Home Tour: A Beautifully Restored Peranakan Shophouse In George Town, Penang
Chris Ong was born in George Town, Penang and attended St. Xavier’s Institution. His Straits Chinese family’s association with the city stretches back six generations. At 18, he entered Melbourne University and upon graduation went into the investment banking in Australia. It was a profession he pursued successfully for 20 years and in that time he bought and restored houses in Fitzroy and Carlton, filling them with Peranakan furniture and artefacts bought at auction in Richmond salesrooms.
He acquired a considerable number of beautiful objects, and attributes his good fortune to the fact that many Malaysian Chinese had moved to Australia following the race riots in 1969 and more followed after 1975, spooked by the fall of South Vietnam and the advance of the communist regime. In the course of time, they disposed of exquisite items. Ong acquires vast knowledge of Peranakan antique furniture and porcelain as he scoured the salesrooms in the city.
Ong was in his early 40s and in a senior position at a major investment bank when it was acquired by Westpac. This provided him the incentive to change tracks and moved to Sri Lanka. He and an Australian business partner acquired the historic Galle Fort Hotel, a 13-suite boutique hotel within the fort, which they revamped and managed profitably. It was his first taste of the hotel business. The architect they hired for the hotel refurbishment was Channa Daswatte, a protégé and assistant of Geoffrey Bawa.
In 2006, he returned to Penang to take care of his mother and bought a house in Lebuh Muntri close to his grandfather’s former home. He sold the hotel in Sri Lanka in 2008 and acquired properties in George Town that became the entrancing Seven Terraces Hotel and the equally captivating Muntri Mews Hotel. Ong is now the CEO of the George Town Heritage Hotels (GTHH) Group.
But it is his own house that I now turn my attention to. Anecdotal evidence suggests Lebuh Muntri was named after the 19th century Mantri of Larut, Ngah Ibrahim. Before World War II, most of the terrace houses in the street were residential. After the war, wealthy Straits Chinese families moved west, to the beach, and into the suburbs, away from the congested town. Cars made commuting easier and the terraces became commercial properties, referred to colloquially as shophouses.
Ong’s Transitional Style (c1890s) terrace house was formerly a grocery store. He set out to restore it to a condition that approximated to his grandfather’s house at 81 Lebuh Muntri. In the spirit of restoration, the layout of the house has been returned to an earlier state, prior to its use as a grocery store, with new additions where necessary. The lightwell has also been reopened.
A new garden court has been created in the rear of the house, which was destroyed by a Japanese bomb during the war. Structural repairs have been carried out to other areas of the house disturbed by the bomb blast. Staff accommodation has been built at the far end of the courtyard. Most importantly, bathrooms have been added on the first floor level and a powder room on the ground floor; the additions involved the careful integration of modern fittings with water supply and sewage pipes.
REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST
The plans for the restoration were prepared by Ar. Au Tai Yeow who graduated with a Bachelor of Architecture from Washington State University School of Design and Construction at Pullman in 1990. He returned to graduate school and was awarded a Master of Architecture from Washington University, St. Louis in 1991. From 1995-1997 he worked for John Tang & Associates in Hong Kong and established Architect T.Y. Au in 1998. Ong's house, he recalls, “was in a very bad state,” but there were no major changes to the floor plans. Timber floors have been retained at first floor level. The original back staircase has been restored. The kitchen is quiet but in an earlier era it would have been buzzing with cooks and amahs. Now it is the place to sit and enjoy a blissful view of the pond and garden.
There is much to be learned from the late 19th/early 20th century terrace house in terms of its response to climate. Yet beyond the physical building work, the most spectacular transformation is the integration of Peranakan carved and gilded timber screens, lacquered wooden doors and the exposure of original floor tiles, together with the authentic period furniture, porcelain and other memorabilia. The numerous family portraits from the late 19th and early 20th century portray life as it was with large families and many children and amahs.
In the old days when the houses were residential, a pintu pagar (a half door) prevented passers-by from looking in while allowing ventilation when the main door was open. This was a common feature of terrace houses in Emerald Hill, Singapore, built during the same era. Today, the entrance door is securely padlocked.
The house is a mesmerising reincarnation of a bygone era, of an imagined past. Says Ong of his house: “This is me. It is what I am passionate about, my heritage. It's my brand.”
This feature is part of Terrace Transformations in The Tropics, published by Atelier International.