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Monday October 1, 2012

Project of passion by art-loving Penangite

A project of passion by an art-loving Penangite has turned 23LoveLane into a lovely little hotel.

PERHAPS this Penangite is drunk on nostalgia, but sitting in her beautiful courtyard on a warm Sunday morning, it’s quite clear that 23LoveLane, in the pulsating heart of George Town and far from its derelict days, the quaint blue-and-white boutique hotel is now in the pinkest of health with laughter and chatter reverberating through its wonderfully restored walls.

In the well-manicured garden, an oversized cube welcomes visitors. The contemporary work is a collaboration between six young artists including Ernest Zacharevic, the Lithuanian who literally left his mark in the inner city with his series of eye-catching slice-of-life murals.

<b>Loving it:</b> General manager Andy Fong is enthusiastic about events in the coming months. Loving it: General manager Andy Fong is enthusiastic about events in the coming months.

One of the newest addresses on the vibrant boutique hotels scene in Penang’s Unesco-certified heritage enclave, the eponymous 23LoveLane started operations last December following a three-year restoration effort led by Dr Gwynn Jenkins. The British-born conservationist was part of the team responsible for the significant work on Suffolk House, Whiteaways Arcade and St George’s Church in Penang, and was one of the principal authors of the George Town Unesco dossier.

Four buildings (the Anglo-Indian Bungalow, Straits Eclectic Annex, Indian Shophouses, and Jack Roof Annex) form 23LoveLane. They were constructed at different times with different architectural styles as add-ons to the main structure – the Anglo-Indian Bungalow, which was built in the 1860s. The servants’ quarters at the back started as a single storey in the late 1880s and was extended to become the double-storey Straits Eclectic Annex. Still within the compound (facing Stewart Lane) are the two Indian Shophouses (1900s). The Jack Roof Annex came in the 1920s.

Inside the spacious building, the attention to detail and retro charm is astounding. Traditional roti kapai (remember the tough-as-nails biscuits your grandparents would dip in coffee before eating?) in glass jars, red lanterns and old paper umbrellas found on the weathered tables and around the common areas could easily transport you back to the days when you were a pesky child running around in grandma’s kitchen.

There are more than enough ornaments to reignite your childhood memories. Collectibles ranging from old rickety bicycles, oil lamps, gilded framed mirrors, old kopitiam-style marble table tops, bold paintings, classy black-and-white photographs and swirly prints to abstract depictions of pre-war heritage buildings wait to be admired.

The owner, who prefers to be known only as N.K., was cautious not to turn the boutique hotel into a gallery.

<b>Top draw:</b> The bar counter at the lobby is real antique transported from Kuala Lumpur to Penang. A logistics
nightmare, according to the staff. Note the roti kapai (left), of which jars are found throughout the hotel. Top draw: The bar counter at the lobby is real antique transported from Kuala Lumpur to Penang. A logistics nightmare, according to the staff. Note the roti kapai (left), of which jars are found throughout the hotel.

“The building is ancient, the antiques are old and we are located in a heritage site. So I felt a need to inject a contemporary, vibrant feel via the modern artworks,” the art and antique collector explains.

The edifice was originally a private residence owned first by a European family, followed by a local family. After that it was converted into a backpackers hostel, Oasis Hotel. It eventually degenerated into a vacant shelter for the strays wandering the area’s narrow alleys.

When N.K. acquired the pre-war house in August 2007, the property had descended into a decrepit, sorry shell of its former self. Damp and termite-infested, the building was almost swallowed by moss, creepers and weeds.

None of this, however, fazed the new owner, who oversaw its transformation as a personal “project of passion”.

The Penang-born had wanted to return to the state upon her husband’s retirement and was looking around for a new home.

“I don’t want to sound cliched but I really fell in love with it, especially the two towering asam and pinang trees that frame the entrance – imagine that, right in the heart of town! I saw the place as a neglected child that just needed some attention and love. And I knew my family would be really happy here if we ever moved back,” the Kuala Lumpur-based lawyer recalls.

The planned retirement has since been deferred. Hence the idea to convert the space into a boutique hotel.

A seasoned traveller who enjoys cosy boutique hotels more than branded chains, N.K. says: “When I travel I want to immerse myself in someone else’s culture, not stay in some luxury but faceless accommodation.

“For me, 23LoveLane must give our guests the feeling of visiting a friend’s home, which is why I remind my staff that they are not just butlers or housekeepers but the hosts and hostesses,” she says.

