: 27, 46).
Sheppard (1986: 23). It still stands as the Muzium Timah. Chin, Chen and Gullick (2003:
15 Bird (1883: 243).
16 Swettenham (1948: 185).



declined this and also a nearby house (very dirty) and the Sultan then took me
to a house in the course of building a good house as Malay houses go.17 How
he got it completed illustrates the state of the local building industry at that time.
The work went on very very slowly and four months passed before Swettenham
moved into a house which was doorless and partly windowless, but still it is a
house and in 6 months may be made actually comfortable. There was a lack of
materials, even wood, and the Sultan had to send to Malacca for labour to carry
out a programme that included demolition of useless abandoned houses and
work on five or six new ones in the course of building.18 When Emily Innes
moved in a couple of years later she described it as an ordinary Malay
In Perak, Birch had first to achieve a settlement of the succession dispute
between sultans Ismail and Abdullah and induce the latter to settle at Batak
Rabit, with Birch himself nearby at Bandar Bahru (previously Ayer Mati). He
then planned to expend $1200 on an astana for Abdullah and $350400 on a
Residency for himself. For the latter it was necessary to import a party of housebuilders from Province Wellesley as it is impossible to get Perak Malays to
work. There was no difficulty over a supply of squared timber and sawn planks,
of which there was an exportable surplus. Chinese sawyers and carpenters
[were] rapidly coming into the country to work for contractors such as Cheng
Tee, who was building shophouses. But there were delays and Birch did not
move into his new abode until January 1875, finding it a very nice one, I slept in
it and was very comfortable.20
At Klang the first Resident (Davidson) occupied a house belonging to a
Malay notable, while using the Gedong Raja Abdullah as offices. At Taiping the
Assistant Resident, T. C. S. Speedy, at first used the house within a brick defensive perimeter that the Mentri of Larut had built in the 1860s.21 When Hugh Low
arrived at Kuala Kangsar in April 1877 he moved into what had been the house
of Che Mida, finding it miserably uncomfortable. Two years later a visitor found
it as unpretending a dwelling as can be. It keeps out the sun and rain, and gives
all the comfort which is needed in this climate, but nothing more.22 Low
remained parsimonious over expenditure of public funds on buildings throughout his long tenure as Resident (187789), but nonetheless lived in style with a
magnificent Oriental butler and exquisite linen, china, etc.23 He arrived too late
to prevent Speedy from building a splendid house on a hill overlooking Taiping,
large and lofty and thoroughly draughty with a main room 30 ft by 60 ft and 20

Swettenham (1975: 109, 111, 118). des res is estate agents jargon for a desirable residence.
Ibid.: 137, 146, 174.
Innes (1885: 15). She has a drawing of it as the frontispiece of her vol. 1.
Birch (1976: 11112, 132, 1612, 196, 3857). A photograph was taken showing the front of
the Residency when Jervois visited Perak in September 1875. Falconer and Gullick (1989).
21 Swettenham (1975: 206). Douglas diary 6 June 1876. Nazrin Shah (2006: 109) has an illustration of Speedys original accommodation.
22 Low (1955: 36); Bird (1883: 305).
23 Bird (1883: 306).



ft high, with a great bow window without glass opening on an immense

verandah like the forecastle of a great Clyde steamer.24 On first seeing it Low
condemned it as too large for the necessities of the officer who inhabits it, noting
with sour satisfaction that it was also too large for the site as the land is
slipping on the east side in such a manner as to endanger the building.25
Speedys mansion seems to have been in traditional Malay form, though it
may have been built by Chinese from Taiping town at the foot of the hill. Its
length of 60 ft was less than the 80 ft long temporary residence built for Sultan
Abdullah. As the modular pattern of posts could be multiplied, mere size
presented no problem. It permitted Abdullahs astana to have a large portico and
a covered passage to a godown.26 But the larger the structure the greater was
the required mobilization of labour and use of materials to produce something
with a short life.27 Hornaday, camping in 1878 under the leaking roof of the headman of Jeram, supposed that, like the man of Arkansaw, when it rained [his
host] couldnt fix the roof and when it did not rain [he] didnt need to.28 It was
common Malay practice, however, to renew the roof and, as mentioned above,
more durable laterite, brick or cement might be used in the supporting pillars
instead of hardwood.29
During their brief occupation of Kuala Selangor in 1785 the Dutch rebuilt
the Malay forts with brick walls, and mention has been made of the Mentris
defensive perimeter at Matang (Larut).30 The use of bricks in the structure was
at this time still restricted by the needin most instancesto import bricks, a
heavy and bulky cargo, from the Straits Settlements. Sometimes ships loaded
them as ballast for the outward voyage. As late as 1883, after Sultan Abdul Samad
had moved from Bandar Langat to Jugra, his government sought his permission
to dismantle the brick pillars of the abandoned astana for re-use in building a
police station.31
However, Raja Abdullah had built in Klang in 1856 a modified transitional
Malay house which was already used in the Straits Settlements towns.32 In the
traditional house the need for rigidity required that the lowest tier of horizontal
beams, supporting the floor, was placed not more than about 4 ft above the
ground.33 The space under the floor could be used for storage, hen coopsand

