Ah Tong Tailor

Refurbishing a Shop House in George Town, Penang

I got ahead of myself with the last post, and actually this one has been sitting on my computer, half-finished, for some time. Before we could begin demolition and clean-out at Ah Tong Tailor, there were procedures to be followed and permission to be gained.

As much as we love George Town (an ardor that grows every time we drive into town to check on progress at the house, which inevitably carries us down a side street which, on that day, is home to some curious happening or another, like this), we would never have purchased property in the city if it were not a UNESCO world heritage site. Why? Because the world heritage designation guarantees — or gives as close a guarantee as is possible here in Malaysia — that neighboring structures will not be pulled down and replaced with a 25-story condo building.

You laugh, but I am serious. In Hong Kong, in Shanghai, in Bangkok, in Saigon — in every Asian city in which we’ve lived, except for Kuala Lumpur — we have, for all or a portion of our residency, lived next to or within earshot of a construction site. In some cases we lived beneath a unit being renovated while living next to or within earshot of a construction site. In this part of the world (Singapore may be an exception here) there is no public consultation vis a vis demolition/building, nor are there any rules once construction begins. If you’re unlucky enough to find yourself living next to a construction site, which can happen with no warning whatsoever — as in Saigon, when I woke  one morning in our lovely just-renovated French colonial villa overlooking the park in the center of District 1 to find the equally lovely French colonial bungalow next door being bulldozed (by the City of Hanoi, but that’s another story) — you may fall asleep (or try to) and wake to the glare of floodlights and the sound of jackhammers. Dave and I often joke that our years in Asia have left us with construction-related PTSD. Though that’s probably not a joke at all, because it is still the case that whenever I hear jackhammers my stomach folds in on itself.

But we are protected from that in George Town, we think. Technically speaking, buildings within the world heritage site cannot be torn down and replaced unless they are structurally dangerous and beyond salvage. (That said I have seen at least two structures in Little India fall to the wrecking ball since we bought Ah Tong Tailor. There are always property owners willing to — and well-connected enough — to flout laws and regulations.) We may yet suffer through top-to-bottom renovations in the two shop houses with which we share party (common) walls. But renovation noise is a far sight less painful than the rhythm of a pile driver.

There are other building/renovation regulations in George Town (or any UNESCO world heritage site) — facades must not be altered, extra stories must not be added, etc. And one of the means of enforcing those regulations is by requiring all property owners to obtain permits before beginning work. Many property owners don’t bother with this formality; they just slap up metal hoardings around the structure and go at it. To some extent I sympathize — the bureaucracy surrounding permit acquisition is thick as mud, and if you are a business owner bleeding money waiting for the wheels of bureaucracy to turn is especially painful. But our plans for Ah Tong Tailor were not complicated, nor were they against the spirit of the heritage guidelines. We did not plan to sneak an additional story in under the cover of darkness, nor did we want to make other alterations to the structure or its facade that would radically alter its character. And so we suspected that securing a permit would present no difficulties and could be accomplished in a timely fashion.

“Do it legally,” a local conservationist admonished me in her best imitation of a school marm when I happily told her, during a chance meeting at a favorite coffee shop in George Town’s Little India, that our purchase had finally gone through. So much for “Congratulations”. She needn’t have snarked; we’d planned to do it by the book all along.

Our planned changes were so minimal: removing/moving the timber room partitions, updating/rebuilding the ground floor outhouse, updating the upstairs “bath”, reversing the direction of the staircase and building a kitchen where there wasn’t much more than a sink and a portable gas burner. We would be refurbishing rather than restoring (an important distinction — here is an excellent, fairly detailed blog on a conservation/restoration project in George Town). So we didn’t need the consultation of an (expensive) restoration specialist architect. Instead, on a recommendation from a friend we hired an agent or consultant who could take us through the permit procedures for a reasonable fee.