N.K. was also determined to see that her vision for 23LoveLane stayed as true as possible to the structure’s original spirit and style. She credits her dedicated team of conservationists with succeeding in achieving that.

“Because of that the house exudes a nice feeling. Among the measures was the use of terracotta tiles, instead of cement, and the walls are lime-washed. The entire project was very organic and was conservation, rather than architecturally, driven,” she explains, adding metaphorically: “I didn’t want to touch up an old lady’s face with garish make-up because it would be just too artificial.”

<b>Cool combo:</b> Contemporary art pieces and Malaysian antiques. Cool combo: Contemporary art pieces and Malaysian antiques.

Art of the matter

During the restoration process, the grounds became an archaeological site of sorts as horse shoes pointing to its former existence as a stable, a well (the well having been covered up for safety reasons), and ceramic and porcelain shards were unearthed. These “artefacts” are now on display at the hotel.

Wondrously, N.K. insisted on each of the 10 bedrooms as well as the library, garden, terrace and granite courtyard within the mews having their own character and unique feel.

To dress up the walls and rooms, N.K., an avid art and Malaysian antique collector for over two decades, generously selected from her own collection of treasures.

“I love each and every piece of art you see here. Some I had gotten cheap before the artist became famous. For me, it’s really not about how much the pieces are worth but how much joy they bring me,” she says matter-of-factly.

The eclectic mix of paintings mainly highlights South-East Asian creativity.

“There is no theme to the decor. I let the space dictate what goes into it. I’m not an art scholar and I can’t paint to save my life but I know what I like,” she says.

Not for her are reproductions and “new antiques”. She favours Malaysian antiques, which, of course, include the Peranakan, Malay, Chinese, Indian and British styles.

N.K. seems unperturbed about vandalism, firmly believing that those who come to a place like hers would be people who appreciate arts and culture.

“These pieces, be it the antiques or paintings, mean something to me so my friends were shocked I would put them up for public display.

“But I sincerely feel that people will respect the trust that I have in them. That’s why we don’t stop people from coming in to see and even snap photos of the place. Around the world you’ll find that the really good boutique hotels will never turn visitors away,” she shares.

Like the time when a group of college students had a field day snapping pictures on the grounds of 23LoveLane.

“They were so excited and it made me happy to see that they were able to enjoy and appreciate the beauty of their culture here. I told them to post the photos on Facebook and ‘like’ us on the site because I don’t know much about these things,” she says, smiling.

Loved by locals

23LoveLane general manager Andy Fong is enthusiastic about happenings in the coming months.

The boutique hotel is applying to be recognised by Unesco for its conservation efforts.

Even with room rates between RM800 and RM1,200, many of the guests are Malaysians.

“It’s not only foreigners who come here – we have quite a number of locals from other states too although our guest list includes those from neighbouring countries like Singapore, Indonesia and Japan to as far as the United Kingdom.

“There was a lady from Hong Kong who excitedly told us how much the place reminded her of her childhood home that had been demolished, which was a huge compliment,” he notes.

Fong says local guests are usually surprised at how beautifully the building has been restored.

He says while the boutique hotel is obviously a business, there’s nothing commercial about its antique collection or art displays.

“You won’t find any ‘old-looking new furniture’ here. Even the bar counter at our lobby is bona fide antique brought all the way from Kuala Lumpur – it was a logistics nightmare,” he reveals.

“Little things like the old auspicious Chinese greetings on the wooden doors have been maintained. At the entrance wall a patch of original bricks have been intentionally left exposed so that people can appreciate how this entire building has been restored without modern materials like steel and cement,” he says.

A visit to 23LoveLane will not be complete without checking out its restaurant, SteakFrites@23 (steak frites refer to steak and fries commonly served in brasseries throughout Europe), especially for steak lovers.

“We serve imported Australian tenderloin in a special herb and butter sauce,” says Fong of its specialty.

Despite its infancy, expansion plans for the boutique hotel are already under way.

Plans include the restoration of a quaint pre-war three-bedroom house on the adjacent Muntri Street.

N.K. is currently furnishing the place and is optimistic that it will be ready soon.

“Although not located on the premises of 23LoveLane, it is part of the boutique hotel and caters mainly to families or groups looking to rent a whole house,” she says.

N.K. returns to visit her “baby” ever so often.

“You can take a Penangite out of her home state but you can never take Penang away from her heart.”