For travellers who love architecture and have an interest in old, weary buildings, Malaysia offers many colonial structures that are a reflection of its rich historical past. The country was colonised by the Portuguese (1511), Dutch (1641) and British (1867), and was occupied by the Japanese during WWII.
After gaining its independence in 1957, Malaysia was finally formed on Sept 16, 1963.
While Malaysia has come a long way since its colonial days, the country still has a handful of beautiful colonial buildings that remain today. They are a reminder of the nation’s colourful history.
Sultan Abdul Samad Building
Built in 1897, the Sultan Abdul Samad Building was named after the state ruler at that time. It used to house the government administration during the British colonial rule; today, part of the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture operates from there.
The brick building sports a unique Moorish and Moghul style of architecture. Although you might not be able to access the interior of the building, you can still take plenty of pictures from the outside. It looks especially magnificent when lit up at night and is a popular spot for photography.
While you are there, you can also check out other fantastic sites and structures like the Dataran Merdeka (Merdeka Square) and Royal Selangor Club – which are just across the road from the Sultan Abdul Samad building – St Mary’s Church, and Kuala Lumpur Railway Station.
Carcosa Sri Negara
Standing regally atop a hill near the Perdana Botanical Gardens is Carcosa Seri Negara. Perhaps more popularly known as a hotel, the estate is actually made up of two colonial mansions – Carcosa and Governor’s Residence.
The structures are built in neo-gothic and Tudor revival architectural style. Carcosa was constructed between 1896 and 1897 as the official residence of Frank Swettenham, the first British high commissioner in Malaya.
Meanwhile, the Governor’s Residence was opened in 1913. That name was changed to the King’s House later, and after 1957, it became known as the Istana Tetamu, or “guest’s palace”.
The building was then renamed Seri Negara after the whole estate was repurposed as a hotel by the Malaysian Government. Unfortunately, the hotel has been closed for business for many years now, although it does have a tenant until 2020 – the Asian Heritage Museum Sdn Bhd.
The company hosted a special Merdeka exhibition there last year; part of the place was also rented out to the production crew of current Hollywood smash, Crazy Rich Asians.
The Majestic Hotel was built in 1932 and was already an iconic place during the country’s pre-World War II boom days. It was the go-to spot for social events, government functions, and also a residence for foreign dignitaries. The original building was designed by a Dutch firm in the neo-classical and art deco architectural style.
Later, it was gazetted as a heritage building under the Antiquities Act. From 1984 to 1998, it housed the National Art Gallery, and was refurbished after that. Today, this luxury property is one of the most popular hotels in the city for business events, exhibitions, and weddings.
Ipoh Railway Station
The Ipoh Railway Station was constructed in 1894 when tracks were first laid through the town for the Perak Railway. It served the town for 20 years until its consolidation into the Federated Malay States Railways.
In 1914, a second railway station with a hotel was built to replace the first station. Designed by English architect Arthur Benison Hubback, it was often referred to as “the Taj Mahal of Ipoh” by locals. The railway station sports a late-Edwardian Baroque and some Indo-Saracenic architectural style.
The building is a popular backdrop for photography enthusiasts. It is located within the Ipoh Station Square, where a cenotaph has been erected to honour those who lost their lives in World War I and II.
Ipoh Station Square is also the starting point for doing the Ipoh Heritage Trail walk, where you will also come across other colonial buildings like Ipoh High Court, Ipoh Town Hall, and the Old Post Office.
Kellie’s Castle in Batu Gajah was built by a Scottish rubber plantation owner named William Kellie-Smith, as a gift for his wife and also to celebrate the birth of their son. Construction on the castle started in 1915 but unfortunately, Kellie-Smith died of pneumonia at age 56 and the castle was never completed; work on the mansion stopped in 1926.
Although the building remains unfinished today, it is still an icon in Malaysia and a popular tourist spot. Some folks even believe it is haunted.
Scenes from movies Anna And The King (1999) and Skyline Cruisers (2000) were filmed here.
Along the banks of Air Itam River in George Town lies Suffolk House, which originally comprised two residences. The first is said to have been constructed in the 1790s for Francis Light, founder of Penang.
It was a simple Anglo-Indian garden house made of timber and attap, built within Light’s pepper estate, Suffolk. Presumably, it was named ater Suffolk county in England where he was born.
After Light’s death in 1794, a second residence was built in 1809 by William Edward Phillips. It was a Euro-Indian and Georgian-style mansion named Suffolk Park. The mansion served as the residence of several governors, as well as the venue for social and official functions.
Suffolk House was once used as the Anglo-Chinese High School, which later became the Methodist Boys’ School. It was restored and opened to the public in 2009, and is today a restaurant.
British television drama series Indian Summers, filmed in Penang, had many scenes at Suffolk House.
Other colonial buildings of interest in Penang include City Hall, Old Town Hall, and the Eastern & Oriental Hotel.
Christ Church in Melaka is an example of Dutch colonial architecture. It was built in 1753 by the Melaka Dutch community to commemorate the centenary of the Dutch occupation in the state. At that time, it was known as Benedenkerk, which means “church down the hill” and functioned as the primary Dutch Reformed Church during the Dutch occupation.
In 1824 when the Anglo-Dutch Treaty was signed, Melaka was tranferred to the British-East India Company and the building was renamed Christ Church in 1838. Today, it is an Anglican church and said to be the oldest functioning Protestant church in the country.
Other beautiful colonial buildings in Melaka include St Paul’s Church (Bovenkerk, or church up the hill), the Stadthuys, Malaysia Youth Museum, Melaka Art Gallery, Malaysia Architectural Museum, Stamp Museum, and the Museum and Antiquities Department.
Constructed in 1849, Bishop’s House is believed to be the oldest European-style building in Kuching. It sits on College Hill which, together with the surrounding area, was part of the Anglican Mission given by Rajah James Brooke to Reverend Francis Thomas McDougall in 1848.
The house and chapel were designed by the reverend and constructed under the supervision of Theodore Auguste Stahl, a German shipwright carpenter. It was used as a residence for missionaries, a school, a dormitory, and was also the first dispensary in Kuching.
It was the only building that was not attacked during the Chinese Miner’s Rebellion in 1857, and ended up being a safe refuge for the Europeans. Today, the building is the residence and office of the Anglican Bishop.
Other colonial buildings in Kuching include The Astana (official residence of the Sarawak Governor), Kuching Courthouse, Fort Margherita, Sarawak State Museum, The Round Tower, and Kuching Main Post Office.
St Michael’s and All Angels Church
The St Michael’s and All Angels Church, an Anglican church in Sandakan, was constructed in 1925. The construction was spearheaded by a clergyman named William Henry Elton, who also founded St Michael’s Secondary School next door.
During World War II, Japanese forces bombed the building but its outer structure was not damaged. It was later reconstructed.
St Michael’s is one of the few historic stone buildings in Sabah, and said to be the oldest stone church in the state. Its stained glass windows were donated by the Australians to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.
The church is part of the Sandakan Heritage Trail, together with the Agnes Keith House, which was once occupied by American writer Agnes Newton Keith (whose book Land Below The Wind was published in 1939) and her family.
The Department of Sabah Museums and the Federal Department of Museums and Antiquities restored the house in 2001 and reopened it to the public in 2004. Today, it is a heritage house that provides insight into life during the British colonial rule.
Another interesting colonial building in the state is the Sabah Tourism Board office in Kota Kinabalu, which turns 100 this year.
Update: This post has been edited to correct the year of British occupation and colonisation of Malaya. Malaya was occupied by the British in 1795 and became part of the colony in 1867.
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