Ah Tong Tailor

Refurbishing a Shop House in George Town, Penang

Posts tagged ‘renovating a house in Malaysia’

After Contractor C’s disappearance we took a deep breath and considered our options. We had few. We knew several folks in George Town who had gone through, or were in the process of, a refurbishment/renovation. None of them had many kind things to say about their contractors. For a while we considered hiring one known for his excellent work …. and also for disappearing for weeks at a time, multiple times, in the middle of a job. If you watch him very carefully and keep a tight reign on the money (ie., keep him tethered to the job by doling out payments in tiny increments) you might be able to make it work, a couple of people advised us. The fact that we mulled this over for more than one minute indicates that we were edging towards desperation.

But it was desperation at a low level. Sure, we wanted to get going on our house so that we could finish it and move in. Yes, we didn’t relish the thought of paying rent and a mortgage indefinitely. But after a month or so we entered a sort of “let it be” mindset similar to that which we’d experienced after our first offer on a George Town property had fallen through. The rent-mortgage load wasn’t killing us, yet. If it was meant to happen it would happen. And if it didn’t … well, absolute worst case scenario we would (with regrets) sell Ah Tong Tailor and move on.

Then, about two or three months after Contractor C absconded with our plans, a friend of a friend referred us to a contractor his family had been using for additions/renovations/odd jobs for over two decades. This was good — a personal connection, weight to bring to bear if need be. Dave telephoned Contractor T and we made an appointment to meet at the shop house in January of 2011.

We met underneath the Ah Tong Tailor sign board late on a Sunday afternoon. What Dave and I saw: a wiry Chinese Malaysian man with a crooked smile, a shock of gray hair and a tape measure clamped to the waist band of his blue jeans. What he probably saw: two foreigners dumb enough to pay more for a dilapidated inner city property than any seasoned Chinese Malaysian man ever would. Before we walked inside Contractor T sized us up, and I guess we looked pretty green. But we liked him right away. Maybe we were just overly hopeful, but we liked that he wasn’t slick, wasn’t polished. He looked like he worked for a living. His English was just OK, but he could say all he needed to say about building. He was direct. Everything about Contractor T said “No B.S.”

Contractor C (on the right): slick, polished

Contractor T: a guy who gets his hands dirty

Once inside the house we handed Contractor T the list, minus quotations, drawn up by Contractor C. We walked around and he looked and looked, moving his hands over walls and poking at rotten wood. Right away he began to find problems with the first quote.

“You’ll have to replace many beams. Look at the holes. The wood is rotten and that’s the house’s support.”

“Look at cracks on this concrete pillar and the cross beam. It means the extension upstairs can’t support a new bathroom. You’ll need to knock it down and rebuild it.”

“Better just knock down the outhouse and build a new one. You can’t just knock down the wall separating toilet and shower because the rest won’t hold.”

“The doors are good but alot of the wood in the room partitions is rotten.”

“The boils go only halfway up the wall but if you don’t replaster the whole thing it will just continue. Better take it all off and clean the bricks and plaster floor to ceiling.”

“I think maybe you need to replace 3/4 of the ceiling upstairs. We can try to patch the roof but no guarantee. Maybe a whole new roof.”

When we’d done the walk-through with Contractor C he’d answered “No problem” every time we asked “Can you do this? Can we change that?” At the time that was comforting. But now, as Contractor T pointed out Ah Tong Tailor’s tiny-to-the-unschooled-eye but critical structural issues it started to seem that Contractor C was probably the kind of guy who quoted low to get a job, rushed it, collected his money, and walked away. If there was hard truth to be swallowed we wanted it fed to us before we got started on the refurbishment — not after we’d moved in, and all of the problems we should have taken care of in the first place surfaced one after another like pimples.

Another thing we liked about Contractor T: his obvious appreciation for old stuff. We didn’t know it at the time, but he collects old wood, old metal, old fans, old cabinet pulls, old Anything to Do With Buildings, and keeps it all on his property. He sells the stuff of course, and he uses it in jobs that he works. The man has an appreciation for the way things were made back whenever. And as we walked through the house he demonstrated this by knocking on the heavy timber door with its thick sliding bolt that separated what would be the master bedroom from the bathroom, and nodding when we said that we wanted to keep it unfinished. We wanted to reuse as much timber as possible, and that didn’t seem like a foreign concept to Contractor T. We said that we would keep Ah Tong’s signage, and he smiled a little bit. This made us feel that we wouldn’t be fighting every step of the way to retain as much of Ah Tong Tailor’s history as we could, while turning the shop house into a useable, liveable space.

