IPOH March 30 — Hidden away in a nondescript part of Ipoh town is a new building that demands to be seen and experienced. M Boutique Hotel grabs your attention from the get-go with its woven brick façade and its giant signature “M” logo. From the ceiling-high windows to the immaculately curated décor, this place is designed to wow.
Enter and be greeted by hand-stitched lampshades, Broadway-style lighting and large luggage boxes that echo a long-forgotten age of exploration. You may rest on vintage French-style chairs or marvel at how old gasoline jugs are recycled into industrial-chic furnishing.
The entire hotel appears to have been custom built and sculpted from natural materials such as wood and stone as well as antiques and lost items.
The design inspiration for M Boutique Hotel is derived from an early 20th-century architectural style called Straits Eclectic. General manager Llyod Gan explains, “The style is basically East meets West where elements of British architecture were incorporated into traditional shophouses owned by the affluent Chinese tin mine owners in Ipoh.”
Back then, the ground floors of pre-war shophouses were used as shops whereas the upper floors acted as the living quarters. As such, wood is the dominant design element.
“One aspect of the Straits Eclectic style is how the second level was always made from wood. Therefore, our property uses a lot of wood. Also, we have all these open-pane windows because we borrowed the essence of ventilation from that period, and these red-brick walls too,” says Gan.
The overall atmosphere is a slice from Malaysia’s colonial past, updated to give it a modern urban twist. The neo-European ambience may make you feel as though you are in Paris for a second.
The impeccably-designed reception is backed by what looks like an apothecary cabinet. Closer inspection will reveal that it’s actually a Colonial era library cardholder drawers.
This attention to detail is part of the M Boutique Hotel design process. Gan says, “To be honest, many hotels will use interior designers for the décor. But we decided to use an artistic consultant from the retail fashion and lifestyle industry.
As a result, what you see now may not be the same in six to eight months’ time. It will be seasonal just like the fashion industry.
“This is highly unusual because for the hotel industry, once the décor is done, it’s about recouping the investment and there won’t be any refurbishment in the next five years. Here we are just like a fashion boutique. We have plans for this because we always want to keep ourselves fresh and updated.”
In the hotel’s 93 rooms you may find elements that reference the life of D’Arcy Hugh Hilton Bird, an English-born medieval-style swordfighter, Portuguese-style gun-maker and military man who settled down in Ipoh during the tin mining boom. On the Adventure Floor, tales of danger and romance in the Malayan jungle come to life. Imagine that you are a Colonial-era hunter tracking down a hungry tiger (or, what’s more likely, escaping from one).
Meanwhile, the Majestic Floor has a 1930s Art Deco vibe paired with a rawer New York City warehouse décor. Expect exposed cement walls adorned with “cave art”, tungsten lights and the use of numbers as ornamentation. A more violent palette is employed on the third and highest level of the hotel, the Excelsior Floor; here, Nature is truly “red in tooth and claw” with bold colours and insect illustrations.
Indeed, it’s quite an achievement to bring together so many disparate items and ideas, and create an overall sense of flow rather than clutter. Is this the defining standard for boutique hotels, then?
“I’ve been in the hotel and hospitality line for many years now and I notice term ‘boutique hotel’ is often misused. It ought to be a small luxury hotel, which can be very sophisticated or have accents of stylish design. However, many of the so-called boutique hotels in Malaysia are actually up-scaled, funky-looking budget hotels. We are trying to correct that kind of perception,” says Gan.
The affable Penangite is very impressed with the variety of hotels in Ipoh. He notes, “You have Sekeping Kong Heng and Happy 8, which are beautiful boutique hotels. There is also Indulgence which is fashioned after a country manor.
There is great potential for growth here in Ipoh, which has been relegated to a transit town status after the tin mining boom was over.”
Gan believes one identifiable feature of a boutique hotel is the shops that shape the brand. Instead of the usual, half-hearted hotel souvenir outlet, they have launched M Shop, a fashion and furnishing boutique store that offers guests custom-made products such as plush cushions, organic soaps, scented candles and apparel. Most of the items are handcrafted in small batches to ensure quality and to showcase the workmanship involved.
Food and wine lovers will enjoy casual dining at the Myth Eatery & Bar, where dishes are made from carefully sourced ingredients and produce. For something more decidedly local, guests can drop by their in-house OldTown White Coffee Grand, the only outlet of its kind in Malaysia. Gan says, “This is styled like a brasserie with top-notch service and an expanded menu. Some of these dishes you can’t find at other OldTown outlets elsewhere, such as the sardine prata.”
One would imagine that many of the hotel’s guests are visitors from abroad. Surprisingly, up to 80 per cent of their guests come from Kuala Lumpur and Penang. Some are Ipoh residents themselves, no doubt curious about the eccentric décor.
Gan says, “Our hotel is definitely an acquired taste but we find that people are slowly starting to appreciate this. We try to make our rooms as comfortable as possible, like a five-star hotel, but cosy and almost European with plenty of throw cushions and oddments. It’s a difficult balance to achieve – both spacious yet still intimate.”
Certainly, it’s rare to see a hotel manager making his staff laugh by singing to them. The authentic camaraderie is heart-warming.
“We want to go back to the essence of hospitality, which is, ‘When you have a need, I will try and fulfill that for you.’ Service standards are high; the tagline for our hotel is ‘Come as strangers, leave as friends.’ I feel the hospitality industry as a whole has become too robotic. That’s why I tell everyone here that this is our home, and when our guests arrive, we should welcome them like friends into our home,” says Gan.
Little wonder guests are returning for repeat stays and to discover the charms of the different floors. Who knew coming home could be such an adventure?
M Boutique Hotel
2 Hala Datuk 5, Ipoh, Perak