The whole process took about 6 weeks. In September of 2010, about a month after we’d taken possession of Ah Tong Tailor, we met Agent O — who, as a sometimes-contractor, knows all about buildings and refurbishment of “heritage” structures — at our house and did a walk-through. He relayed our vision to an architect with whom he had worked in the past, who then put it all down on paper. We were living in Kuala Lumpur at the time so the architect emailed the plans. We asked for a few minor adjustments (such as move a partition here, make the rise on the stairs lower and the tread deeper), the architect made the changes and, all told, we had final plans within a couple weeks. (The plans are up top.) We filled out some forms, made photocopies of passports and deed and other documents and wrote a check and Agent O filed a permit application with MPPP (Municipal Council of Penang Island). Three or four weeks later our application was approved and the permit issued. We were now good to go.

Easy enough. Now it was time to get down to the monetary nitty-gritty. We needed to find a contractor and find out exactly how much our vision would cost us.

Agent O introduced us to C, a stocky guy with a big stride and a firm handshake. Experienced in all kinds of renovations, he told us with a big plastic smile, referencing a few projects around George Town that weren’t quite to our taste. One of our biggest concerns relating to finding a contractor was identifying That Certain Someone who could appreciate old stuff. Old timber, old beams, old paint, scuffs and scratches, the marks of time, the bits and pieces of a building that would tell its history, or at least say “I have been here for a long time.” Much in our refurbished shop house would of course be new. But we didn’t want it all new. We didn’t want matching floor and ceiling boards and shiny varnished shutters and inexpensive, easy-care synthetic roof tiles. We didn’t want to trap Ah Tong Tailor in a time warp — it had to be liveable — but at the same time we didn’t want it to be a theme park-y ode to Old Skool George Town. We needed someone who “got” all that.

A quick tour of George Town will show that not many contractors do “get” that kind of refurbishment work. Renewed structures like this and this are more our style than this. And we surely did not want this.

So we had some doubts about Contractor C going in. But we figured that if his quote was reasonable we could make an effort to be on the scene often enough to reign in his love of varnish. (We are a freelance travel writer and photographer. In retrospect, how realistic was that line of thought?) We met Contractor C at Ah Tong Tailor on a sweltering morning and did a long, long walk-through, front to back, up and down the stairs. We examined boils on the plaster, rot on the beams. We measured stair height and length, stuck our fingers through crumbly wood partitions, took measure of the out house (it would all have to go), examined cracks in cement. Contractor C took lots of notes and so did we. We handed over a copy of the plans and he promised a quote within a week. In two weeks, after a bit of phone tag, he sent one  by email. It was as detailed as we could have wished, and three pages long.

Here’s a shortened list of what the house needed:

  • Demolition and site clearance
  • Hack concrete slab at airwell area and create drain
  • Construct 15-ft concrete counter for kitchen
  • Remove staircase and rebuild
  • Rebuild and tile outhouse
  • Chip off all water damaged plaster and replaster with lime (appox 60% of walls)
  • Restore rear G/F window to original size, paint and varnish (!!!) doors/windows
  • New timber door for outhouse
  • Repair existing G/F concrete slab
  • Remove all upstairs floor boards, keep what’s not rotted and replace what is
  • Salvage existing bedroom doors, make good and build frames
  • Make modern the bathroom upstairs
  • Remove all timber ceilings upstairs, keep timber not rotted and replace what is
  • Repair entire roof and retile using existing tiles if possible, repair/replace gutters
  • Replace asbestos roofs in courtyard and over outhouse
  • New piping throughout
  • New electrical throughout

The cost of which came, in total, to around what we had been quoted in 2000 for a high-end (but small) kitchen renovation in our 1930’s San Francisco Bay Area Mediterranean bungalow. But this would cover the structural and cosmetic refurbishment of an entire structure with about 3,200 square feet of living space (including courtyard). It did not include the cost of replacing beams (because it wouldn’t be known exactly how many beams needed replacing until we got into the structural work), paint, appliances (fans, aircons, kitchen stuff, water heaters, etc.) or bathroom/kitchen fit-outs (sinks, toilets etc.).