Contractor C had said he could complete the job in 6 months. “Oh no. Eight to twelve months at least,” said Contractor T, who would be paid by the job, not by the hour. And he was busy with another job, so couldn’t start on ours until June 2011. We were now looking at moving into the house not later that same year, but in the second half of 2012.

A week later Contractor T had his daughter email us a quote (the man doesn’t do email). We met him once more at the house to make some changes and additions. It ended up being 2/3 more than Contractor C’s quote — mostly because of additional structural work. A month later we shook on it.

In September of 2011, one year after we’d taken possession of the property, we handed the keys to Contractor T. We’d already unearthed and carted home a few keepsakes, so we told him to go ahead and clean out everything that was left: beaten-down furniture, the old kitchen sink, pots and pans, broken plates and chipped glasses and other odds and ends. A few days later we stopped by the house to see what it looked like empty. Contractor T and his crew had moved in saws and a worktable; there was paint-speckled metal scaffolding propped against the walls.

And there was one small object that Contractor T had found, and saved.

Hung from an old nail near the front of the house was a handmade dart board he had found tucked into a storage area under the shop house’s eaves. A square of wood painted dark sea foam, wire strung in a crosshatch between 84 nails edging a dirty paper square. A strip of yellow with Chinese characters that say something like “does not count if you break the wire.” (Thanks to commenter Albert for that translation.) The board is pocked with hundreds of dart holes; we imagine the tailor made good use of it between customers.

Dave and I had confidence about Contractor T going in. But perhaps more than anything else, seeing that dart board hanging on our wall assured us that yes, we were all on the same page. We know that Contractor C would have chucked that old piece of wood out without a second thought. Contractor T gave it pride of place in what would be its new home.

As work on our shop house has progressed over the last thirteen months that dart board has been cleaned and dusted and carefully moved from the front to the back of the house, from the ground floor to the first floor and back downstairs again. Whenever our refurbishment enters a new phase Dave and I walk into the house and look for the dart board. And when we find it, we imagine where we’ll hang it when Ah Tong Tailor is home.

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Image

It has been, incredibly for me, over eleven months since I was last here. I’m not quite sure what happened. We got busy with work and travel for work, and the house was moving slowly so for a while there it seemed like there really wasn’t much to write about. But probably the biggest reason for my absence is that over the course of this refurbishment there has been next to no drama. Work is still ongoing at Ah Tong Tailor and we hope to be living in the house by early December. But other than the fact that we’re running a bit behind schedule (we hoped for completion within 8-10 months, our contractor predicted a year, and we’re just about at the one year point) things have gone remarkably smoothly.

This is not always the case with refurbishments/rehabs in George Town (or anywhere, I would imagine). Contractors are notorious for a number of unpleasant reasons and we’ve heard some real horror stories from other folks attempting the same here. But for some unknown reason the heavens smiled upon us with this place. We got really lucky with our contractor, whom we refer to as The Man — as in “He’s The Man!” But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll tell you about The Man in due course.

At any rate, I’ve kept fairly meticulous notes over the last year and Dave has taken his camera on every house visit. So there’s lots to show and tell.

In my last post I shared photos of Ah Tong Tailor as it was when we took possession: essentially a 14 feet by 110 feet double-story rectangle broken up into rooms by wooden partitions. Here’s a couple shots of the ground floor, the first standing just inside the entrance and looking towards the back of the house. The back of the staircase is on the right.

In the shot above we’re standing almost at the center of the house (front to back), still looking towards the back. We’re at the edge of the airwell which rises right through the second story and opens to the sky via a retractable roof operated with a pully.

So first thing we did after taking possession of the house was to clear it out. We kept a few momentos, which I’ll blog about later, but most everything went. And then the partitions came down.

Finally we could get a true sense of what we had to work with. We knew that removing the walls would lighten the place up immeasurably and make it feel even larger than it already did. What we didn’t know was how loft-like the house would feel after all those walls were gone.

Here are two views of the ground floor. The first photo was taken from the back of the house looking forward — double door entry at the center with the two double windows on either side. Before the partition in the photo above was taken down the front of the house wouldn’t have been visible from this vantage point.

