Ah Tong Tailor

Refurbishing a Shop House in George Town, Penang

Posts tagged ‘urban renewal in George Town Penang’

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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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