6 Iconic and beautiful colonial buildings in Malaysia

By Sharil Tarmize

Malaysia has witnessed many colonial powers vying for our natural resources and strategic location – which has gifted us with many architectural wonders

Here are some facts to stimulate your knowledge (or memories) of this country’s history; the Portuguese colonised Malaysia in 1511, the Dutch arrived in 1641, followed by the British in 1867, and we were once occupied by Imperial Japan during World War 2.

Those days have left iconic and beautiful buildings that largely remain standing today – and Malaysia’s early years can be revisited with a stop at any one of these six historic locations around the country.

As part of BEST@ Malaysia, the latest instalment in the BEST@ series, we took a closer look at the vast range of architectural relics that represent the various important stages in the formation of Malaysian culture.


#1: Kellie’s Castle

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Located in Batu Gajah (Perak), Kellie’s Castle is an enigmatic ruined mansion that was abandoned following the untimely death of its owner, a Scotsman by the name of William Kellie Smith.

Combining Mughal, Indo-Saracenic, Moorish Revival, and Colonial British architectural influences, the convergent design of Kellie’s Castle is uniquely representative of the regional architecture in the early 20th century. The brick and marble masonry were largely imported from India and were purportedly worked by skilled craftsmen from Madras – the descendants of whom can still be found living in the vicinity of the mansion today.

Aside from its unique design and composition, the mansion’s earliest claim to fame was the planned inclusion of the country’s first mechanical elevator in its 6-storey tower and extravagant design considerations such as an indoor tennis court and a rooftop courtyard.

Kellie’s Castle is now perhaps better known for the tragedy that befell its owner, William Kellie Smith – a Scottish estate owner and tin mining entrepreneur – who died during a trip to Europe to acquire the elevator. Smith’s sudden death from pneumonia while en route to Lisbon left the mansion unfinished – where it would have been lost to time, if not for the continuing efforts of the Tourism Ministry, Perak’s Public Works Department, and a RM5 million upgrade tabled under the 10th Malaysian Plan in 2010.

Even after the construction of a tourist centre, the restoration of the mansion’s interior, and a revival of the grounds in the style of English landscapes by the botanist Dr Francis Ng, the fog of mystery surrounding Kellie’s Castle still persists. Three secret tunnels were recently discovered – and more are believed to be hidden within the mansion’s grounds. There have even been rumours that the Scotsman’s spirit still roams the upper floors of the mansion.


#2: Kuala Lumpur Railway Station

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The iconic Kuala Lumpur railway station that most people visualise when discussing Malaysia’s colonial heritage was built all the way back in 1910.

The main structure of the Kuala Lumpur railway station – containing its offices, main hall, ticket counters, and hotel – is perhaps the nation’s most photographed landmark and certainly helped to solidify Malaysia’s characteristic mixture of Colonial British, Mughal, Moorish Revival, and Indo-Saracenic architectural styles. The station’s architect, Arthur Benison Hubback, designed 25 other buildings in similar style across Malaysia, including the Ipoh railway station.

Interestingly, the Kuala Lumpur station was built in accordance with England’s stringent railway specifications – which called for the inclusion of design considerations intended for cold weather, such as an iron roof reinforced to withstand the anticipated weight of heavy snowfall.

Despite numerous renovations in the 1960s and 1980s, the original façade has been largely maintained with the formerly open arched verandas closed off with windows – while the platforms have been extended and practically refurbished in modern style.

The majestic station served as the city’s central railway hub for close to 100 years before KL Sentral took over the role in 2001 and the historic site has been reopened as a railway museum as of 2007.


#3: Penang City Hall

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Constructed in 1903, Penang City Hall is a picturesque Victorian-style building that represents one of the ancestral sources of design influence for the nation’s characteristic blend of architectural styles.

As one of the first footholds of the British East India Company into Peninsular Malaya during the late 18th century, Penang Island was a bastion of Imperial British culture – and this UNESCO world heritage site represents that history in a unique combination of Baroque and Venetian architectural style.

Penang City Hall was one of the first buildings in George Town, Penang, to be equipped with electric lights and fans – and in a testament to the state’s recognition of its cultural heritage, numerous modern refurbishments have left the original façade untouched. The formerly open ground floor was closed with windows during the most recent renovation in 2005. The building continues to serve as the offices of the Penang Island City Council.


#4: St. Michael’s and All Angels Church

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The oldest stone church in Sabah, St. Michael’s and All Angels Church, was one of the few stone buildings that survived Allied bombing campaigns and a hasty demolition attempt by surrendering Imperial Japanese forces during the Second World War.

Built to attend to the spiritual needs of the mostly British employees of the North Borneo Chartered Company in the late 19th century, this Anglican church features robust Gothic-styled architectural elements designed by New Zealander B.W. Mountfort.

The church was built through several phases – it first began with a skeleton of ironwood timber, which was then clad in brick, and finally in stone. The massive earth-coloured stones that make up the bulk of the church’s original masonry were acquired with prison labour from a quarry near the coastal village of Buli Sim Sim, while the white stones that adorn the windows and doors were shipped from Hong Kong.

Following an attempted demolition with dynamite shortly before the surrender of Imperial Japanese forces, the church was rebuilt to its present form and had its famed stained glass windows gifted by the government of Australia on the 60th anniversary of the War’s conclusion.


#5: Suffolk House

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Suffolk house, built by the infamous Francis Light is the only surviving Georgian mansion in Malaysia. The square mansion was built in 1809 and was heavily influenced by Anglo-Indian garden houses.

Suffolk House is a detached double-storey building featuring a mixture of Euro-Indian Georgian styling. After decades serving as the home for many successive British governors, Suffolk house was finally opened to the public in 2009.

Today, Suffolk House is famous for being the first-ever mansion restaurant in Penang. You can now enjoy your food in a unique atmosphere of rooms and spaces decorated with original Anglo-Indian antiques. Given its distinct architectural styling, this 200-year-old building is a unique venue for family reunions, weddings, business meetings, and product launches.


#6: Christ Church

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Covered in a coral red, Christ Church in the city of Malacca originally featured an all-white exterior and was a Roman Catholic church prior to possession being transferred to the British East India Company during the 19th century.

Following its reconsecration in accordance with the Anglican faith, this church remains the oldest functioning Protestant church in Malaysia. Originally built in the mid 18th century, almost every feature of the church is of distinctly Colonial Dutch style. Nearly everything, from the internal wooden beams beneath its tiled roof to its walls of Dutch masonry and floors paved with marine ballast stones, has been maintained – with the exception of more recent changes to the windows, porch, and vestry in Colonial British style.

The scarlet building is located on Church Street, in the historic city of Melaka. Surrounded by a beautiful landscape of flowers and colourful trishaws, being here will make you feel like you’re somewhere in Europe due to the architecture of this iconic building. However, the tropical weather and the street culture will always remind you that you’re home.


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If you’re interested in reading more stories from BEST@ Malaysia, the latest instalment of the BEST@ series, subscribe here.

Read about another bastion of cultural heritage, Kampung Baru, here.

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