GEORGE TOWN, Dec 12 — Hotelier Chris Ong grew up listening to his grandmother talk about the bygone era of the Peranakans and that sparked in him an interest in antiques.
“She used to talk about the beautiful antiques that belonged to her mother and how life was like at that time… it was how I became so interested in our Baba Nyonya culture, in the antiques and my family history,” he explained.
And now with 81 Muntri Street, things have come a full circle.
This extension of Muntri Residences, one of Chris’ hotels, is in the very house Chris’ grandmother grew up in. This house and its memories was what she passed on to her grandson through the stories she told him when he was a young boy.
His great grandfather Ong Hock Thye bought the house in 1918 and gave it the “modern” touch; colourful floor tiles arranged in rectangles in the living area create the illusion of a “fancy carpet” against the plain red and yellow checkered tiles found throughout the ground floor.
Chris’ grandmother Kooi Kee was Hock Thye’s eldest daughter while his mother, Ang Gim Cheoh, was her daughter.
Ang lived in that house from the time she was born in 1923 until 1946. The house was eventually sold in 1990.
Now, almost 28 years later, the house is back under one of Hock Thye’s descendants.
Chris tried to buy back the house his mother grew up in when he first came back to Penang in 2006 but the owner refused to sell.
Instead, he bought the property next door which used to be the house’s former stables and servants’ quarters and turned it into one of the first boutique hotels in George Town — Muntri Mews.
That was eight years ago.
Number 81 was used as a budget hostel for many years before the owner finally agreed to lease the building to Chris.
Fortunately, the building was well preserved, and the floor tiles were intact. Chris said he only needed to do minimal restoration work to turn it into an extension of Muntri Residences which is another of his hotels on that same street.
The ornately carved screen in the living room, a prominent feature in all Peranakan homes, was long gone so Chris recreated the screen using parts from his extensive collection of antiques and carved wooden parts.
He used old family photos of the house as a reference to recreate the gold painted screen and put in almost a replica of the original screen in the living room.
“I didn’t want to create an exact replica, I made something that is close to it and got local artisans to carve an almost replica of the front door too,” he said.
As a homage to his great-grandfather, black and white portraits of Hock Thye, his two wives and Chris’ grandmother are displayed in the main living room.
True to Chris’ Midas touch for heritage buildings, the two-storey pre-war house was transformed into an Anglo-Chinese style home resplendent with 1920s era furniture and fittings.
Chris said the theme was more of the Edwardian era so all furniture and finishings were from the 1920s.
“After so many years, the house is finally back with an Ong,” Chris said.
“My mother married an Ong… my father, Ong Leng Ah, so when I finally get to lease this building, the house is back with an Ong,” he explained.
Chris’ great-grandmother Khaw Siang Neoh was Hock Thye’s first wife and she was the fourth daughter of Kapitan Cina Khaw Boo Aun, a Batu Kawan sugar cane plantation tycoon in the late 1800s.
Chris himself also bought a pre-war house on the same street and turned it into his home in George Town.
He may have spent most of his adult life overseas but he feels that he is finally home now, right on the street where his mother grew up in and where his great-grandfather first settled down on the island a century ago.
Today, Chris owns and runs a network of boutique hotels under the George Town Heritage and Hotels (GTHH) brand name.
Number 81 Muntri Street is an addition to Muntri Residences where guests have the option of either taking up family suites or renting the whole house.
“The living room and dining area are shared common spaces that Muntri Mews guests can also use which is why the entrance faces Muntri Mews,” he said.
There are three family suites in the new building suitable for up to four people each and one smaller room for couples.
Chris said he had to expand as demand increases every year. Other hotels under GTHH at georgetownheritage.com included Muntri Grove, Seven Terraces and Jawi Peranakan Mansion.