24 Ibid.: 280.
25 Low (1955: 34). It was replaced within a few years by another Residency on a different site
(Barlow 1995: 321).
26 Birch (1976: 275); Hilton (1992: 39).
27 Birch (1976: 111, 226) reckoned that an atap roof would last only 7 years and the timber
posts 8.
28 Hornaday (1993: 14).
29 Hilton (1956: 137) and see Note 7 above.
30 van Hagersdorp (1959); Nazrin Shah (2006: 109).
31 Diary of the Collector, Kuala Langat, 9 and 23 August 1883.
32 Chen (2007: 18). It was an adapted model of the traditional Malay house but more in use
by Europeans than Malays. Sheppard (1986: 23) offers a conjectural picture of the building
under construction.
33 Hilton (1992: 46).



rubbish dropped through the slatted floorbut lacked the height needed for
living space. In the modified model the pillars (of brick) were built to a height of
say 8 ft to support a timber frame upper floor, and the space beneath it became
the lower part (often open-sided) of a two-storey house. This model required a
considerable quantity of bricks andprobablythe expertise of Chinese
builders from the Straits Settlements. W. B. Douglas, who became Resident of
Selangor in 1876 in succession to Davidson, at first lived in some shabby rooms
over a godown.34 To accommodate his wife and family, waiting in Australia to
join him, he set about building a Residency in the modified style on the hill overlooking the Klang fort. He asked Syed Zin, then in charge of public works, to
lay out the new Residence, the first recorded case of quasi-professional
design.35 Later he mentions carpenters laying down the planks of my house
and roofing it, which took a week.36 When he moved in the lower part of the
house, which [was] supported on pillars, [was] mainly open, and [was] used for
billiard-room, church, lounging-room, afternoon tea-room and audienceroom.37 Its upper floor had six bedrooms with verandahs and five bathrooms.38
The management of the Public Works Department (PWD) passed from
Syed Zin to an Australian surveyor, D. D. Daly, but without much improvement
in performance.39 When Daly was dismissed in 1882 an official enquiry found
that in the Selangor PWD there was really no organization at all ... and it is
difficult to say how Mr Daly employed his time. The three subordinates,
however, included J. H. Klyne, a surveyor judged to be a painstaking zealous officer of whom more is said below. The paperwork was deficient; no estimates or
bills of quantity were prepared.40 The situation much improved with the
34 Innes (1885: I/7), referring to the upper floor of the Gedong Raja Abdullah. She was not too
proud to accept his offer of a bare wooden garret as overnight accommodation (Ibid).
35 Douglas diary 29 August and 30 September 1876. Syed Zin bin Syed Puteh al-Habshi was
a versatile Penang businessman who had been chief of staff to Tunku Kudin during the
Selangor civil war (186773). After the war he had charge of government public works,
survey and lands departments. He may have had some practical knowledge of building
and/or surveying, but there is nothing to suggest that he had professional qualifications
(Gullick 2004: 89). On retiring he acquired plantations around Klang, but did little with
them (AR Selangor 1890 Appx F).
36 Ibid.: 12, 14 and 22 January 1877.
37 Bird (1883: 217). As first built it had an atap roof (Bird. 1883: 217), but when rebuilt at Kuala
Lumpur it had a tiled roof (Gullick 2007: Plate 7)). See also Chen (2007: 19) for pictures of
other houses of this type. The bricks were probably imported. Yap Ah Loy had not yet
established his Kuala Lumpur brickfield.
38 Barlow (1995: 232), citing Sel Sec 76/82. As soon as money could be found, Swettenham
(Resident 18829) replaced it with a more convenient Residency (still standing) (Barlow
1992: 28).
39 Daly was a son-in-law of Douglas; both were dismissed in 1882.
40 Report enclosed with SSD 3 May 1882. Of Major H. E. (Sir Henry) McCallum, RE, author
of the report, it was said whenever there was work to be done he was a demon. Makepeace, Brooke, and Braddell (1921: II/462) summarizes the career (ending with the governorships of Nigeria and Newfoundland) of a man of abundant energy and intolerant of
those who lacked it. At this time he was with the PWD SS.



