Short Teaching Module: Building Materials as an Indicator of Transnational Encounters in Malaysia

Meljev Singh Sidhu
Link to source page for wooden stockade


Building materials are an important component of construction. The characteristics of each material determine the properties of a structure that can be built. Building styles in different parts of the world are markedly different from one another due to various factors such as climate and humidity, not to mention the availability and convenience of each material. A building can tell us many things, and from a historical perspective may also reveal networks of exchange between disparate communities in terms of ideas and technologies. This essay studies the role of building materials and how they are indicative of the spread of construction technologies from one region to another using the example of Peninsular Malaysia. From an early period, various communities from different regions of Asia met and intermingled in ports on the Malay Peninsula. In later periods, European colonization further influenced the architecture of the region. Over the centuries, each passing culture left a permanent legacy on the architecture of the land.


Ancient buildings mark the presence of past populations in a given area. In most archaeological expeditions, buildings are among the earliest discoveries made before other indicators of settlement such as beads, earthenware and metal tools are found. Given their size, and in some cases their permanence, they are the most obvious indicator as to where settlements or in a larger scale, cities once stood. Unlike common artefacts such as household goods, trade items and farming utensils which are mobile and can be of disputable provenance, buildings mark the sites of settlements accurately and by studying the similarities and differences in the use of various materials, one may track the spread of technologies and in some instances, the spread of populations to a more accurate degree. Styles of architecture, like the spread of Hellenic iconography to distant parts of the empire forged by Alexander the Great and its successor states, Indian architectural styles to Southeast Asia or the spread of European styles of architecture to Australia and the Americas can be used to track the movement of populations or at the very least, cultural influence. However, the study of building materials is not commonly seen as a method to study this scenario. This may be so because building materials differ by region, but in some cases where similar building materials can be found in two regions that have common cultural traits such as the Indian subcontinent and parts of Southeast Asia, it may be possible to track the spread of such influence or movement of populations.

The spread of Western European hegemony over the rest of the world began late in the fifteenth century and led to a globalized world which connected all six continents for the first time. This brought the Western world into contact with other regions of the world and led to the discovery of various new cultures. Most of these were studied throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This led to the globalization of archaeology, which was fueled by European interest in regions less familiar. Using the example of India, the first books highlighting these discoveries were travelogues written by curious visitors, mostly between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Eventually, a category of scholarship devoted primarily to native cultures in the distant corners of European colonial empires began to take shape due to greater contact and exposure to native languages, customs and traditions. This led to the establishment of academic journals where characteristics of non-European cultures were categorized and studied systematically. By the end of the nineteenth century, various books had been written by scholars and journals had already been established to catalogue the various discoveries that were being made in places as far afield as India, China, Southeast Asia, Africa, North and South America. While the spread of less tangible elements such as political structures and belief systems from one region to another are open to debate, tangible remains such as art and architecture are more obvious linkages to identity and are immutable.

Using Malaysia as an example, the arrival of the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch and English heralded the use of stone architecture in various port-towns along the western flank of the Peninsular such as Penang, Melaka and Singapore. It is only to be expected that the oldest extant stone architecture in the country be found in these places. The Portuguese are known to have used laterite and coral stones (Khoo, 1997). The use of coral stones was also adopted by the Dutch in Melaka, continuing the Portuguese precedent. Given that laterite was not a known building material in Portugal, its usage may have been learnt during their short sojourn in south-western India prior to the conquest of Melaka in 1511. The use of coral stones may have been picked up on the East African coast where the Portuguese had established themselves at Mombasa and Kilwa by 1505 (Diffie & Winius, 1977). There is evidence that coral rock had been used in construction from the early to mid-tenth century at Shanga on the east African coast which was not distant from Mombasa and Kilwa (Horton, 1994). However, the building techniques and architectural styles used in Melaka were Portuguese in origin. The Stadthuys (Town Hall) in Melaka which was commissioned by the Dutch bears architectural affinities to the now extinct town hall in Hoorn in the Netherlands which existed from 1420 to 1796. According to Vis (1982), the Dutch had to change their building methods when they came to the tropics in the seventeenth century because bricks were porous and such structures could spoil easily due to the high humidity of the Malaysian climate. The solution was to introduce plaster and a whitewash made from lime, which kept houses cool and dry. In this example alone, we see three components that were not used in the peninsular in an earlier period, which are bricks, plaster and whitewash. 

In Kuala Kedah, stands a brick fort dating back to the eighteenth century. While local records state that it was constructed between 1771 and 1780 using labor and expertise brought in from India, accounts by Western travelers mention that it was already in existence by 1751 (Mohd. Zahid, 1968; Toreen, 1752). A British visitor mentions that it may have been built by the Portuguese (Osborn, 1857). When the British took over Penang Island in 1786, among the first structures built was a stockade of timber (Harfield, 1982). This use of timber is similar to the construction material used to build Malay forts that were in existence during the period. In another Malaysian example, a brick fort located on the island of Pangkor in the state of Perak indicates the presence of a Dutch battalion there in the late seventeenth century (Masefield, 1906).

During the earliest period of British rule over the Peninsular, the British constructed their buildings using methods learnt from the Malays. These buildings do not stand today in their original form since they were constructed of perishable materials such as wood and attap. Nonetheless, examples of such buildings can be found in drawings in the travelogues of foreign tourists to the Peninsular. The picture of a police station in “Rassa” (modern town of Rasah in Malaysia) in a publication from 1884, shows the extent of Malay influence on the earliest building styles of the British on the Peninsular (Bird, 1884). This particular structure has open verandahs on all four sides and is built on stilts, a type of building style that has been referred to by the earliest Western European visitors to the Peninsular. On the other hand, the British introduced masonry construction to the Federated Malay States. In Selangor, among the earliest colonial stone structures are the former police station, old district office and Sultan Abdul Samad’s palace at Jugra. All of these were built between 1875 and 1879 and with the exception of the police station which has been converted into a museum; the rest are in ruined condition. 

