Cover Lim Wei Ling and Yohan Rajan's Penang home

An eclectic combination of heritage and modernity, Yohan Rajan and Lim Wei-Ling’s holiday home in Penang is a joyful expression of their passions

Gallerist Lim Wei-Ling and her art gallery, Wei Ling Gallery, have become synonymous with celebrating some of the finest local and international contemporary art in the Malaysian art space. Lim also champions the preservation of Malaysia’s heritage buildings through her role as president of Badan Warisan Malaysia. Both her passions coalesce in the most charming way in the holiday home she shares with her husband Yohan Rajan in the heart of Penang’s UNESCO Heritage Zone.

The couple celebrated their 20th anniversary in 2018 by purchasing a holiday home as a present to each other. Penang made perfect sense as they both had fond memories of the island. Lim had spent almost every school holiday here as both sets of grandparents lived here (her father is renowned architect Jimmy Lim who grew up in Penang) while Rajan studied here.  

Don't miss: Investing in a Penang Heritage Property: What You Need to Know

HERITAGE HAVEN

The choice of living in the heart of George Town versus a beachside condo was also an easy one as the appeal of living in a heritage shophouse superseded everything else for the couple. They chanced on one such shophouse which had been turned into a swiftlet farm.

“The house was in a state of disrepair when we saw it, which was quite daunting as we knew we would have to gut it. However, we took the plunge because we felt it had good energy and good bones,” recalls Lim.

 

These good bones included an impressive high ceiling, two air wells and no back door as the house was built before back lanes were introduced, which meant more security, especially for a home that might be left vacant for long stretches of time. The house was also located in a block that didn’t have a row of shophouses opposite it.

“This is as residential as you can get in the heart of George Town,” laughs Lim. “It still has the old Penang charm yet plenty of privacy. And sure, Penang is gentrifying but where we’re located, you can choose whether to partake in the hustle and bustle or not.”

While the house needed to be gutted as expected, Lim explains that they were also careful to retain as much of the original elements as possible and recycle whatever they could. The plumbing and wiring had to be brought up to standard and since the couple knew they would be hosting friends and family here, the issue of only one bathroom and toilet had to be addressed.

“We managed to configure a master bedroom and two bedrooms, all with their own en-suite and another bathroom downstairs,” she explains. “What was great was that we worked with a contractor who was used to working on heritage buildings which made the whole process quite painless.”

 

The beams and cornices survived the renovation although the flooring did not. “My dad had salvaged these 2’ x 2’ terracotta tiles from a project in Penang and had 200 pieces in storage. We asked if we could have them and he agreed, so we installed them on the ground floor,” says Lim.

The staircase had to be changed because it was detached from the wall but the dividing wall between the living and dining was retained. “Because we were in a heritage building, we wanted to leave things as they were as much as we could, which was a bit of a conundrum in the kitchen,” muses Lim.

Rather than install a modern kitchen, the couple came with up with an ingenious compromise. They discovered a handsome marble-topped bar counter which came from the Victoria Memorial in India but had found its way to an antique shop in Penang. Said bar now functions as a kitchen island with the addition of some discreet grey cabinets for storage.

Don't miss: Home Tour: A Beautifully Restored Peranakan Shophouse In George Town, Penang

ECLECTIC FANTASTIC

The couple’s passion for art also extends to the furniture and this love for design is evident in the confident way they’ve combined furniture, art and collectables spanning provenance, mediums and styles. “We used a lot of existing stuff we had collected over the years and inherited from our families, some with great sentimental value as they were wedding gifts,” says Lim.

As such, wicker furniture is juxtaposed against modern Kartell pieces and an exquisitely carved temple bell looks stately next to a neon sign. Rajan has been collecting rugs from all over the world for more than 30 years. These now can be found throughout the home, adding character and colour wherever they are placed. Antique Japanese Obi sashes are another feature that Lim astutely repurposed as bed runners.

 

While the couple explains that they picked up some pieces on the island itself, like the Venetian mirror and the aforementioned bar counter, many of the antique pieces have sentimental stories attached to them like the round marble dining table that used to belong to Lim’s grandmother. Lim grew up eating on it.

Then there is the tall cabinet with glass doors that takes pride of place in the double-height air well. “My father had bought a set of traditional Chinese crockery for a banquet from a restaurant that was going out of business. It sat in my grandmother’s house for 40 years and now looks perfectly at home here,” says Lim.

Don't miss: 6 Trendy Bars in George Town, Penang for a Cocktail

Although the furniture is a mix of classic and modern pieces, Lim explains that all the art is contemporary. Many of the pieces were previously in storage as they were too large for their Kuala Lumpur home. They include a pair of multi-panel Sean Lean pieces which now preside in the living room. Extremely vivid in colour and dealing with censorship in a visually arch way, the pair is a fascinating counterpoint to fine art photographer Diana Lui’s large scale black-and-white series called The Feminine Beyond depicting Moroccan brides.

Moving throughout the house, the artwork reads like a who’s who of the local and regional contemporary art scene including works by Chong Kim Chiew, Shia Yih Ying, FX Harsono and Irfan Hendrian. When asked about the curation, Lim explains: “For a residential property, you get a feeling of how certain art either work visually together or don’t. It’s really how they sit together and how they speak to one another.”

 

While the couple officially moved in before the first Movement Control Order was enforced in 2020, they had the good fortune of being able to spend quite a lot of time in Penang over the lockdowns. They would come up to Penang at least once a month, just the two of them or with friends. Looking at the cosy and welcoming space, it’s not hard to see why.

Lim sums it up: “When we bought the house, we were initially thinking of Airbnb-ing it when we were not here. But then we started putting more and more things in, things we can’t replicate and personal things, so that idea went out the window. It really feels like a home away from home now and even my dad, when he comes to stay, says he feels like he’s coming home.”

NOW READ: 

Home Tour: A Heritage Penang Shophouse Transformed Into A Modern Loft

Architectural Icon: How Komtar, Penang's First Modernist Skyscraper, Changed The Face Of George Town

Reza Cockrell Talks Penang Hill's Designation as A Unesco Biosphere Reserve

© 2022 Tatler Asia Limited. All rights reserved.