appointment, as Dalys successor, of H. F. Bellamy, AMICE, and A. C. A. Norman,

ARIBA, as his deputy. Neither was a man to set the Klang River on fire, but the
departmental routine of building offices, quarters, police stations, hospitals etc.
was now based on drawing office designs, contract specifications, and adequate
records. In Perak, the situation was no better. The state engineer designed bridges
that collapsed, but he survived and prosperedto retire in 1905 as DPW FMS,
becauseunkind rumour saidhis wife was a particular friend of Swettenham.41
In these circumstances much depended on the subordinate PWD staff and
the contractors to whom some of the larger road construction and building
projects were let. It is likely that John Klyne, mentioned above, had learnt surveying in the Straits Settlements and that drawing office staff also came from there.
Klyne, after whom Klyne Street (Jalan Lekiu) in Kuala Lumpur was named, had
come to Klang in the early 1870s and joined the PWD in 1877. His tasks included
supervision of Damansara Road and of the offshore lighthouse project. After
retiring from the PWD he became a contractor and he owned a 60-acre coconut
estate on Ampang Road.42 He was a leading member of the Eurasian Roman
Catholic community, a fine shot and one of the group who founded the Selangor
museum; he stored its natural history specimens in his house until other arrangements could be made.43 His colleague, Bristow, was a storekeeper and labour
supervisor.44 There must have been others of the type who moved from the
Straits Settlements to find a useful role in the expanding economy of Selangor.

Expansion in the 1880s

Various events of the 1880s much enlarged the scale of building construction.
From 1875 to 1879 the low price of tin constrained the pace of development, but
one incidental effect was that Yap Ah Loy diverted labour from his mines to
opening a brickfield (from which the Brickfields area of Kuala Lumpur derives
its name). He planned to export bricks and tiles to Singapore, in competition
with such materials from Hong Kong. Yap Ah Loys products were of excellent
quality, though the clay used in making tiles was peculiar and the tiles thin
and light stronger and more durable than ordinary roofing tiles. Although the
hoped-for export trade did not materialize, perhaps because of high transport
costs, the brickfields were still producing in 1879 for local use, and were a useful
resource when the building boom came in the 1880s.45
41 Barlow (1995: index entries Caulfeild, Francis and Caulfeild, Helen Isabel). Caulfeild was
also an exceptionally incompetent commandant of the FMSVF.
42 SJ 5 (1897: 352) gives a brief obituary and there are numerous references to him in the diary
of Bloomfield Douglas.
43 SJ 1 (1893: 298); Robson (2001: 5). His brother was a government apothecary, and the son of
one or other of them was a frequent prizewinner at the Victoria Institution.
44 SSD 3 May 1882. See Note 40 above.
45 Swettenham (1878), quoted in Gullick (2000: 23); Bird (1883: 200) on 1879.



The sharp rise in the price of tin late in 1879 led to a population increase at
Kuala Lumpur of one-third in a single year and contributed to the decision to
move the state capital upriver from Klang in mid-1880. Overcrowding and
inadequate hygiene made the rubbish-strewn streets pestilential.46 A fire, once
started, spread rapidly across the narrow lanes; one of the worst occurred on
4 January 1881, making 500 people homeless and causing damage estimated at
$100,000.47 When fire broke out the citizens either grabbed their portable possessions and fled or awaited events in dumb stupidity.48 In 1884 Bellamy offered
to form a volunteer (predominantly European) Kuala Lumpur fire brigade, if the
government would provide the engines (pumps on carts drawn by shire horses);
in 1888 the brigade acquired a pump powered by a steam engine, which could
discharge 350 gallons of water a minute on the conflagration.49 1884 also saw
the launch of a more fundamental solution to these problems, with the complete
rebuilding, street by street, of central Kuala Lumpur, leading to the substitution
in all the principal streets of brick houses with tiled roofs for the adobe, or
wooden huts, thatched with palm leaves.50 Then some of the wealthier traders
began to build villa residences on the outskirts of the town, keeping the
construction boom going, as shown by the following figures of houses built in
Kuala Lumpur:51

Houses built



The governments substantial public works programme included rebuilding its

main offices at a cost of $30,000, a new market ($43,000), much-needed additions
to its hospitals and a new Residency.52 A new Chinese theatre of permanent
materials was built with a capacity of 3,000, and the three largest Chinese
groupsHakka, Cantonese and Hokkieneach built very handsome kongsi
houses, employingpresumablybuilders from the Straits Settlements.53


SSD, 27 October 1882.

Gullick (2000: 40) based on SSF 18/1881 and other Sel Sec files.
Rathborne (1898: 108).
AR Selangor from 1884 onwards and the annual reports of the fire brigade published (from
1890) in SGG. Gullick (2000: 125) and Gullick (2007: index entries Fire Brigade).
AR Selangor 1885, para 94. See Note 87 below.
AR Selangor 18848; Gullick (2000: 45).
AR Selangor 1885, paras 40, 46 and 49; AR Selangor 1887, para 63; AR Selangor 1888,
para 58; Barlow (1992); Ghafar Ahmad (1997).
AR Selangor 1888. See Chen (1998) on mosques, temples, churches, etc.