Still, all in all this seemed like a doable project, certainly one we could never afford to undertake anywhere in our home country.

After receiving the quote we drove up to Penang for another meeting with Contractor C. There were a few things we wanted to clarify, and we thought we’d ask for some changes that would likely increase the amount of his quote. We met at Ah Tong Tailor, Contractor C took more notes, we shook hands and he promised to get back to us within a week. It was early November 2010, and we hoped to be in the house by autumn 2011. After all, we had seen refurbishments in George Town that had been completed to satisfaction within 6-8 months.

Then Contractor C disappeared. No second quote. We never got our plans back. (Luckily we had another copy.)

It was the best thing that could have ever happened to us, or to Ah Tong Tailor.

29 Responses to “Plans, A List and a Blessing in Disguise”

  1. Lisa R-R

    This story would make for a lovely coffee table book …

  2. BeeYinn Low

    Robyn, you cracked me up when I clicked on the “this” link: ….are more our style than this (the Chinese hotel). 😉

    I visited it the last trip home. Too bad. The building has sooooo much potential…not sure if you have been up the (top open-air) floor, so so nice. Sigh, should have been Christopher Ong or Narelle who acquired the property.

    • robyneckhardt

      Bee, ChongTian 1881 is nice, it’s just not what I would have done with the building. All that brand new shiny wood! We actually viewed the hotel pre-renovations when we were looking for a house to buy, before ChongTian’s owner purchased it. We seriously contemplated it — it needed a LOT of work but oh my gosh, the building was SO beautiful. We have photos — no. 3 from this slide show http://davidhagerman.photoshelter.com/gallery/-/G0000ScdjNwdeTcw/ is taken from the inside of the building looking out the front. (Needless to say that window is gone.) It would have been a big job but I for one regret that we didn’t go for it.
      I went in to view the hotel for a story a few weeks ago. I literally almost cried when I walked in and saw that nothing at all had been left. Ugh.

  3. Martin Klein

    Hi Robyn!

    Actually, I should be writing tonight, making up some new and incredibly important facts on modern urban development for a conference (just coincidence). Thus, support in procrastinating is in high demand. So, thanks for the interesting new insights in your ongoing refurbishment project. This post came just in time.

    As it seems, you’ll have a relly lovely old shop house in a few months. Even if I find less than 5 meters a bit narrow for the length: almost 250 sqm living space for two, in a precious location in George Town’s old center is … um… appropriate. 🙂 And I really like the idea of a straightforward renovation, keeping the inner building simple. The renewed timbers will surely look great.

    However, by definition I’m a bit jealous because of your spacious new kitchen and what you can/will make of it. Our’s is some 18 sqm, and that’s already comparatively large here, where urban housing so often means extra large living rooms but small, rather useless kitchens, and any individual architecture is hellishly expensive.

    Just one thing that struck me: Do you actually build your kitchen counter from concrete? I know it’s not unusual in Asia to encase ‘wet cells’ for air con, sanitary equipment, showers, bathrooms, kitchen sinks etc. with heavy concrete because it’s water-resistant, cheap, and relatively easy to form in different shapes. However, I always found casted concrete somewhat exaggerated to use for interior walls, room inserts, dividers etc. It’s terrible heavy, hard, usually bulky, and you may need explosives or one of those loathful slege hammers if you want a simple hole or any other changes later on. We once build the base of a 5 meter kitchen counter from massive concrete and had to remove it before we left the flat after a few years. No fun at all. Thus, today I’d try lighter materials, something in blocks, maybe even bricks or natural stones, at least areated or cellular concrete. I think that’s actually more flexible in the end and, depending on the surface, you also don’t necessarily need plastering or tiles… Anyway, it’s just a thought.

    So far, I hope the heavens will keep “smiling upon you both with your new place”.

