Ah Tong Tailor

Refurbishing a Shop House in George Town, Penang

This is the story of making a home in George Town

Twenty-two months ago we put a deposit down on a pre-World War II shop house in George Town, the capital of Penang island, just off Malaysia’s northwest coast. We’d been looking for a property there for almost six months. We’d seen alot of outrageously priced dumps, and many places so poorly refurbished that they no longer had any character. We’d had an offer accepted on two side-by-side houses only to have the owner pull out of the deal a week later. We’d almost given up hope.

Then one morning an agent walked us through a shop house used as a place of business by an elderly tailor and his wife. They no longer lived there but were still working out of the ground floor. They were ready to retire.

We walked the length of the cement-floored shop, out the back door and into a small courtyard. We scanned weathered beams and blistered walls. We climbed the timber staircase to the second story, where we found original double doors, shutters sagging around an interior airwell open to the sky, a soaring, coffee colored wood ceiling, and much water damage.

We could see the possibilities. It felt right.

After maybe forty-five minutes in the house we thanked the tailor and his wife and walked back to our hotel.

We ruminated, playing pros-and-cons, for twenty minutes. We called the agent and made an offer. The house’s owner countered, and we countered back. Within an hour the deal was done. If this one didn’t fall through too we’d be home owners in Malaysia.

In September of 2010 — one year ago — we took possession of the property. We drove to Penang from our home in Kuala Lumpur and collected the keys.  With knotted stomachs we put key to lock and opened the door to “our house” for the first time in 9 months. We stepped over the threshhold, threw open the front shutters and sighed, relieved.

Though sad for its emptiness the old shop house whispered, “You made the right decision.”

Over the next few months we measured and drew and dreamed. We had plans drawn up, applied for a permit, and began looking for a contractor. (That last bit took longer than we’d expected.) Last week — finally, finally — we began work on the house.

There’s much to be done before Ah Tong Tailor becomes a home in George Town. One of us is a writer, the other is a photographer. In words and images, we’ll take you along for the ride.

15 Responses to “The Ah Tong Tailor Story”

  1. Mohamad Zawawi Ahmad

    You did the right thing. A Heritage building under your care held in trust for the future generations to enjoy. I hope it will be successfully restored to its former glory.

  2. Martin Klein

    Looks and sounds like a fantastic project!

    I wish you good luck for it. Hopeyou can realize your ideas … without too much of challenging renovations and crazy bureaucratic barriers.

    Anyway, eager to see the it ‘growing’ in the future… 🙂

  3. akismet-64accae3ba0be25996173ecd82d514e6B

    OMG Robyn, that’s so cool. I remember vividly that when I first met you and Dave, we went to that art gallery house on Armenian Street and you told me that you can live in a house like that. Congratulations! So happy for you.

    I had asked my family to look for a heritage house for me, but the price tag is high and that’s not including the $$$ that will go into renovations. So finally I decided to just buy a new home. I hope to visit your new home in George Town the next time I am back in Penang.


  4. Anastasia M. Ashman (@AnastasiaAshman)

    EXCITING! Always wanted a heritage place in Georgetown…looking forward to orienting exterior shots, history of the place, your plans, what happens with the permits and contractors, and of course, how smoothly everything goes.

  5. robyneckhardt

    Thanks Pak Zawi — it will be “restored” to the extent we can do so and also live in it … and otherwise sensitively refurbished. The facade will remain unchanged (other than paint and a new support beam!) and we’re keeping as much of the interior materials as possible. (White ants have had their day in alot but thankfully not all of the wood.)

    Martin — Thanks. We’re trying to be zen about it. Delays will happen, so will bureaucratic hassles. At some point it will be done. There will be frustrations, but it’s all part of the process! Cautiously looking forward to seeing what the coming months bring.

    Bee, our love of old places goes back to our time in Shanghai. Fell in love with George Town houses on our first visit to Penang in 2005, before we even moved to Malaysia. But it’s a big job you’re right. Sometimes wonder how we’ll juggle it and work and travel. We’ll see.

    Anastasia — ha, your list pretty much matches what’s written in my “to post/to do” notebook. Befores and afters, all that stuff. Should be fun.

  6. Michelle

    Wow – congrats Robyn and David!
    Looking forward to tracking your progress on this blog – I am sure the results will be well worth waiting for!

  7. Pamela Timms

    Hey Robyn – I’ve been so distracted myself the last few months I completely missed this amazing piece of news. All the very best – what a wonderful project. Px

  8. Jen

    How could I have missed this news? Congratulations to you and David!! I think both of you will do an awesome job on this project. Thanks for sharing your journey; we’re so privileged that we get to come along!

  9. Suzanne

    What a fabulous project! Congratulations! Your appreciation of Malaysia and its neglected charms puts so many of us Malaysians to shame. You guys are truly my favourite Mat Sallehs 🙂

  10. Jing En

    Hi, I came about your post when I was searching for conservation contractor in Penang. Can you pls kindly pass me the contact of Contractor T mentioned in your post? Thanks


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