There was a corresponding expansion in the supply of building materials.

Between 1886 and 1888, for example, the number of brick kilns in Selangor more
than doubledfrom 15 to 33as did the number of lime kilnsfrom 8 to 16.54
There were growing signs of pressure on resources. Hardwood timber balks
that had cost $1.90 in 1887 had risen to $4.50 in 1888 despite the opening of a
new sawmill.55
There were also changes in architectural design. The government buildings
of the mid-1880s included some in a very basic classical style, with pillared
fronts from ground to first-floor roof, following the model of Colemans
buildings in Singapore.56 In rebuilding their business premises in more robust
materials the towkays made better use of the site by adopting the model of a
two-storey shophouse already common in the Straits Settlements in place of the
previous single-storey shacks.57 At first they did not decorate the upper storey
frontages in Chinese baroque style, but embellishment soon came.58

The Contractors

In the late 1870s the term contractor denoted a small-scale entrepreneura

Malay or Chinese carpenter who built houses, or even a Bugis aristocrat who,
after the tradition of his community, had turned to trade. One such was Raja
Mahomed (usually Mat) of Tanjong Gamok, who was apparently a kinsman or
connection of Raja Jumaat, chief of nearby Lukut. In 1876 Raja Mat had to work
hard to support his family by selling timber and other forest products, repairing
wooden launches, etc. In 1876, for example, he supplied a quantity of planks
1 foot by 8 inches by 1 inch for $150 which were cheaper and better than those
the government could obtain from Malacca; presumably he bought them from
local sawyers. When the coastal strip was ceded to Negri Sembilan Raja Mat was
granted a compensatory pension of $50 pm and quit the timber trade to live like
54 AR Selangor 1886 and 1888.
55 AR Selangor 1888. Presumably forest trees within easy reach had been felled and the
loggers had to go further afield. The cost of freight reduces the actual value of this forest
in the Klang valley (Ridley 1896: 444).
56 Ghafar Ahmad (1997: 247) reproduces the list of important buildings which Norman
claimed to have designed and his Figure 3 (the government offices) illustrates the classical
style. Norman, during his apprenticeship in the west of England, had worked on the design
of town halls, etc. in this style. He also designed the gothic St Marys Church (Cathedral)
and the Tudor Selangor Club, but in 1901 the Resident (Belfield) said that in a number of
instances Norman made misleading claims to the design or construction of buildings with
which he had little or nothing to do (Gullick 1992: 36), quoting official minutes. See Note
70 below and Hancock (1986).
57 Lim (1993).
58 A photograph taken in 1884 (reproduced in Gullick (2000) as Plate 1) shows shophouses
with a plain front. SSD 4 October 1886, however, refers to neat brick houses often gaily
painted and decorated with elaborate carvings (quoted in Gullick 2000: 45). Gullick (2000:
Plate 8); Lim (1993: 5660).



a gentleman on that.59 But modest enterprises like that could not meet the
demands of the KlangKuala Lumpur railway construction project (18846). The
state government imported a railway construction expert from Ceylon, plate
layers from Bengal and, of course, the lengths of iron railway line.60 Although the
line crossed fairly level terrain there were some considerable earthworks, i.e.
cuttings and embankments, and a massive quantity of hardwood timber, cut into
sleepers 6 feet long, was required.61 This was an opportunity, though of limited
duration, for a new species of contractors who appeared in the early 1880s.
There was a considerable influx of planters from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) who,
while they waited for their coffee to come into bearing, found work for their
labourers on government contracts.62 The bread-and-butter work was road
construction, and Swettenham (Resident of Selangor 18829) acknowledged his
debt to Heslop Hill, who had driven bridlepaths through the country.63 But the
railway was a real bonanza which for a couple of years supported the steampowered sawmill established by Hill and Rathborne and operated by imported
Indian technicians. It was, however, a venture which was ten years ahead of its
time, for in normal conditions European machinery [could] not compete with
the patient labour of the Chinese sawyer and there was competition from a
sawmill set up in Kuala Lumpur by a Tamil company. In the course of its
melancholy history the sawmill passed through various hands, and moved
between Klang and Kuala Lumpur until Loke Yew, who could spot a bargain,
bought it at an advantageous price.64
The contract for the railway earthworks went to another planter from
Ceylon, D. G. Gordon, in partnership with W. W. (Tim) Bailey, proprietor of
Highlands and Lowlands estate at Klang.65 They toiled on in face of difficulty,
especially at the Klang end which was allocated to Bailey.66 Later, Gordon was
one of several contractors who completed the much more difficult earthworks of
the extension of the line from Kuala Lumpur to Ulu Selangor.67 This was not