    PS: we’re currently planing a business/vaccation trip to Asia in next February or so, including a two week’s drive through Malaysia and some time in Chiang Mai/Chiang Rai. If we can make it, Penang is definitely on the roadmap. Would be interesting to see how far you’ve come with your new home by then. Of course, some advice in local food would also be nice (and no, we don’t ask for tour frebees in exchange for highly questionable publicity :-). Question in advance: Will you be anywhere near Penang and/or Chiang Mai in February?

  4. robyneckhardt

    Hi Martin — last things first. Our schedule is evolving. We will be in our house by the time you visit, for sure. We only have 2-3 mos of work left (yes we’re at that point where I think I can estimate and not be over-optimistic. it’s mostly cosmetics+electrical now). We may be in Spain in Feb. All I can say is check back in a month or so. We’d love to meet you, most probably Penang but you never know.
    The kitchen is/will be — and I don’t ever use this word — Awesome. Not because of high-end appliances, built-in espresso machines, sous vide cookers or anything else, but because of the space. It’s about halfway there. The kitchen bench was indeed built from concrete but as will become evident in later posts our contractor is a master of everything, a true craftsman who really knows his stuff (and cares about his workmanship). The concrete is thin, the base in bricks with concrete over, lined with tile — we haven’t gotten further vis a vis cabinets and drawers. The countertop will be … well, now I’m getting ahead of myself!
    Thanks for reading.

  5. ClaireS

    This is such a fascinating read Robyn, although most distracting. I have just returned from two years living in Singapore and am meant to be house hunting for cottages in Yorkshire but reading about Ah Tong Tailor has me yearning for a shop house. I will have to live that dream vicariously through your blog!

  6. robyneckhardt

    Well Claire, from hot and sticky Penang a cottage in Yorkshire doesn’t sound too awfully bad …. Thanks for reading.

  7. Shophouse Owner

    No “Congratulations?” You got off lightly. Said conservationist likes telling us how much she hates those of us who have purchased shophouses and heritage properties. But never to her clients!

  8. Wen

    I grew up living in these house with my family back in the 90s, and then there was a fracture on the wooden floor of the top floor, which deemed unsafe to live in. We moved out and moved on with our life. This blog really reminds me how I missed staying there. The lot we stayed, along CY.Choy Road remains vacated, and damaged. You guys inspired me to contribute back to these shophouses, atleast in the future.

  9. Gary Potter

    Hi, I have just read with interest your story and wonder if you could let me have your contractors number as I have a renovation project in Penang which requires traditional skills. If this ok then please email me on the address below.
    Many thanks
    Gary Potter

  10. Steven


    I just bought a pre war shop house which is chock full of original timber. All in good condition. Can you please tell me how you treated the floor boards? My contractor tells me that the ones in my place are from the Chengal Batu and Chengal Emas variety. After so many years they are now dark with dust, dirt and who knows what else. Thanks

  11. Benjamin Soon

    Would love to see an update/pictures of the house! : )

  12. Joycelyn

    My spouse and I stumbled over here by a different web address and
    thought I may as well check things out. I like what I see so now i am
    following you. Look forward to exploring your web page again.

  13. adi

    i am indonesian …i offer renovation service area penang and kedah with low price

    if you all interest call me : 0103446124 and 0104654955 or email : awieravensk@gmail.com ,my name Adi

  14. Chris

    Just kinda stumbled in from Eating Asia. Did not realize this other blog existed. Would love to drive by and have a look during my next trip back to Pg in Oct. the house really reminds me of our old place near the UMNO bldg on McAlister Rd which has of course been demolished and become some monstrosity that deals with weddings. Thanks for a trip back in time!

  15. IEatRio

    If the blog is defunct, it would be great if you could just have a final posting to bring us up to date and let us know how it all turned out. Interested in doing this myself some day.

  16. Brian

    Amazing! Its in fact remarkable paragraph, I have got much clear
    idea concerning from this piede oof writing.


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