Over the last few years I’ve received a bunch of emails asking: So what ever happened to Ah Tong Tailor? Did you ever finish your renovation?
In short: yes. After 22 months of renovation we moved into Ah Tong Tailor in early spring 2013. It’s hard to believe we’ve been living here for almost four years now.
When I started this blog I imagined it as a sort of Penang version of ‘A Year in Provence’, Peter Mayles’ (somewhat annoying) journal of he and his wife’s trials and tribulations refurbishing an old French farmhouse.
But fairly shortly after starting in on the renovations at Ah Tong Tailor a ‘problem’ surfaced — there were no tribulations, there were no trials. Contractor T was honest and reliable. He and his team were a constant, didn’t disappear for weeks at a time (as I know has happened with other contractors working on other shophouse projects), didn’t abscond with funds (in fact T never asked for money until after a job was finished!). T and crew showed up every day except Sunday, every single week except the two following Chinese New Year. Things went ridiculously smoothly. There was no drama, nothing to inspire a writer to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).
Though T initially estimated 8 to 12 months to complete the renovation it became apparent at about 6 months that he’d never finish within a year. Why? He was exacting to a, um, ‘T’. Ah Tong Tailor was T’s first refurbishment of an entire house. We could see he relished the challenge of a big long-term project, and that he took tremendous pride in his work. So we decided to chill out and let him decide when a task had been completed to satisfaction, when it was time to move on to the next one.
And he did everything, with his hands, from planing the bannister for our new staircase (with his father’s planing tools) to chiseling granite for the supports for our mammoth timber front door, from rebuilding partially rotted wooden shutters to welding together salvaged metal window frames for our kitchen, from (with the help of his crew) lifting a 1,000-pound (at least) replacement beam into place to re-tiling the roof, supplementing our salvageable old tiles with recycled tiles sourced from around Penang island (ours is one of the last houses in the area roofed with lovely old terra cotta tiles).
After a while we began including T in design decisions. (We didn’t use a designer or architect for interior layouts or planning.) He totally ‘got’ us. I remember him listening to our vague wishes for a front partition between entry and living room (it should let air in, and light, and not be too ‘old-school’ or heritage theme-y; it should be clean and contemporary but also fit in with the style of the house) and then squatting to sketch a plan with chalk on our cement floor. T’s partition is one of the most striking features of our ground floor. The old granite pavers in our courtyard were his idea, as was opening the ceiling in our office to expose the high slatted roof and beams.
So, we left T be. Twenty-two months later we had a house that was pretty much everything we’d hoped for: light and airy, comfortable to live in, contemporary in feel but retaining a real sense of the structure’s heritage and a real example of fine workmanship. And the process was so pleasurable that if we’d had a pile of cash to play with we would have bought another house in George Town, just for the opportunity to work with T again.
Now, four years in, it’s time to move on. Even though we know we were exceptionally lucky with T and that the majority of refurbishments are to one degree or another nightmarish, our experience with Ah Tong Tailor makes us keen to take on another project, elsewhere. And, after eleven and a half years in Malaysia, we are ready for the next adventure.
We’ll be putting Ah Tong Tailor — partially furnished — up for sale later this year. Watch this space — we’ll announce it here and link to a website with lots of photos.