59 Douglas diary 29 April and 5 August 1876, 4 February 1877, 29 June 1879 and 21 January
60 Kaur (1985: 1619); Ibid.: 24 on Spence Moss; FMS Railway (1935).
61 A mile of line required almost 2,000 sleepers, obtained by the felling of 21 trees of the
largest size (Ridley 1896: 444).
62 Tate (1996: Chapter 11 The Men from Ceylon).
63 Swettenham (1942: 82).
64 SJ 2 (1894: 414) reprinted in Gullick (2007: 50) dates this venture to 1887, but AR Selangor
1883, para 54, records the erection of the mill (at Klang) in 1883. On Hill and Rathborne see
Gullick (2000: 55, 71). Tamil sawmill AR Selangor 1884 para 119. A Chinese sawmill was
established in 1888 (AR Selangor 1888).
65 Tate (1996: 227).
66 Residents speech at the opening of the railway in 1886, reported in Straits Times 22
September 1886, reprinted in FMS Railways (1935) and in Gullick (1955: 161).
67 The contract had originally been given to Campbell & Co., also from Ceylon, but they ran
into difficulties and were replaced. SJ 1 (1893: 373) reprinted in Gullick (2007: 134). Gordon
also builton a no fee basisthe embankment in the Lake Gardens (Tasik Perdana) (SJ 2
(1893: 10)). In 1896 ill-health obliged him to return to Ceylon (SJ 3 (1896: 365)).



hi-tech work, but required skill in the mundane task of managing a large force
of Chinese and Malay labourers, for which Gordon was given great credit.68

The Neo-Saracenic Style

By 1887 the growing problem of sickness, mainly malaria and beri-beri, among
the much increased Chinese labour force on the tin mines led to a decision to
build a pauper hospital for indigent miners on a new site at the north end of
Kuala Lumpur.69 The plan contemplate[d] the erection of ten wards over a
period of years, and a typical ward was to be a large and airy single-storey shed,
140 feet long, 40 feet wide and 26 feet high, with a plank floor overlaying a
cement base.70 It was a large but not essentially difficult project which was
running at its peak when Bellamy, dependable though not dynamic, went on
leave and Norman, as his deputy in the PWD, had to take charge under the
critical eye of the newly appointed Resident, W. E. Maxwell, who loathed
incompetence.71 Normans inability to keep contractors up to the mark led
Maxwell to introduce new blood into the PWD in the person of C. E. Spooner, on
transfer from Ceylon.72 Bellamy accepted with good grace demotion to deputy
state engineer. Norman, found unfit for any executive appointment, was
confined to the duties of government architect, at which he was deemed
competent.73 In those duties he was assisted (as chief draughtsman) by
R. A. J. Bidwell, who although not so highly qualified had much more natural
talent. Bidwell became disenchanted with Norman claiming credit for his work
and departed to make a very successful career as an architect in Singapore. He
was succeeded by A. B. Hubback, of whom more is said later.74
It is unnecessary to repeat here at length how Maxwell decided to advertise Kuala Lumpur by the erection of an impressive office building. Spooner,
with the help of Bidwell, introduced from India to Selangor a new Mahometan
or Neo-Saracenic style, beginning with the Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad
(1897). Hubback continued to design in this style several other major buildings,
ending with the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station (1911).75 More significant in this
68 Residents speech at the opening of the railway in 1886, reported in Straits Times 22
September 1886, reprinted in FMS Railways (1935) and in Gullick (1955: 161).
69 AR Selangor 1887, paras 613; AR Selangor 1888, para 57, reprinted in Gullick (2000: 85).
70 AR Selangor 1889, para 45; SJ 4 (1896: 189) reprinted in Gullick (2007: 424).
71 Robson (2001: 36).
72 AR Selangor 1889, paras 638; Robson (2001: 46); Wright and Cartwright (1908: 312). After
a decade with the PWD Selangor, Spooner (originally a railway construction engineer)
became general manager of the FMS Railways, dying in office in 1909.
73 SSD 25 June 2003; Gullick (1992: 36); Ghafar Ahmad (1997); AR Selangor 1891, paras 368.
74 Gullick (1992: 38). Bidwell was a member of the Architectural Association of London and
had worked for the London County Council. In Singapore he was a partner of Swan &
Maclaren (Beamish and Ferguson (1985, index entries Bidwell, RAJ); Edwards (1990, index
Architects and Engineers Bidwell RAJ); Wright and Cartwright (1908: 627).
75 Gullick (1992).



