Banker-turned-hotelier Christopher Ong of Galle Fort fame tells Yeoh Siew Hoon about how he turned an old black-and-white house in Penang into a six-suite heritage hotel and about a new type of traveller that’s discovering a gentler side of Penang.
The first person I ran into at an Internet gaming centre in Penang – don’t ask me what I was doing there – was fellow islander, Christopher Ong, investment banker-turned-hotelier.
I first met Ong in Galle, Sri Lanka, when I visited his Galle Fort Hotel a month after the devastating tsunami of Boxing Day 2004. He and Karl Steinberg had decided to chuck their respective careers in investment banking and media, buy an old Dutch villa and convert it into a hotel.
Since then, their hotel has won rave reviews from critics and customers. In the 2007 UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage Awards, it won an Award of Distinction, with the jury panel saying, “This carefully considered transformation of an abandoned historic residential compound into a stylish luxury boutique hotel has evocatively captured the spirit of place of the colonial World Heritage fortified town of Galle.
“The restoration has been carried out with sensitivity to the historic fabric and the surrounding urban context, retaining the buildings modest scale and street façade…the elegant interior design and modern additions have added new layers of meaning.”
It’s won awards from magazines such as Wallpaper, listed among the Top 10 Romantic Places in the world by The Australian and won the 2005 Traveller’s Choice Awards “Hidden Gem of Asia” from Trip Advisor.
I recall having a delicious Thai dinner with Christopher who told me then that it was the best decision he ever made to switch careers from investment banking in Australia where he had been based to living and working as a hotel owner in Sri Lanka.
And he remains as commited to his new path as before. Galle Fort Hotel is doing well, he told me, and travellers are returing to Sri Lanka. “We have kept the place as is with 12 rooms and suites with plans to add a few more rooms if things continue to pick up.”
He has employed a South African manager to meet and host guests to free him and his partner for other projects, one of which is a little-known-gem of a hotel in Georgetown, Penang called Clove Hall.
Relating the story of how he restored this old black-and-white bungalow into a six-suite hotel, Ong said, “I came back to Penang to look after my mum who is in her late eighties and basically wanted something to do while visiting her here.
“I started with restoring a shophouse in Muntri street which started a gentrification process in the street. After that I was told about a black-and-white property being put up for public auction. I drove to have a look at it in the middle of the night, was instantly attracted to it and put in a sealed bid which was the successful offer.
“The colonial look was a a great challenge after finishing a Peranakan (Sraits Chinese) shophouse. It was a great experience to do something of a different genre. I had worked with a great builder on my Muntri house and was keen to do something else with him as it’s rare to find a builder that was on the same wavelength and passionate about old heritage houses and using salvage materials for the restoration; it was very ‘bawa’,” said Ong, referring to the Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa who is regarded as having been one of the most important and influential Asian architects of the 20th century.
Curious about Clove Hall, I too visited it at night. It’s easy to miss. It’s in a darkened street and there are very few buildings. It’s also got a very discreet entrance, looking almost like a private house, which is the intention of course. I rang the doorbell, and asked if I could look around. At first, the guard said no, but after I dropped Christopher’s name, I was shown around.
Ong has done a good job of conserving and restoring the Edwardian Anglo Malay Bungalow, built on the original Sarkie Brothers coconut plantation known as Clove Hall, into a heritage homely hotel. The lobby houses a unique and extensive collection of local antiques, artwork and furnishings, with pieces of personal memorabilia dotted around the house. Ong’s grandparents’ photos were pointed out to us.
There are six suites in all, with rates ranging from RM500 to RM600. The suite we were shown was 40sqm with a separate sitting area and huge bathroom. I am not too convinced about the stone bathtub – doesn’t look too comfortable – but the room is spacious and stately. The garden with a pool looks like it’d be a wonderful place to relax and read a book.
But is there demand for a colonial-style experience in Penang which seems to be either for foodies, European sunseekers and backpackers, I asked Ong.
He believes there is a new class of cultural travellers who are interested in what Penang is all about and “it is not cheap sun -it is living culture and heritage and architecture. I have guests who do not want to go up to the beach; they are interested in walking around town, and seeing a bit of nature around the island, spice gardens, national park in Telok Bahang and Penang Hill. They also appreciate the great food to be found in Penang.”
UNESCO‘s World Heritage status bestowed on Penang is bringing these travellers to Penang, said Ong. The development of Penang as a hub for AirAsia and other budget airlines is also helping.
With Clove Hall now more than a year old, Ong is working on his next project in Penang. He says it is still too early to share details but it involves doing more of what he loves – conserving and restoring seven large terrace houses near his house in Muntri Street.
“It’s early transitional style of architecture but it will end up as a contemporary Peranankan guesthouse with very low density like 2 rooms per house and a showcase for living Peranakan culture as well.”
From almost no development of new hotels in the last few years, Penang is seeing some activity in boutique hotel development, Boustead Holdings Bhd, a property and plantation group controlled by the Malaysian Armed Forces Pension Fund, is set to open the Royale Bintang in Weld Quay this year. There’s also the Eastern & Oriental Hotel expansion.
Said Ong, “Penang has not seen many new hotels for a long time. What will be exciting is the development of a cluster of boutique hotels, all individual and interesting that will put Penang on the map – Clove Hall, the Straits Collection in Stewart Lane and Armenian Street, China Tiger in China Street, the Yeng Kheng hotel in Chulia Street, the Oasis in Love Lane, Hijas Kasturi;s project in Hutton Lane/Clarke Street, and numerous others.”
Finally, I had to ask Ong if there were any similiarities between Sri Lanka and Penang in terms of running a hotel and in terms of marketing a destination.
“I think Malaysia does a great job in marketing itself as a tourist destination and we have to rebrand Penang as a cultural destination. We have had great coverage in the last year from Destination, Travel and Leisure, Conde Nast, Vogue Living etc which attracts a a very different clientele but in some ways Sri Lanka is more advanced in terms of how the tourist board recognises boutique hotels as a category and therefore makes it easier for us to do business over there with approvals.
“Galle and Penang have similarities in terms of their history as a trading port, their mercantile history with the Chinese Arabs etc, and their colonial past, as well as their nationalism and their maturity in celebrating their past.”