10 things about: Chris Ong, hotelier who champions Penang’s heritage shophouses

Ong, 54, talks about his love for George Town. — Picture by K.E.Ooi
Ong, 54, talks about his love for George Town. — Picture by K.E.Ooi

GEORGE TOWN, July 27— After a successful career as an investment banker, Chris Ong found a new passion; turning heritage buildings into beautifully-restored boutique hotels, first in Sri Lanka and then in Penang.

The banker turned hotelier, along with his Australian business partner Karl Steinberg, won the 2007 Unesco Award of Distinction for heritage conservation for their first boutique hotel, Galle Fort Hotel in Sri Lanka.
Then, the Penangite came back to his hometown with a desire to contribute towards the rejuvenation of George Town and since then, has successfully completed notable boutique hotels within the heritage zone.
Ong, 54, talks about his love for George Town, his memories of it and the thriving local community that drew him back home more than seven years ago.

In his own words:

I left Malaysia at the age of 17 and came back 30 years later to celebrate the Unesco World Heritage status afforded to my home town. I went to school at the St Xavier's Institution here and my family had an ancestral home in Muntri Street. I came back to contribute to the renaissance of heritage shophouses in Penang.

First and foremost, I am a hotelier. I’ve done three hotels on my own in Penang; Muntri Mews, Noordin Mews and Clove Hall. I’ve done two other projects in collaboration with my business partner, Karl Steinberg, which are Seven Terraces and the soon-to-be-opened Muntri Grove. Muntri Grove is a row of 10 small shophouses tucked in a lane behind Muntri Street that will open in October.

I am passionate about restoring old properties, heritage houses, especially houses that were part of my heritage. I am a fifth generation Baba so my appreciation for Straits Chinese houses is inbuilt in my DNA. I also want to show other developers or investors how to do up these properties properly — not to over-restore them and make sure they keep the spirit of the place intact. If you want a modern townhouse, go live in Straits Quay, don’t live in the inner city. There’s no point destroying the fabric of the heritage shophouses in the inner city. They say copying is the best form of flattery so I’m very pleased that after Clove Hall and Muntri Mews, it opened the people’s eyes to save these buildings.

Seven Terraces is a great showcase of my personal collection of kamcheng (Straits Chinese porcelain ware) and mother-of-pearl furniture most of which would have gone across the Causeway if I did not buy it up. I am glad to say that my kamcheng collection is as good as the ones displayed at the Peranakan Museum in Singapore, most of which came from Penang. I’ve retained these original antiques and kept them in Penang. I love having these antiques as part of the interior for the hotel. I want people to live amongst antiques. Antiques should not be in museums. A lot of people in Seven Terraces get a shock when they realise that in the rooms, there are genuine Peranakan antique furniture.

I am mad about food. Mews Café and Kebaya are my two food and beverage outlets in Penang. I love the food history and learning how the dishes came about from the days when Penang was a merchant port. It’s the first place where Asian fusion cuisine was found, where the food here has Chinese, Malay, Thai and Indian influences. The British influence came only much later. I’ve had great joy in introducing contemporary Peranakan food in Kebaya as a reinterpretation of our Peranakan food where I have succeeded in taking Nyonya food from homecooking to a fusion cuisine. I wish I had the energy to take Kebaya to Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. For Mews Café, we have the local Malay menu to celebrate our local cuisine.

I think in the last six years, the development in George Town has been positive. It’s not become like Disneyland. We still have local people in the inner city, local businesses are thriving, it’s a good sign that all these new developments are not displacing the local community. It’s very organic and the developments, they each have their own identity and I’m hoping to see more locally designed products being offered instead of Thai-made or China-made products. Penang is still very affordable for the young people to set up businesses and we still have a lot of creative types here.

My memories of George Town… the first 17 years I lived here, I was brought up by my grandmother who lived in the world of an Edwardian Nyonya. Imagine being brought up in an Edwardian-era style during the 1960s. Amazingly, George Town is one of those cities that hasn’t change all that much. That is why it’s so unique. After such a long time, I came back and I was able to navigate the streets and I can still find my favourite char koay teow stall. My favourites, like the Chowrasta Market and the Macallum Street market, these are still around. The people may have changed but the spirit of it all is still the same. Even Chulia Street, in the 1960s, it was pretty much like what it is today, a popular R & R place.

I love Penang street food. In my opinion, the quality of street food has improved substantially. We are seeing young people taking over the stalls and improving the quality because people are willing to pay more for better ingredients. People can pay RM10 for a bowl of Hokkien mee or char koay teow if the quality is there. I agree that foreign workers should not be primary cooks because the history and original taste will change.

My pet hates about the inner city are the big rats, dirty clogged drains, blocked five-foot ways, awful insensitive signages, traffic problems, insufficient parking in the inner city when all property developers have to contribute to parking funds, tourists ignoring the traffic, delays in council approvals for renovations and overly-restored heritage buildings by Singaporean investors.

In the last six to seven years, I think I have done enough in Penang. I don’t want to keep repeating myself. I’ve set a standard for other property owners to aspire to. I had a Sri Lanka chapter for eight years. Penang will always be my home but it is time for me to do things elsewhere. It is time to let the Penang chapter come to a close. 

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