article is Spooners conclusion that existing resources could not provide the huge
quantity of building materials needed to build the Bangunan. Apart from the
obvious problem of producing millions of bricks, the growing deficiency in the
supply of timber, noted above, had become so severe that in government buildings generally rollers and axe-squared beams were used and timber was
imported from Singapore.76 Spooners solution was to establish a PWD factory,
with a 40-hp steam engine to drive a sawmill and metal cutting and drilling
machines. It also included a large brickworks managed by the versatile Gordon
& Co.77

The Coming of Metals as Building Materials

Imported iron and steel (and cement) were becoming a significant element
among the available building materials. In 1888 the Selangor government had
begun to replace the timber bridges across the Klang River with more durable
lattice-girder bridges.78 In 1897 the PWD factory made most of the metal components for a municipal incinerator for Kuala Lumpur, whose furnaces were 12
feet by 8 feet by 12 feet high.79 The design of comparatively complex structures
was done by experts in London and the materials assembled in Singapore, where
the leading engineers (metal fabricators and assembly contractors) were Riley
Hargreaves and Howarth Erskine (merged to form United Engineers in 1912).
The lattice-girder Connaught Bridge (1890) carried the railway line across the
river to Klang town.80 It stood on cast iron cylinders driven to a depth of some
60 feet to stand on rock beneath the mud. It was designed by consulting engineers in London, and the metal components were made at Stockton-on-Tees; the
building contract was let to Howarth Erskine and the work was supervised by
railway engineers, one local and the other from Ceylon.81 A very similar combination of UK, Singapore and local resources built a waterworks at Ulu Klang to

76 AR PWD Selangor 1892 and 1893, printed in SGG. Note 55 above. In 1893 the price of
timber, brought in over a distance of 1220 miles, had increased by a further 15%. AR PWD
Selangor 1893.
77 SJ 2 (1894: 322) reprinted in Gullick (2007: 179); AR PWD Selangor 1895. The factory itself
was managed by W. A. Leach, who had experience of similar work in Johor, Bangkok and
Borneo (Ibid.). The Bangunan with its numerous arches was strengthened by the use of
steel girders. SJ 5 (1897:220) reprinted in Gullick (2007: 183) gives a technical description of
the structure.
78 First was the Market Street bridge with a span of 473 feet between abutments. AR Selangor
1888, para 54. Funds for the Java Street and Gombak crossing were allocated in 1891 (AR
Selangor 1891, para 41).
79 SJ 5 (1897: 217) reprinted in Gullick (2007: 32).
80 SJ 1 (1892: 757) reprinted in Gullick (2007: 1414) .
81 Howarth Erskine also undertook major road construction contracts, such as part of the road
to Kuala Lipis, and they were sufficiently encouraged to establish a local branch in Kuala
Lumpur. SJ 3 (1895: 319) reprinted in Gullick (2007: 171); Wright and Cartwright (1908: 647);
Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell (1921: 2/200) on the formation of United Engineers in



supply the estimated needs (20 gallons per head per day for 25,000 people) of
Kuala Lumpur.82 In addition to the PWD factory the railway, extended north
and south from Kuala Lumpur in the 1890s, had a central workshop for its
mechanical maintenance requirements. The contract for its carriage building
works was awarded in 1896 to a leading contractor, Ang Kim Seng, at a price of
$40,000.83 Step by step, expertise and resources were growing.

Business Premises in the Late Nineteenth Century

Apart from Chinese shophouses there were commercial premises occupied by

European firms, few in number until the early twentieth century. In 1886 the
Selangor government granted to the Straits Trading Company (STC) the sole
right to buy tin ore for export. This decision was in part prompted by the fact that
native traders and miners find it difficult to obtain cash advances in the [Straits
Settlements] however valuable may be the houses or other property in Selangor
which they can offer as security.84 The STC was willing to make advances to
miners against future deliveries of ore.85 For this purpose it needed a lot of cash,
and so it arranged to let the upper floor of its premises, on Market Street (Leboh
Pasar Besar) west of the river, to the Chartered Bank which, by a fortunate coincidence, was about to open a branch.86

The Sanitary Board

Until 1890 the regulation of building development was uncoordinated. The title
to a town plot might stipulate that a building of specified minimum value should
be erected within a short period. Rules for the rebuilding of central Kuala
Lumpur in 18846 prescribed a minimum street width in the form of a road
reserve that was not always observed.87 Fire precautions prohibited using
inflammable materials such as wood and atap in town buildings. Health and
amenity objectives gave rise to a number of building rulesthe five-foot way,
sanitary lanes (for nightsoil carts) at the back of shophouses, the concentration
of noisy or smelly activities in buildings in particular parts of the town. Kandang
Kerbau was a space reserved for stables and cattle sheds, which might not be
added to domestic premises, though shopkeepers in Batu Road continued to
82 SJ 4 (1896: 271) reprinted in Gullick (2007: 271).
83 SJ 5 (1896: 2) reprinted in Gullick (2007: 149). See also Note 94 below.
84 AR Selangor 1885, para 22; AR Selangor 1886. The ore could, of course, be smelted locally
and there was no obligation to export. However, charcoal for smelting was becoming scarce.
SJ 2 (1893: 103) and 3 (1895: 307) reprinted in Gullick (2007: 114 and 358) refer to a slightly
later period, but the problem had built up over the years (Wong 1965: 157 and 163).
85 SJ 4 (1896: 197) reporting on Chinese New Year 1896, when employers were hard pressed
to pay all wages due, as custom required, and the STC gave valuable help in averting predicted general bankruptcy.
86 Robson (2000: 4) refers to old shophouses, i.e. STC did not build new offices. SJ 4 (1896:
419) refers to its bare walls.
87 Gullick (2000: 44, 48, 98, 250).