And here’s looking out back to the small courtyard.

Plans at this point: an entry at the front of the house partially screened from the rest of the ground floor by a traditional-style wooden partition. Most shop houses have these — a wide panel in the center with doorways on either side, and above the doorways a carved wood panel with plenty of punch-outs. The point of the partition is to keep private areas private from passers-by (the five-foot way, or sidewalk, is directly outside our door and anyone passing by can look right through the front windows and straight into the house when the shutters are open) but still allow air flow.

After the entryway partition we planned to leave the ground floor open — living room, dining area in the airwell, and a huge kitchen stretching to the back of the house. What’s not visible in the photo above is the old wooden beam above the window, which extended well beyond the right edge of the window to the door frame. You can sort of make out, to the right of the window, a vertical line indicating where the house’s original window ended. It was quite a big window when the house was built. We can’t imagine why it was partially plastered in (in such a warm climate who would want LESS window and air flow?) but we were really excited about the possibility of being able to open up the back of the house further.

Another view out back, from the stairs — the cutouts in the concrete floor on the right cover the drain. Standard in these old houses to have the drain semi-open. We planned to close it up to the extent possible, leaving probably one tile to access in the event of an emergency.

I mentioned in the last post that the courtyard contained an outhouse, which we planned to keep as the downstairs bathroom. Here it is:

The outhouse had two “rooms” — a shower room and a toilet. We figured we could combine toilet, open shower and sink in one room, in a rebuilt outhouse/outdoor bathroom that would be smaller and thus take up less precious courtyard space.

Moving upstairs, the first photo was taken at the top of the staircase and the second further in. Two rooms occupied this space. The airwell is to the right and between the staircase and the airwell is the narrow passthrough to the rooms at the back of the house. At this point we planned for two slightly differently measured out rooms — an office for Dave at the front (the photographer needs light) and an office for me — or a guestroom — behind and looking into the interior airwell.

In the photo below, we’re standing at the front of the house looking towards the top of the staircase. The airwell is to the left and stands at the center of the house front to back. Beyond that were two rooms and then, through the doorway on the right, a very rudimentary bath — in other words, a concrete “porch” with a chamber pot, a hose and a spigot.

And here we are with the airwell behind us, looking to the back of the house. The two windows, which we planned to be in the master bedroom, look out over the courtyard

At this point, with all the walls down, we were feeling pretty excited about the possibilities. Both Dave and I love structures with a history, but we also have a fondness for clean, simple — if not minimalist — design. Here in the newly opened-up tailor’s shop it was looking as if we could have the best of both worlds: a period structure that would retain many of its original features with an airy, open loft-like interior that would take well to some clean, contemporary-ish built-ins (the kitchen, especially) and furnishings.

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“So old lah! Why not buy a new house?”

I often hear this from Penang-ites when I tell them that my husband and I bought a shop house in George Town. It illustrates the disconnect between the way we and many people  — here in Penang, in Malaysia, in Asia and elsewhere I am sure  — look at old or used buildings, furniture, things.

New is prized, old is scorned.

The physical result of that mindset can be seen all over Asia, but our first up-close experience of it was in Shanghai, where we lived in the mid-90s. It was the beginning of that city’s redevelopment boom. We watched entire neighborhoods  of early 20th-century shikumen (the local row houses) and mansions disappear seemingly overnight. We’d always liked older buildings I think, but seeing the destruction of so many neighborhoods, of so much history in brick and mortar made us more appreciative of structures with a past.

After Shanghai we moved back to California and entered our only — prior to Penang that is — period of home ownership, purchasing a single-story Spanish-style house built in the early 1920s. From the moment we began looking for a house in the San Francisco East Bay there was never any question about the sort that we wanted: something “old”, a structure with a history and of an architectural style connected to recognizable influences or time periods. Mission, modernist, whatever — the style was less important than the house’s longevity. We wanted to live somewhere that had been lived in. I suppose that was a reaction to Shanghai.

That was the beginning of our road to Ah Tong Tailor. Some might look at our house’s facade and see decay. We see a rich past. When we step over the threshhold we see cracked plaster and rotting beams but also a space that will be much more of a home to us than a brand-new house ever could.

(It’s telling, perhaps, that we have not unpacked all of our belongings in 5 years, a period of living in mostly newish houses. )

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