Malaysian 1980s house in PJ exudes charm with retro design and decor


Secondhand pieces co-exist happily with family heirlooms at the house. Photos: The Star/Yap Chee Hong

It is fair to say that this imaginatively eclectic yet practical home – from its 80s-style cabinetry to its beautiful original metal grilles, has created a narrative that carries through every room inspired by its owner.

The homeowner, a dedicated activist known for her work championing equality and justice for women, has set the tone with an interior that reflects her dynamic lifestyle.

Nestled in one of Petaling Jaya’s oldest neighbourhoods, she first moved into this quaint three-bedroom single-storey home in 1987.

“I will always remember the year I moved into this house. It was the year of Operation Lalang, because the country was in such turmoil and many of my friends were taken away,” she shares.

“While many people were being detained, I was finding my own freedom in justifying to my mother that I wanted to move out – to have my own house, to put up my own curtains, to figure out my own way of styling my house.

“I understood that in the family home, I didn’t have much of a say because my mother had very strong ideas on how she wanted to decorate her house. So I gained my independence by moving here (to this house).”

“I also gained my independence because my mother, thankfully in 1955 when I was born, put in RM300 deposit for this house at that time because in her mind, ‘this was the house for my daughter, for her dowry,’ to be specific. But of course, over the years, she realised that I wasn’t interested in getting married.

Various artwork and 80s cabinetry dot the house.Various artwork and 80s cabinetry dot the house.

“The sense of independence comes not only from living on my own but as one grows older realising there is always the dependence and accountability to your mother. I knew I was still accountable to her, of her asking me ‘where are you going’, or ‘have you eaten’.

“Now I yearn for that emotional dependence. Sometimes I walk around the house and say out loud, ‘Ma, I miss you’.”

However, she says that she feels blessed living in an area where the neighbourhood is full of her university friends.

“By coincidence, even though I moved in first, eventually four sets of families that came to live in the neighbourhood were my friends from university. We have remained friends till this day, with the gang all a short distance away from each other.

“During the Covid-19 years, we had no choice but to walk up and down the street, and this led me to know my other neighbours and we are now a very tight group. I’m very lucky. My immediate neighbours are family friends who knew my parents and who are now the ones asking me have I eaten. I’m very blessed to be surrounded by friends who have become like family,” she adds.

The living room features a large vintage six-seater rattan sofa, an antique sewing machine that now acts as a room divider and various artwork and other decorations. The living room features a large vintage six-seater rattan sofa, an antique sewing machine that now acts as a room divider and various artwork and other decorations.

A cultural collection

When she was in her late 30s, the homeowner discovered that she really liked and enjoyed living on her own.

“I did everything any family would do – I would entertain, I would have friends over, people stayed the night, I could travel easily. Plus, my work took me to different places,” she shares.

It’s just as well because there is something to delight the eye at every turn in this home, whether it’s the unique artwork that hangs on the wall – including pieces she purchased at an airport – or weaved baskets and decorative items from Asia or curtains from Japan.

“The baskets and kitchenware from South-East Asia and South Asia are special. I usually go to a morning market wherever I am and pick up baskets, kitchenware and even sarongs that now remind me of the amazing women I have met in those countries,“ she says.

Walking into her guest bedroom is also like taking a short tour of Asia, from colourful dangling elephants from Bangladesh, artwork from local artist Ahmad Zakii Anwar that was purchased in Central Market many years ago, to an interesting curtain from Japan.

A retro dresser adds a touch of nostalgia to the space.A retro dresser adds a touch of nostalgia to the space.

Another highlight is a special lidi from Indonesia.

“This lidi is used to fluff the mattress and smoothen the creases – it’s a really good thing to have!”

Secondhand pieces co-exist happily with family heirlooms, while unexpected colour pops easily rub shoulders with the unexpected. Living room ideas include a large vintage six-seater rattan sofa, an antique sewing machine that once belonged to the homeowner’s mother that now acts as a room divider, and intensely bold-coloured cushions that set a welcoming tone.

Outside, her garden has a wild and almost unruly look to it.

“My garden is completely unplanned. The birds simply dropped seeds everywhere and things started to grow, like my rambutan tree. There was a time that whenever anyone wanted to kill a plant, they’d give it to me!

“So now I take pains to make the garden work. Some plants have been grown in a haphazard fashion like the palms. During Covid-19, I started my vegetable garden, so I grew chillies, lady’s fingers, lime, basil, pandan and long beans.”

The huge garden is home to a rambutan tree, palms and various other plants and vegetables.The huge garden is home to a rambutan tree, palms and various other plants and vegetables.

The true meaning of home

Overall, there is no denying that this is a home well lived.

“Some of the renovations you see here are from 1987. The floor, the cabinets are from then. In fact, the design of the house is exactly as it was in 1955, with no attached bathroom! So when I had the chance a few years back, I redid the bathroom to a more modern version and it’s been wonderful!”

The back and front porch were built up as the homeowner entertains a lot.

“Remember, all the living happens in the kitchen at the kitchen table. Hardly anyone sits in the living room! Sometimes my guests walk straight to the back porch into the kitchen. Usually I try to prepare a couple of dishes by myself and sometimes my friends will just potluck the other dishes,” she says.

The kitchen has also seen a lot of meetings, especially during the homeowner’s advocacy days.

The kitchen is where many meetings and discussions were held.The kitchen is where many meetings and discussions were held.

“A lot of great ideas and good discussions have come out of this kitchen.”

People always have this notion that when you live alone, therefore you must be alone.

“On the contrary, my home has always been alive and very active. Being in my home, I can feel all my senses – I can taste, I can hear, I feel comforted. Walking into every room and hanging out in the kitchen, you just feel comforted. You remember conversations, you remember laughter – that’s what my home means to me.”


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