keep untethered goats on their verandahs.88 The energetic W. E. Maxwell had

been president of the Penang municipality (as well as chief administrator of
Penang) before he became Resident of Selangor (188992) and he recognized the
need for a body to coordinate town services and policy in Kuala Lumpur with
due regard to local opinion. This led to the establishment in 1890 of a Sanitary
Board, the first of many in the Malay states, with much wider functions than
that title suggests. The Boards members included representatives of the PWD,
medical and police services and also nominated community representatives.
Among its functions was giving (or withholding) approval of new buildings,
enforced by a requirement for the submission of drawings of what was to be
built. This procedure showed that as late as 1905 with few exceptions the individuals who make a profession of drawing plans in this town are not architects
and their estimates of costs were misleading to their clients. A suggestion that the
Sanitary Board should provide standard plans for the use of applicants came to

Some Personalities

It is likely that the less than proficient draughtsmen had got some grounding in
their work as former employees in a Selangor government drawing office, or in
the Straits Settlements. One such case was A. K. Moosden, who had exceptional
talent and became a successful architect in Kuala Lumpur. One of his notable
buildings was the three-storey shophouse built in 1905 for Loke Yew and let to
Chow Kit & Co. It still stands on the corner of Jalan Mahkamah Tinggi and Jalan
Mahkamah Persekutuan and is now occupied by the Industrial Court.90 Another
was Philip Russell, who in 1899 became an apprentice engineer with the Selangor
railway and went on to private practice as an architect, designing buildings for
Loke Yew and cooperating with his brother, J. A. Russell, in the design side of the
contract for the construction of the Railway Hotel in Kuala Lumpur.91
Something can be learnt of the building industry at the turn of the twentieth
century from the construction contract for Carcosa built for the ResidentGeneral (Swettenham). The PWD, fully extended by the Bangunan Sultan Abdul
Samad and other major office buildings, invited tenders for Carcosa, a very
large mansion (still standing) on a site in the Lake Gardens (Tasik Perdana).92
The successful bid came from Nicholas & Walsh, who advertised themselves as
architects and contractors.93 Others who submitted tenders were San Ah Peng,

88 SJ 1 (1893: 290) reprinted in Gullick (2007: 35).

89 Khoo Kay Kim (1996: 54), quoting a memorandum by three official members of the board
published in the Malay Mail, January 1905.
90 Gullick (2004: 164). Moosden, born in Hong Kong, was a surveyor with the Selangor PWD
in 1892. He appears in the Singapore and Straits Directory for 1929 and died in 1937.
91 Clague (1993: 193). Philip Russell died in 1921 (Ibid.: 197).
92 Harvey (1999) is a valuable source of contemporary archive material for Carcosa, among
other buildings. See pp. 28, 29, 61, 63 and 65.
93 Singapore and Straits Directory (1893), where the firm is styled Nicholas & Co..



pioneer miner and contractor and Ang Kim Seng, mentioned above as contractor for building the railway carriage workshops.94 Nicholas had begun his career
in the PWD and his partner, W. Walsh, had been a railway engineer. Nicholas
had previously built the first Victoria Institution building (1893) in the High
Street (Jalan Tun H. S. Lee), the Masonic Hall (1894) and St Marys Church
(1895).95 The firm had offices on Jalan Raja until the site was cleared for the
Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad. Nicholas was a member of the Masonic Lodge
and of the Selangor Planters Association and was prominent in European social
life. Apart from the natural gregariousness of a chatty man, socializing was
doubtless good for business.96
The rubber boom of the early twentieth century led to a considerable expansion in commercial demand for buildings. The Singapore agency houses set up
offices in Kuala Lumpur and other banks followed the lead of the Chartered
Bank in opening branches. Old Market Square (Medan Pasar) became the prestige business and financial centre with the Mercantile Bank premises at one end
and the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank at the other. Zacharias & Co., the first importers of motor cars, had their showrooms here. In 1906 Loke Yew commissioned A. K. Moosden to design a block of shophouses built here in red brick,
later known as the Red House. Another prominent business in the Square was
J. A. Russell & Co. It was here that rising land values led to the erection of threestorey buildings. Although there was no formal town planning regime until 1920
the Sanitary Board recognized that the Square was too important to be left to
piecemeal redevelopment, and in 1907 it invited A. B. Hubback, the government
architect, to prepare design guidelines. As a result, the new buildings, some in
neo-classical style, had frontages conforming to uniform height levels.97