Other than Western Europeans, other migrants to the Peninsular brought in their own technologies and cultural influences, while at the same time learning to adapt their buildings to the climate from the locals. The earliest Chinese temple in Malaysia is the Cheng Hoon Teng temple in Melaka dating back to 1673 (Franke & Chen Tieh Fan, 1982; Kohl, 1984). Chinese and Arab presence in the Peninsula goes much further back to the beginning of the first millennium CE when Chinese and Arab visitors provided the some of the earliest written accounts of Peninsular Malaysia (Wheatley, 1961). Indian presence in Peninsular Malaysia itself dates back to the second century when traders started visiting the Peninsular more regularly, eventually creating settlements that were seasonally occupied. The earliest extant Hindu temple in the country dates back to 1781, when the Chitty community constructed the Sri Poyyatha Vinayaga Moorthy Temple in Melaka (Loh & Velupillay, 2017). In addition to Chinese and Indian temples, some of the earliest stone mosques in the country were built by Chinese Muslim, Javanese and Tamil Muslim communities in Melaka early in the eighteenth century. Most of these mosques were constructed in the Javanese fashion, but with European, southern Chinese, Tamil and Yemeni (Hadhramaut) influences (Imran, 2017). Prior to this would have existed older wooden Malay mosques scattered all over the country where Malay sultanates sprung up in major river valleys in the centuries following the fall of the Melakan empire. Almost none of these older mosques survive, with the sole exception being the Kampung Laut mosque in Kelantan, said to date from 1676 although the building may have been renovated many times since into its present form (Aziz A. Azim, 2016; Wan Salleh & Nik Hassan Shuhaimi, 2011). Malay influence can be seen in later structures built by the Chinese. In 1848, it was mentioned that the houses of the Chinese farmers in rural areas resembled those of the Malays, with the only exception that they were constructed on the ground and not elevated in the Malay fashion (Siah U Chin, 1848). In all this, we see the evidence of technological transfers across cultural boundaries, from natives to foreigners and vice versa. To summarize, the use of similar types of building materials in separate locations can be used to track the spread of construction technologies fairly accurately. 

Primary Sources

Wooden Stockade on Penang Island, 18th century

Link to source page for wooden stockade

This stockade was painted by Captain Elisha Trapaud in 1787 and the painting is preserved in the India Office Library in London. Construction of the fort started in August 1786 as soon as Francis Light had taken possession of Penang Island (part of present day Malaysia) away from the Kedah Sultanate. This use of timber is similar to the construction material used to build Malay forts that were in existence during the period. Fort Cornwallis remained as a wooden stockade until 1794 when Francis Light rebuilt it in stone shortly before his death. Over the course of the 19th century many additions were made to the fort until it assumed its present shape. The picture painted by Elisha Trapaud is one of the few depictions of the fort while it was still a wooden structure.   

This source is part of the building materials and transnational encounters teaching module

British Police Station, Rasah, Malaysia

Link to source page for police station

Many of the earliest British buildings in the Malay Peninsular were inspired by contemporary Malay structures. Most of these buildings do not exist anymore because they were built to serve temporary functions and were eventually replaced by permanent structures once masonry became available. Pictures of such structures survive in publications from that period such as the depiction of a police station in “Rassa”, which is currently the modern town of Rasah in Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia. This publication dates from 1884 and displays the degree of Malay influence on British constructions from that period. This structure is surrounded on all four sides by verandahs and was also constructed on stilts. At a slightly later period, buildings were gradually built out of masonry and such buildings include the former police station, old district office and Sultan Abdul Samad’s palace at Jugra in Selangor, all of which was constructed between 1875 and 1879. Most of these buildings are now derelict, with the sole exception of the police station, which is now a museum. The police station was similar to a Malay building in many ways. It was built on stilts and had verandahs on all sides. The roof was built out of attap leaves. It was constructed with light materials and could have been built quickly. Structures like this could also have been replaced or repaired easily and conveniently. Towards the end of the 19th century, more colonial structures were built out of stone. This was due to the constant threat of fire that broke out regularly.

This source is part of the building materials and transnational encounters teaching module


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Wan Salleh Wan Ibrahim & Nik Hassan Shuhaimi Nik Abdul Rahman (2011) Malay-Islamic Historiography Behind Kelantan’s Kampung Laut Mosque Construction. In World Congress for Islamic History and Civilization: Islamic Art. 10-11th October 2011. University of Malaya. Kuala Lumpur. Pp. 237-256.

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Meljev Singh Sidhu is an alumnus of the Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang, receiving his PhD in Archaeology in 2018. The focus of his dissertation was to compare the various types of building materials used in protohistoric ports in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand in order to track the movement of construction technologies throughout the trade routes of Southeast Asia. He currently works as a freelance researcher, conducting research primarily on subjects related to the archaeology of Malaysia. Other than archaeology, his primary interests are the history of education in Malaysia, building materials and settlement types in early Malaysia as well as the study of old manuscripts.

How to Cite This Source

"Short Teaching Module: Building Materials as an Indicator of Transnational Encounters in Malaysia," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/short-teaching-module-building-materials-indicator-transnational-encounters-malaysia [accessed December 8, 2022]