The old Chinese houses of Kelantan are different from those elsewhere in that they are an interesting blend of Chinese and Malay influences.
Wee Ah Mek of Pasir Mas, Kelantan recalls her growing years in her village, Kampung Kasa, a Chinese settlement on the banks of Sungai Kelantan.
Taking a short stroll from her parent’s wooden house, she used to observe the daily bustle on the river – the “highway” of those times.
A unique abode: A typical Chinese house in Kg Kasa, Kelantan.
“I remember the Malay traders plying budu (fermented anchovy sauce), salted fish and ikan pekasam (fermented freshwater fish) as they travelled upriver in their wooden boats,” says Wee, 59, who still lives in Kasa.
“Even to get to Kota Baru (a 20-minute drive today), we needed to take the boat.”
Like many early Chinese settlers, the Chinese in Kasa were mostly farmers who reared pigs and grew vegetables. Some ventured to town and became shopkeepers, Wee adds.
A fifth-generation Chinese, Wee has only a vague idea about her family roots. According to historians, most of the early settlers hailed from China’s southern provinces of Fujian, Guangdong and Guanxi.
“My grandmother was born here and my mother still lives in the house her great grandfather built,” says Wee, a retired teacher.
Tebuk terus allow light and air in.
Today, what makes Kasa, like other early Chinese settlements in Kelantan, unique are its clusters of Chinese houses that are more than a century old. Some 4km north of Pasir Mas town, Kasa – along with two other villages, Tendong and Saka – constitute a settlement of about 600 residents. There are 50-odd Chinese settlements in Kelantan that were founded in the 1800s from Tumpat, Bachok to Gua Musang.
“I believe most of the early Chinese settlers preferred to live near the river because of its easy access since boats were the main mode of transport,” says Wee.
What makes it Chinese?
At first glance, the 15-odd old houses scattered along a leafy, tree-lined road next to the riverbank look like traditional Kelantanese Malay houses. On closer look, one notices that these houses are, in fact, an interesting blend of Chinese and Malay influences.
This new style was a departure from the practices of early immigrants in Straits Settlements like Malacca and Penang, who built their temples and clan houses according to “pure” Chinese models. Chinese houses are always firmly rooted to the ground, with the floors made from compacted mud or cement.
“I think houses on stilts are practical as the river gets flooded during the monsoon season,” explains Wee, who now lives with her family in a double-storey brick house
Some of these old houses were constructed from cengal (Balanocarpus heimii), a hardwood known for its durability, and stood on stilts and sported high-pitched roofs laid with clay tiles.
“The distinct curved roof ridge signifies their Chinese background and Chinese temple design influence. Roof design, traditionally, reflects the owner’s origin,” says design consultant Azzaha Ibrahim of Tumpat, Kelantan.
An architecture graduate from University Technology Malaysia (UTM), Azzaha has been researching traditional Kelantanese architecture for 11 years. His subjects include the wakaf (shelters), Chinese tokong(temples), mosques, and Malay and Chinese houses.
“What’s special about these curved ridges is that local craftsmen now lack the know-how to construct something similar,” says Azzaha, who did the blueprints for four vernacular Chinese houses in Kota Baru and Bachok, including a 120-year-old house in Tumpat.
Chinese houses have tree trunks as rafters.
Like the early East Coast Malay houses, the roofs of these houses are covered in singhorra tiles (clay tiles of Thai origin). A bad heat conductor, these handmade tiles keep the house cool and its irregular shapes allow air to flow through the gaps. But the wafer-thin tiles crumble easily and aren’t cheap. One shingle costs about RM1.50, and you need at least RM600 worth of tiles just to cover a small pavilion, Azzaha adds.
Another Chinese feature is the long, projecting eaves with roof “brackets” which transfer the weight of the roof onto the columns. These brackets are characteristic of traditional Chinese houses and temples in South-East Asia. And the roof runners are round (using a tree trunk) rather than square planks, as found in a traditional Malay house, Azzaha adds.
Similar to the typically rectangular plan of a traditional Chinese house, the Kasa house features a jemuran (outer covered veranda), which flanks a wooden or brick staircase. This leads to a wide serambi(covered veranda) that runs along the front of the house. From the veranda, you pass a doorway into the inner main hall, which also serves as a prayer space and is flanked by bedrooms.
The kitchen is usually an extension to the side of the main house.
“What I find interesting about these Chinese houses are its simple forms – the softly curved roof ridge, its sturdy proportions because it sits low on the stilts, and the sideway-view, which looks like a Malay house,” says Azzaha, 32.
Tiny windows in the panelled walls helped people in the olden days spot Japanese soldiers from afar.
“From the order of the spaces, you get an idea of the homeowner’s religious beliefs, protocols and way of life. For example, if you’re an acquaintance, you are greeted at the jemuran, while family and close friends occupy the serambi all day till bedtime,” explains Azzaha, who likes infusing traditional elements into his own designs.
