Transforming Heritage into Evocative Spaces 古迹的惊艳变身

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Christopher Ong

Penang’s Heritage Hotelier, Collector and Entrepreneur


“I was trying to get out of corporate life and the idea was always to retire in Asia.”

Ever since George Town was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Zone in 2008 in a joint listing with Malacca, the inner city has seen gradual changes over the years as gentrification takes place. Rows of heritage buildings were saved from collapsed and beautifully restored. Slowly, George Town began to see urban regeneration with vacant buildings filling up and the city becoming alive again.

One of the few who led these notable transformations is banker-turned-hotelier Christopher Ong. The illustrious banker came back to Penang and successfully turned previously derelict heritage houses into boutique hotels that retained all of its heritage features and yet boast of clean, contemporary lines.

Wanting to escape the trap of the banking industry after many years climbing the corporate ladder in Australia, Ong made a decision to retire somewhere in Asia by the age of 40. So, in 2002, he sold off an investment property in Australia and used the funds to move to Sri Lanka as his choice spot for retirement.

“I was trying to get out of corporate life and the idea was always to retire in Asia,” he said. He chose Sri Lanka after he did a fund manager analysis comparing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of the place before making a decision.

Ong did not immediately find a property he liked in Sri Lanka but after searching for a while, he stumbled across the mansion in Galle Fort. It was perfect for what he had in mind so he bought it and spent 2003 restoring the mansion that had foundations dating back over three centuries.

The Galle Fort Hotel officially opened its doors with 13 rooms in November 2004. The building survived the devastating effects of the tsunami later that year and eventually became a makeshift hospital following the disaster.

A few years later, due to his father’s passing, Ong came back to Penang to fulfill his filial duty to his widowed mother. It was then that he brought his genius in restoring heritage buildings to his homeland. Back in Penang, he began a series of restoration projects that won him accolades and a reputation for having the Midas touch when it comes to boutique hotels.

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The projects under his belt in Penang are Clove Hall, Noordin Mews, Muntri Mews, Seven Terraces, Muntri Grove, Muntri Residences and most recently, Jawi Peranakan Mansion. Clove Hall, Noordin Mews and Jawi Peranakan Mansion are located outside of the heritage zone and except for Jawi Peranakan, the projects were subsequently sold off. Ong had also subsequently sold off Galle Fort Hotel. Now, all of his existing hotels are parked under his new brand, George Town Heritage and Hotels (GTHH).

Ong termed his work in restoring these heritage buildings in Penang as his way of setting a trend for adaptive reuse of buildings like these that were previously in derelict conditions. He also bought a pre-war house across the road from his great grandparents’ former residence which he restored and turned into his home. “I wanted to lead the way in restoring these old houses and live here so I attempted to get more people to move back into George Town,” he said.

He believes that living in the heritage city is not a mere romantic notion but that the inner city is a liveable, convenient space if only people gave it a chance. “Aside from parking issues, everything is nearby. We can go to the market and have convenience stores nearby, cafes, restaurants and hawker food all within walking distances,” he said.

While he does not oppose foreigners buying some of the heritage buildings and restoring these buildings rather than leaving it empty and going to rot, he felt that some of the local owners have a duty to keep the inner city vibrant, especially the clan associations, locally known as ‘kongsi’. Today, many of the heritage buildings within the city still belongs to the numerous clan associations in George Town.

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“I wanted to lead the way in restoring these old houses and live here so I attempted to get more people to move back into George Town.”

“Why aren’t these clan associations renting out their premises to their members at affordable rates? These clan associations are supposed to be non-profit so what are the reasons for them to increase their rental rates that locals could not afford it?” he asked. He also hoped the local authorities would consider introducing incentives to owners to restore their heritage buildings instead of burying them in bureaucracy. He lamented over the immense red tape that most home owners to go through while applying for restoration permits.

“Instead of incentives, what we now have are dis-incentives when it comes to restoration of these pre-war houses,” he said. He also hoped the local authorities will look into infrastructure and cleanliness issues within the city such as increasing electricity capacities for the inner city, getting rid of the rat problem and a more efficient waste disposal system. “I really feel that we could get people to move back into George Town as we do not want it to be filled with just hotels, cafes and restaurants, we need local communities living here to keep the local economy within the city going,” he said.

Today, Ong continues to lives in his house in Muntri Street and is working on expanding Muntri Residences by taking up leases for more buildings along the row. Muntri Residences are whole heritage buildings that are divided into several private living spaces that families can rent as a whole for events and long stays. Alternatively, individuals and couples can also rent each compartmentalised spaces within the houses.

