lifestyle

29-Year-Old Malaysian Transforms 1940s Shophouse In Brickfields Into A Cosy, Vintage Home

Nostalgic.

Cover image via Kartik Alan Jairamin (Provided to SAYS)

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Whether you're renting or buying, it's a proud achievement in this day and age to finally move into your own home and make it a safe space to come back to at the end of a long day

In May 2021, Caleb Goh Hern-Ee decided it was time to move out of his old place in Chow Kit and into a shophouse in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur.

Without any housemates for the first time in his life, the 29-year-old had the freedom to revamp his 'new' home into any style he liked.

While many heritage shophouses in KL have been turned into workers' dormitories, some prettier ones are converted into bars and cafés. This got him thinking, why not turn one of these into a cosy bachelor's pad instead?

Named Nam Hoe (which translates to Southern Harmony) after his family's shophouse in Muar, Johor, where he grew up, his new rental home sits on a row of 1940s shop lots along Jalan Sultan Abdul Samad.

Goh revealed that his family used to be tinsmiths.

"On the ground floor, my grandfather and uncle fashioned everyday items out of sheet metal for sale — oil lamps, tudung saji, letter boxes, satay grilles, and even drainpipes; upstairs was the living quarters. My grandfather named his business Chop Nam Hoe because he started it in 1945, right after the war ended, when there was a desire for peace and harmony (和) in Nanyang, the southern seas (南). Sadly, we gave up the shophouse in 2006 after my uncle retired," he told SAYS.

The new Nam Hoe Brickfields is situated above the popular Anak Baba restaurant on Jalan Sultan Abdul Samad, serving authentic Straits Chinese cuisine.

Image via Caleb Goh (Facebook)

Goh, who works as a legal associate, explained that this KL shophouse he's renting was once used as a kindergarten that was forced to shut down during the first lockdown.

"To be honest, [the] rent is not too high, and the shophouse is already in pretty good condition with not many repairs required. It was formerly a kindergarten, so for the childrens' safety, the plumbing and wiring are all new replacements," he shared.

"All it needed was a fresh coat of paint, and some imagination. I have had the help of good friends too, so there was no need to hire expensive contractors: one friend helped build a rustic cottage-style sink cabinet, another helped paint, while another helped populate my air-well garden."

Keeping things true to the nature of the home, Goh wanted period-correct furniture to complement the space

As most pieces sold at antique shops are quite expensive, he explored other options, such as junkyards and recycling centres, where he explained that a vintage cabinet or bed would occasionally turn up.

"It's basically advanced dumpster-diving. Because antiques aren't their main focus, prices at these places can be quite low."

The calligraphy signboard came from a dumpsite outside Chung Hwa 2 in Muar. It was smashed but he tacked it back into one piece.

Image via Caleb Goh (Facebook)

Discovering treasures to add to his home has been a constant process, he shared, and it all mostly started to come together earlier this year

"[It] is still a work in progress: my airwell garden is rather sparse, and I had just finished doing up the outdoor deck's dining area last week," he revealed.

With the help of one of his friends, he revamped the metal sink area in the kitchen, which he felt was an eyesore, and gave it a more homey feel with warm lights, a still life painting, a curtain, and dried flowers.

Before pic of the sink area.

Image via Caleb Goh (Facebook)

Process of the revamp.

Image via Caleb Goh (Facebook)

Here's the result:

As it is an old space, there have been some repairs needed occasionally. But the overall cost hasn't been too bad.

He spent no more than RM2,500 in total for the entire revamp, except for the piano, which he explained is on a monthly payment plan with the previous owner.

His bedroom windows before they were cleaned from decades worth of dust and soot.

Image via Caleb Goh (Facebook)

A progress shot as each piece of furniture slowly started to come together.

Image via Caleb Goh (Facebook)

"Many items didn't cost me a cent: my PWD-style bedroom dresser (so called because the Public Works Department used to furnish all government quarters with this sort of furniture) was found dumped by the curb on Jalan Tun HS Lee; while my 1950s leatherback settee came from a kind friend in the antiquarian trade.

"Once people find out about this place, they tend to donate pieces that they think fit the look."

A 1950s PWD dresser that his friends found dumped outside the Sin Sze Si Ya Temple in Chinatown.

Image via Caleb Goh (Facebook)

Here's how the house looked before:

Before pic of his living room.

Image via Caleb Goh (Facebook)

Before pic of the dining room.

Image via Caleb Goh (Facebook)

And here are more photos of it after:

"Because of the extra space, I had envisioned it to be a sort of gathering place for the local historical, arts, and cultural scene. So far, we have held a few soirées, a couple of artistic photoshoots, movie screenings, and even a cultural walk. But I hope to host more complex events in the future, such as lectures, concerts, and exhibitions. At present, I am still quite open as to what the Nam Hoe Brickfields' direction should be."

He explained that the Nam Hoe Brickfields also has some resources that may be useful for researchers, including a reference library of rare books, a depository of old photographs documenting Malaysian lifestyles in the past, a collection of maps, and an archive of early Malayan 78rpm recordings, co-managed by a group of friends who are kind enough to help out gratis.

You can follow The Nam Hoe Brickfields on Instagram

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