Keeping Cool: Investigating Air-Conditioning in South East Asia

The searing heat and high humidity of most of South East Asia (SEA) make it at the best of times, a challenging environment to live and work in. From my personal experience in these perpetual summers, the amount that one sweats simply just from walking is impressive. With salt lines forming down shirts and sweat dripping down arms, the most ubiquitous form of reprieve comes in the form of air-conditioning (AC). When did AC become the norm for many public places in SEA? From trains to shopping malls, restaurants to private homes, they provide comfort for millions every day. The technology and story surrounding AC tell a fascinating story of how people reconceptualised their relationship with the natural environment and how economic factors and the accessibility of technology made cooling through AC commonplace in SEA.

The history behind air-conditioning in South East Asia is the most well documented in Singapore, or at the time the Federation of Malaya. Newspaper clippings from the late 1930s provide a wealth of insight into the trends surrounding air conditioning at the time. The Sunday Tribune, a newspaper that ran between 1931-1951 ran numerous articles extolling the virtues of cool and humidity-free air. [1] Most of the articles pointed to the benefits of comfort in homes and public spaces and even benefits to industry. Despite the generous suggestions that all spaces would soon be air-conditioned, first-hand accounts gleaned from older Singaporeans born before the 1970s suggest that despite the invention of AC technology many decades earlier; It took a great deal of time before they were implemented in the private home. [2] The main reason quoted for this was due to the cost of electricity and the general acclimatisation that many older Singaporeans had to the heat. Fans, open windows and ventilation holes in walls were much more common in private homes during this period.

So, when did air conditioning transition from the public to the home? While the evidence is quite lacking in Singaporean and SEA accounts, a detailed economic study of home AC units based on energy consumption trends in the United States points out a few interesting trends. Jeff Biddle examines the uptake of ‘residential AC’ in the US from the mid-1950s to 1980s and remarks that a change in income, climate, and average electricity rates led to the uptake of AC in homes. [3] One of his key findings was that by the late 1980s the vast majority of Americans had ‘residential AC’. Although the form of economic history he conducts focuses more on macro-economic trends rather than the individual experiences of homeowners, it nonetheless provides a starting point from which we can discuss the uptake of AC in other parts of the globe. One of the key technological improvements Biddle discusses is the competing types of AC, namely central and unit inverters. Where the first required a lot more foresight in terms of installation, the second functioned similarly to any other household appliance and was essentially ‘plug and go’. Essentially the convenience of these inverter units was crucial to the uptake of in-home AC units. The uptake of AC in the home changed the way that people lived quite significantly. Despite its lack of prevalence the possibility in quality of life changes were discussed in newspapers as early as the late 1930s. [4] Taking a public health standpoint, these primary sources cogently pick apart the issues of drastic shifts between indoor and outdoor spaces with the advent of AC.

In the February 10th issue of the Sunday Tribune, the author expresses the concerns of a certain Prof. K. Black, that proposes that the sudden transition from a “refrigerated room” into the tropical heat and vice versa would cause health issues. [5] The author rebukes this claim by arguing that AC merely changes the indoor atmosphere by a few crucial degrees. A claim that is not quite true in the modern-day. Marlyne Sahakian conducted some fascinating research using phenomenological techniques (interviews) to better understand modern societal perspectives and practices regarding AC in the Philippines. In a short section detailing the author’s personal experience as a pregnant woman, she expressed that moving from an intensely air-conditioned room into a warmer space put a strain on her personally. In a few succinct words, “it’s freezing!” she describes the feeling whenever she was in her parent’s or friends’ houses. [6] Sahakian cleverly intersperses these phenomenological accounts (whether personal or other) with solid evidence on historical cooling techniques and the slow evolution of cooling technology in different climates and geographic locations. This sort of social and technological history is precisely what is required in the study of artificial cooling as a phenomenon. Her cogent comments on global standards of ‘comfort’ link well to the existing debates on perceptions of heat and acclimatisation in tropical environments, a topic that is the central debate of Jiat-Hwee Chiang in her book on tropical architecture.

In Jiat-Hwee Chang’s, A Genealogy of Tropical Architecture, she comments on the power dynamics that presupposes many architectural decisions made in SEA. Although her work is at times difficult to understand, she illustrates the key problem of a priori tropicality logic that runs through architectural concepts in tropical environments. [7] Her arguments about these presumptions are quite accurate, but arguably fail to capture the actual human practices that surround cooling. Despite this, Sahakian’s idea that there is a lack of consensus on global standards of comfort synchronises well with Chang’s concepts that ‘tropical architecture’ should not be dominated by western ideas. After all, acclimatisation and adaptation mean that people suited to living in tropical climates perceive heat differently, and buildings and dwellings, should in theory reflect this. [8]

The seemingly hodgepodge of sources presented are but a preliminary survey of accounts that have been gathered in the process of research for a much larger piece of work. The crux of this entire project on cooling rests both on the perceptions of comfort concerning cooling, and how society changed during the period where fans were replaced by AC units. This should raise some interesting questions on changing perceptions of comfort, and the influence that it has had on society. Quite curiously, it also delves into concepts of tropicality, and whether AC supports or subverts its key tenets. Ultimately, a research topic that appears to be worthy of closer examination.


[1] National Library of Singapore, Reel N1452, Sunday Tribune, entry 10 February 1935, page 10.

[2] Chiang, interviewed by Roger Loh, 8th March 2022, interview 1.

[3] Jeff Biddle, ‘Explaining the Spread of Residential Air Conditioning, 1955-1980’, Explorations in Economic History, 45:4, (September 2008), p. 2.

[4] National Library of Singapore, Reel N1452, Sunday Tribune, entry 10 February 1935, page 10.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Marlyne Sahakian, Keeping Cool in South East Asia: Energy Consumption and Urban Air-Conditioning, (London, 2014), p. 66.

[7] Jiat-Hwee Chang A Genealogy of Tropical Architecture: Colonial Network, Nature and Technoscience, (London, 2016)

[8] Ibid.