Landlords and Developers

The design of a building usually reflected the fact that whoever commissioned
it intended to occupy it himself. When, for example, John Russell arrived in 1890
to establish the government printing department he found the building already
erected for it quite inadequate. With Russells expert advice a new printing works
was built (in 1899) with sufficient space for large printing presses and wide
windows, without the usual exterior verandah, that would admit the maximum
amount of light.98 A property owner might build with a particular tenant in view,

94 Harvey (1999: 29); SJ 5 (1896: 2); Lee and Chow (1997: 1, 40). Ang Seng was also one of the
contractors who worked on the Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad. He is commemorated by
Jalan Ang Seng in Kuala Lumpur (Lee and Chow, loc. cit.).
95 SJ 2 (1893: 18), (1894: 194, 299); SJ 3 (1894: 42), (1895: 200).
96 SJ 3 (1895: 201, 368). See references to Nicholas at meetings of the Masonic Lodge and of the
Selangor Planters Association in SJ (Robson 2001: 1).
97 Badan Warisan Malaysia (n.d.); Chin and Hoffmann (n.d.). Gullick (2000: Plate 46) reproduces a well-known photograph (c.1920) showing the integrated frontages.
98 Gullick (2000: 157); AR FMS 1898. Swettenham had the new Residency (Note 52) and then
Carcosa (Note 92) built to his requirements (Barlow 1992 and 1995: 478).



for example Loke Yews premises for Chow Kit & Co. (general grocers)
mentioned above. But there were also instances of landlords/developers building
(or acquiring buildings) as an investment in the general tenancy market. Yap Ah
Loy suffered heavy losses in the fire of 1881 because he owned much of the wood
and atap hovels which were burnt down.99 A rather more salubrious example
was the enterprise of the Dato Panglima Kinta in laying out his land in Ipoh in
building lots on a rectangular street plan, so that at his death in 1903 he was
possessed of considerable house property in the flourishing town of Ipoh.100 In
1905 Sultan Idris was the principal purchaser when the state government sold
off shophouses in Kuala Kangsar.101 No one could match the scale of Loke Yews
operationsBeginning in the late 1880s he bought up lots and built shops and
houses in Kuala Lumpur and the other main towns in Selangor, on such a scale
that by the early twentieth century he employed Robson to manage these
The first large-scale housing estate development was at Ipoh, which in the
last years of the nineteenth century had expanded from a small village in 1879 to
a town with a population of 13,000, the commercial capital of the Kinta mining
district. With the encouragement of the Resident (E. W. Birch), a leading towkay,
Yau Tet Shin, built a new town of 300 houses on the east bank of the Kinta River,
opposite the congested old town on the other bank.103 In 1913 J. A. Russell added
it (as rented property) to his investments, paying more than $1 million for it.104

1914 and the End of an Era

The outbreak of war in 1914 brought building construction to a halt. Both

government finances and essential industries were disrupted.105 Key figures
such as the government architect, A. B. Hubback, went off to war service
in Europe, and his post-war successors adopted new architectural styles.106
During the war there was a growing scarcity of building materials. By 1917
iron and steel work were especially hard to get and the prices almost prohibitive.107 When peace returned it did not bring economic stability, and there were
different priorities. Government building, for example, switched from large
offices to a mass programme of staff quarters and efforts to increase hospital
99 Note 47 above.
100 AR Perak 1903, para 48; Nazrin Shah (2006: 21).
101 AR Perak 1905, para 10.
102 Butcher and Dick (1993: 256); Robson (2001: 33).
103 Nazrin Shah (2006: 21); Khoo and Abdur-Razzaq Lubis (2005: 193); Lee and Chow (1997:

104 Russell (1954), a brother of J. A. Russell.
105 Gullick (2004: 208).
106 Hubback had succeeded the incompetent Caulfeild as commandant of the FMSVF. He rose
to the rank of brigadier on the Western Front and continued a military career in UK after
the war (Robson 2001: 29; Chen 1998: 99).
107 AR FMS 1917. The passage continues in the same tone on cement, paint and even timber.



accommodation and urban water supply at a time of fluctuating public

revenues.108 Town planning introduced new controls on private development,
with zoning of different kinds of land use.109 It was a more professional organized building industry working in more uniform fashion.


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