Cement and 'Shanghai plaster' in British Hong Kong and Penang (1920s-1950s)

Cement and 'Shanghai plaster' in British Hong Kong and Penang (1920s-1950s)
Chun Wai Charles Lai
From the works of Auguste Perret to Tadao Ando, current literature in the history of Modern Architecture often describe the choice of exposing concrete finishes as the architect’s intention to maintain ‘honesty’ in material expression and in doing so, responded to the dogmas of Modern Architecture. These literature largely focused on exposed in-situ concrete texture and painted the architect as the mastermind behind this aesthetic choice. This paper argues that cement-based building finishes, such as cement plaster and terrazzo, played an equally important role in defining the aesthetics of Modern Architecture. The diffusion of these cement finishes was a combined effort of industrialists, researchers, contractors, clients, and architects, and involved an uneven process of experimentations, local adaptations and transferal of techniques among different nations.

This paper attempts to establish this conceptual network and name some of the key actors. In 1936, the UK Building Research Board in London were tasked to research the appearance of exposed cement and concrete. A gigantic ‘Accelerated Weathering Machine’ was built to study the effect of weather on the cement and concrete finishes. An expedition team was sent to mainland Europe to study cement plastering techniques in other countries. The study concluded that the technique of cement plastering in Britain was far from satisfactory due to lack of skilled labour and specialised knowledge. Meanwhile, in the British colonial Hong Kong and Penang, cement plaster and terrazzo were used extensively in building projects throughout the 1930s. A specialised cement plaster called ‘Shanghai Plaster’ was popular in colonial Southeast Asia regions and was used in both private and public projects. Such ‘unevenness’ within the Empire demonstrated that the diffusion of modern construction techniques and knowledge were far more complex than an unilateral transfer from the coloniser’s ‘metropolis’ to the colonised ‘outposts’. Western architects and communities in the these regions often had to sought local or regional adaptations of Western building technologies, creating hybridised techniques that are specific to the colonial context.

Using lesser-known private building projects in British colonial Hong Kong and Penang between 1930s and 1950s, this paper seek to re-assemble the network of anonymous actors through which the modern techniques in exposed cement finishes were transferred. It argues that Modern Architecture in the region were not solely a result of Western cultural domination during the colonial era, but rather a process of intercultural and transnational exchanges and hybridisation through a network of less well-known, or even anonymous actors. Such a model is crucial in shaping a postcolonial understanding of the cultural processes in building design and construction.

Publication date


Journal title, volume/issue number, page range

Building Knowledge, Constructing Histories: Proceedings of the 6th International Congress on Construction History (6ICCH 2018), July 9-13, 2018, Brussels, Belgium. 1st Edition. Volume 1. pp. 291-298.






Art and Culture
Diasporas and Migration