While these Chinese homes always have a dedicated space for the prayer altar, a Malay house does not have a specific room for this.
The Malay elements
Teyun Tang Choon looking out a window.
One of the Kasa houses we dropped in at belonged to Teyun Tang Choon and his wife Ang Mek Leng, both in their 70s. Ang inherited the house from her father who was a tukang rumah (house builder). He built the house in 1941 with the help of a Malay craftsman. Her father, a “repository” of Kasa’s history, passed away four years ago at the age of 93.
Intricate carvings of floral designs above the house’s front wall panels (called jejala or sisip angin) allow the sun’s rays to filter into the house and for air to circulate and cool the interior – a distinct feature in traditional Malay houses. Such carvings usually indicate the owner’s financial status, Azzaha explains.
Like the Malay house, these houses were constructed using very few nails, mostly with timber panels being slotted into grooved frames.
The dinding janda berhias (two panels supported by one panel below) wall is similar to the Malay house but generally Chinese walls have bigger and thicker panels and are well proportioned in relation to the overall size of the house, Azzaha says.
Azzaha Ibrahim. — LEONG SIOK HUI, TAN LEE KUEN & SAZUKI EMBONG/The Star
All the Kasa houses sport a main door flanked by two tiny windows, a typical feature of traditional Chinese houses in China.
“During World War II and the Japanese Occupation, we would peek through the tiny windows and escape through the back door if we saw Japanese soldiers entering the front yard,” says Teyun.
Over the years, many Kasa residents have either renovated their houses, added extensions, or torn down the old structure and built brick houses. Some, though, dismantled their old house and moved it elsewhere, as one of Wee’s cousins did.
“People aren’t keen to preserve these old houses because it’s expensive to maintain. You need to change the wooden planks that have rotted away,” Wee sums up.
Researching these old Chinese houses has been an uphill task for Azzaha. Most people are either clueless or they give inconsistent information, Azzaha says.
“But these houses, their history and architecture, reflect how the Chinese and Malay communities used to live in harmony and were very well integrated,” say Azzaha.
“When the houses are gone, so too will that marriage of traditions.”
A blend of cultures
When the first Chinese settlers arrived in Kelantan hundreds of years ago, they found a colourful culture dominated by the Malays and Siamese. Naturally, the settlers adopted some of the local customs, language and clothing. Even their Hokkien dialect came to be sprinkled with Thai and Malay words.
“Like the Kelantanese Malays, the Chinese use pet names like Awang for boys, and Mek for girls in the family. Some Chinese actually use these names in their identity card, like Mek Su or Tan Awang,” says Wee Ah Mek of Pasir Mas, Kelantan.
Apart from being fluent in the Kelantanese dialect, the rural Chinese here also take up traditional Malay performing arts like wayang kulit anddikir barat, which are performed at Chinese temples during the birthday celebration of its patron God. They also enjoy traditional Malay pastimes like top-spinning and kite-flying.
“Though we live in a village surrounded by Malay villages, we don’t feel like we’re different from our Malay neighbours. Perhaps, the only difference is they don’t eat pork,” says Koh Gim Tat, 75, of Kg Pasir Parit in Pasir Mas district.
A fourth generation Chinese, Koh says her family initally settled in Kg Kasa before moving upstream. Traditionally, the rural settlers engaged in agriculture, planting padi, tobacco, fruits and such.
“If we hold a Chinese wedding, we would have a kenduri for our Malay friends the day before the Chinese banquet,” adds Koh. And like their Malay neighbours, the Chinese love delicacies like nasi berlauk, nasi ulam budu and nasi kerabu.
But as with the old Chinese houses that are beginning to fall apart or get torn down, the unique hybrid culture of Kelantan’s Chinese is slowly vanishing.
“Most parents send their kids to Chinese schools and the younger generation can hardly speak the Kelantanese dialect now,” says Wee. “The Chinese youth today just isn’t as well-integrated with the Malays as my generation used to be.”
Dr.Zulkifli Mohamad won few arts awards such as Asia Fellow Award 2002 (Indonesia Contemporary Dance), UNESCO's Artisan of Southeast Asia 2000, Rockefeller's Southeast Asian Islamic Scholars Award 2003(Performing Arts and Islam in Malaysia) as well as British Council, Australian High Commissioner, Goethe Institute, Toyota Foundation, Sasson Foundation, Sarawak Government research awards and UCLA and UCR travel awards. His doctorate researched on Contemporary Arts(Malay Dance Theatre) through Political Economic theories and Cultural Studies focused on "Artistic Creation Management in Contemporary Malay Dance Theatre in Malaysia". His research works span from heritage, tradition, contemporary, modern, post-modern to popular arts and culture. Zulkifli is a dance-performance artist, curator, writer and director of performance theatre and media.