by Lin Yangchen

You hardly ever think about the roof over your head, or even see it. But it protects you, and it could be a really interesting thing. In many modern houses, the roof is wasted space when it could have been a cosy attic or an architectural statement.

Even in the realm of roofing, one roof part is particularly esoteric. It doesn't even really have a name in otherwise comprehensive English roof nomenclature. It's called papan meleh and several other names in Malay (Samsudin et al. 2020). The closest thing to it is a fascia board, but it's not quite that. Locals loosely translate it to "roof eaves", although "eave" properly refers to another part of the roof.

A fine example of papan meleh kepala cicak ("lizard head") in Malay architecture.
Stock photo: CrystalGraphics

Besides looking pretty, these structures act like shades in warm climates (see Denan et al. 2015). During a tropical squall, they probably help block the rain too, allowing the windows to remain open and the occupants to enjoy the cool wind. See Hashim & Nasir (2011) and Ismail et al. (2015) for further architectural analysis. Papan meleh have been used to great effect as a design motif on a postage stamp, the Universal Coconut Duty Plate. If you’re designing or building a house, you may want to add this beautiful and useful ornament to its roof.

Papan meleh in the late shophouse style on Koon Seng Road, Singapore.
Photo: Basile Morin (Creative Commons license)

Singapore papan meleh catalogue
Shophouses on Joo Chiat Road
Shophouses on Koon Seng Road
Shophouses on Petain Road
Shophouses on Foch Road
Shophouses on Blair Road
Shophouse at 1 Haji Lane
Shophouse at 7 Lorong Bachok
Shophouse at 15 Jalan Pinang
Shophouse at 666 North Bridge Road
House at 488 Geylang Road
Tan Teng Niah's house at 37 Kerbau Road
House at 56 Neil Road
House at 92 Neil Road
Eng Aun Tong (Hall of Everlasting Peace) at 89 Neil Road
251 North Bridge Road
Sri Temasek at the Istana
Sun Yat Sen Villa
Cashin House in Lim Chu Kang

What's really fascinating about these "eaves" is that they're found not only across the Malay archipelago but also in different cultures all over the world, from Britain to Egypt to Russia. Was it the fruit of cultural exchange, or was it simply a stroke of convergent evolution to serve similar purposes or satisfy some aesthetic desire common to all civilization?

The royal palace in Medan on the island of Sumatra.
Photo: Marakani Srikant

Museum Negeri Pontianak, Borneo.
Photo: Marakani Srikant

Another place where one would appreciate some degree of protection from the sun and rain is the railway platform. The so-called "canopy valances" (Binney & Pearce 1979) at Boston Manor station on the London Underground bear an uncanny resemblance to those in Pontianak (previous picture).

Such Victorian canopy valances occur throughout the British rail network. They adorn many of the smaller stations with sheltered platforms but unsheltered tracks, such as Brora station on Scotland's Far North Line.

In Russia, it is often seen on village houses, water towers and train stations, such as Selenga station on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

The Chinese have it as well, an example being the mid-19th-century Wak Hai Cheng Beo nestled amidst skyscrapers in Singapore's Central Business District. Interestingly the eaves are found not on the edge of the temple roof but on the elaborate miniature dwellings of Taoist deities that embellish the roof and the wall cavities. Agence Coconut-Presse photo: Lin Yangchen


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