Former Sydney banker turned international hotelier Chris Ong has opened his sixth hotel, Jawi Peranakan Mansion, in Penang's heritage showpiece, George Town. Its 12 suites evoke the Anglo-Indian mansion it once was.
"It's an unusual property in Penang because no one has restored an Indian Muslim property to its original state," says Ong. "Culturally speaking, Jawi Peranakan style is newly identified and quite distinct. It's both Anglo-Indian and Mughal."
Ong opened his first property in 2004, the celebrated Galle Fort Hotel in Sri Lanka.
The villa restoration earned him and co-owner Karl Steinberg a heritage award for what UNESCO judges called "a masterpiece of cultural heritage and conservation".
Hotels may be Ong's business, but conserving heritage architecture is what drives him. He traces his inspiration and finances to Australia, where he worked for 20 years as a banker. "Back in the '70s and '80s I watched suburbs like Paddington and Fitzroy being renovated. Every second person seemed to be doing up a house, and I did it, too."
Rooftop pool at Jawi Peranakan Mansion.
In Penang, meanwhile, 150-year-old terraces of traditional shophouses were being cleared to make way for apartments. It was at Galle Fort that Ong realised the plight of his hometown's heritage and, in 2007, he returned to begin buying houses "no one else wanted to touch".
Among them was Seven Terraces, a row of 19th-century shophouses previously owned by Anglo-Chinese traders. He had it configured as an 18-suite retreat and appointed it with his collection of museum-quality Peranakan antiques.
Ong now has four properties under a new brand, George Town Heritage and Hotels.
He says many locals still prefer living in modern apartments, but a 2008 UNESCO World Heritage listing of George Town has meant old buildings are increasingly being repurposed as cafés, restaurants and hotels.
"I want to put the George Town shophouse on people's bucket lists," says Ong. "I want it to be regarded in the same way as the Japanese ryokan, the Tuscan farmhouse and the Balinese villa."
Jawi Peranakan Mansion, 153, Jalan Hutton, George Town, Penang, georgetownheritage.com/jawi-peranakan-mansion