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“我试图摆脱繁忙企业生活,而且退隐的地点早确定在亚洲。”

2008年,槟城乔治市与马六甲同时被列入联合国教科文组织世界古迹保护名册。接踵而来的几年,市区内已逐渐产生变化,一排排古迹建筑物从坍塌或废墟中获得美丽修复重生,乔治市也一点点的恢复活络,空置荒芜建筑物再次回归人气。

而其中引领这项巨大改造工程的操盘手包含了从银行家转向酒店行业的王礼强(Christopher Ong)。这名杰出的银行家回到槟城,并成功将遭遗弃的古迹房屋变为精品酒店,除了保留所有古迹印记,尚增添简洁现代感的线条。

自告别银行业,王礼强多年来驻扎澳大利亚进行企业投资,并且决定40岁时在亚洲某个幽静地方退休养息。在2002年,他抛售了澳大利亚的产业,选择将资金投到斯里兰卡作为养老地点。

“我试图摆脱繁忙企业生活,而且退隐的地点早确定在亚洲。”他瞄准斯里兰卡后,作为一名基金经理的本能,进行任何决定前会比对目标的优势、弱点,机会和威胁。

当时他并没有立即寻觅到中意的斯里兰卡房产,但在搜寻一段时间,偶然发现加勒堡(Galle Fort)古老豪宅,这个已历经3个世纪的古宅大院,正是他心目中的完美目标,立即买下并在2003年展开修复工程。

2004年11月,拥有13间套房的加勒堡酒店正式开业,并且过后在毁灭性的海啸中幸存下来,而酒店在灾后成为临时医院。

几年后,为了父亲奔丧而回到槟城,王礼强也履行对丧偶母亲的孝心。另外,他在家乡的古迹建筑物上发挥所长,开展一系列的修复项目,结果除了赢得点石成金的赞誉,也把古迹精品酒店概念极致化。

他在槟城开发改造的房产包括Clove Hall,Noordin Mews, Muntri Mews,Seven Terraces,Muntri Grove,Muntri Residences及最近的Jawi Peranakan Mansion。而其中Clove Hall,Noordin Mews和Jawi Peranakan Mansion是位于古迹区外。目前除了Jawi Peranakan,所有发展项目均宣告售罄。 他随后卖掉加勒堡酒店,目前把酒店项目都聚焦在新品牌 – 乔治市古迹和酒店(GTHH)。

而他修复槟城古迹建筑物的契机,只为了掀起废弃状况古建筑翻新再利用的趋势。他还从曾祖父母前住宅附近买了战前房屋,完整修复后变成他的家居。“我想带头恢复这些老房子,生活在这里,并想让更多人返回乔治市居住。”

他认为,在古迹城市生活并非一项浪漫的概念,但只要给予机会,市区也可以是宜居便利空间。“撇开停车问题,一切近在眼前,我们可以去市场,附近有便利店、咖啡馆,餐馆和小贩熟食都在步行距离内。”

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对于外国资金购置和修复古迹建筑物他表示不反对,但希望不造成满目疮痍。他觉得一些地方业主有责任保持市区活力,特别是宗祠与宗亲会,当地称为“kongsi”的组织。今天,许多乔治市市区内古迹建筑物仍然是许多宗亲会名下产业。

“为何这些宗亲会以不可能承受的高租金向成员出租房产?宗亲会组织应该是非营利的,那么提高租金造成本地人无法负担的原因是什么?”他还希望地方当局考虑激励业主修复古迹建筑,而不是将它们埋在官僚作风中。他对于纵横交错的红色封条感到哀叹,这是大多数业主申请修复建筑物时的经历。

“排除激励,我们目前其实已抑制一些战前房屋的修复措施。”他也希望当局进一步提升市区内的基设和卫生问题,例如完善城区的电力系统,摆脱鼠患和设置有效的废物处理。“我们要让人们回流乔治市,壮大居民社区,而并非仅是酒店、咖啡馆和餐馆的聚集地段,这也是为了加强市区的经济动脉。”
今天,王礼强继续生活在南华医院街的房子,并正在扩充经营Muntri Residences,租用更多的沿排建筑物。作为一栋完整的古迹建筑物,Muntri Residences分为数个私人生活空间版块,家庭可租用作为活动空间和长期住宿。或者,个人与伴侣也可租用房屋内的每个隔间。

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