6 Heritage Buildings Turning Their History Into Gold

Heritage buildings with a rich colonial past often have intriguing stories to tell.
Tuesday 7 July 2020
Minute attention was paid to Macalister Mansion in Penang to bring back some of its former glory. Photo: Macalister Mansion

Out with the old and in with the new? That adage is simply not true for heritage buildings. With old buildings lending character and quirk to modern cities, it appears that old is gold. Hidden in certain pockets in countries like Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong are buildings and monuments with links to a colonial past, which would pique the interest of conservationists and those with a keen commercial eye.

When it comes to preserving and repurposing old colonial heritage buildings and homes, Singapore wins hands down for its efforts and tasteful sensibilities, seamlessly integrating the old with the new, creating a unique city that is vibrant and full of contrasts.

The National Heritage Board acts as the custodian of national monuments and historic sites. Guided by the Preservation of Monuments Act, historic buildings are rarely in danger of falling into disrepair and dilapidation. Recently, Singapore promulgated a Heritage Plan, an extensive masterplan which safeguards and promotes its heritage and culture, including old buildings and monuments as well as intangible cultural heritage elements such as customs, rituals, traditions, food and music.

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Rochester Park is just one of many examples of old buildings which have been renovated and repurposed for modern use. Originally built for the use of high-ranking British Army officers and their families who were based in the nearby Pasir Panjang Army Camp, this leafy residential enclave houses 35 spacious bungalows built in the 1930s and 40s. When the British left in 1971, the government took over Rochester Park and rented out the bungalows. Their exterior was painted black and white, hence the term, “Black-and-White” bungalows. Today, they are seen as a sentimental remnant of Singapore’s colonial past, protected by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (UDA) and managed by the Singapore Land Authority.

George Town and Melaka were accorded UNESCO World Heritage site status in 2008. Savvy investors took a renewed interest in architectural preservation and conservation for commercial gain. Previously forlorn and shabby historical buildings have found a new lease of life after conversion to hotels, restaurants, art galleries, museums, cafes and bars.

In the capital city, however, colonial and historical buildings have not enjoyed the same renaissance as George Town and Melaka. In Kuala Lumpur, some private developers have taken the lead in conserving and modernising heritage buildings, while others blithely knock down old beautiful buildings sitting on prime land. Pre-war buildings located in commercial areas fare better as they are restored with private funding and by virtue of their antique novelty – which is their raison d’être – are able to generate income due to their nostalgic factor.

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The Majestic Hotel in Kuala Lumpur was famous for its tea dances in the 30s. Today, its colonial heritage blends seamlessly with the modern touches. Photo: Hotel Majestic

The Majestic Hotel, Kuala Lumpur
The Majestic Hotel first opened in 1932 for tourists and visiting dignitaries. Conveniently located opposite the main railway station, it was a meeting place for British expatriates and the local elite. Designed and built by Dutch architect Van Leangeanderg of Messrs Keys and Dowdeswell, the hotel was famed for its tea dances and dinner parties, which were mostly held at the Majestic’s roof garden.

It also housed the literati – from Graham Greene to the author of Star Trek novels, Alan Dean Foster who spent his honeymoon here. Somerset Maugham is believed to have written part of his novel Footprint in the Jungle and The Letter in the hotel.

Evoking history with a dash of glamour, The Majestic Hotel Kuala Lumpur stands out as a shining example of what private capital can do when preservation is a priority. When commerce meets colonial nostalgia, it is evident that meticulously restored heritage buildings can bring in the bucks. Gazetted under the Antiquities Act 1976, the Majestic Hotel re-opened its doors in 2012 after extensive refurbishment by YTL Hotels. Architect Zaidan Tahir cleverly fused colonial heritage with modern comforts to give a contemporary touch to one of Kuala Lumpur’s most iconic buildings.

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Built in 1919, Old Malaya used to be a row of shop houses. Photo: Old Malaya

Old Malaya
If you want an alternative to the tall, modern and sleek, and prefer more character and atmosphere, there’s Old Malaya located at 66 Jalan Raja Chulan in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. Today, this heritage row houses Pampas, Luce, Pier 12 and other restaurants and is a throwback to yesteryear amid towering skyscrapers.

They may serve mouth-watering food at Old Malaya now but conserving and renovating this row of shophouses wasn’t a piece of cake. These seven crumbling and dilapidated shop lots were almost demolished until two white knights came along – businessman Datuk Syed Mustaffa Shahabuddin and veteran restaurateur Kana Theva of the Pampas Group. With the help of the Department of National Heritage and architectural firm Spacefighters, the duo provided the necessary funds, vision, passion and determination to restore Old Malaya to its former glory.

With the mandate to preserve the original elements of the building and recreate the atmosphere of old KL, the architects trod a thin line between preservation and safety. The decaying upper floors and walls had to be reinforced and strengthened. The decrepit state of the abandoned buildings meant that some parts had to be rebuilt from scratch.

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Macalister Mansion in Penang is the poster child for restoration. It is the perfect marriage of heritage and modernism. Photo: Macalister Mansion

Macalister Mansion, Penang
Grand and imposing, Macalister Mansion on Macalister Road in George Town, is a paean to what sensitive and innovative restoration and re-purposing can achieve. From the modern fibreglass bust of Colonel Norman Macalister at the entrance to this century-old mansion, to The Cellar bar which showcases original architectural details of this heritage hotel, Macalister Mansion is the poster child for restoration, with a nod to heritage yet flirts with modernism.

Built in 1880, the mansion was originally owned by an Indian moneylender or chettiar. A China-born property tycoon Choong Lye Hock bought No.228 Macalister Road in the late 1800s and lived there with his family and his mother together with an entire retinue of staff including gardeners, cooks and 20 servants.

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Traditional heritage meets modern sensibilities at Macalister Mansion. Photo: Macalister Mansion

European in design but Asian in decoration, it was the office of the Consumer Association of Penang for a decade before it was acquired by the present owners. Present owner Datuk Sean H’ng worked closely with architect Colin Seah from the Ministry of Design, an architectural firm based in Singapore. They worked to rehabilitate this outstanding building to its former glory, paying minute attention to conserving significant architectural details whilst infusing the property with contemporary design elements.

The original columns were reinforced, staircases and archways repaired, plaster was removed to reveal original brick walls and cornices, and the windows soundproofed. With specially commissioned artworks from Malaysia and Southeast Asia, this is a quirky yet sophisticated eight-room hotel. The two restaurants and two bars are decorated with whimsy and imagination, a well-balanced juxtaposition of the old and new living harmoniously together.

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The Majestic Malacca is a prime example of conservation done right. Photo: The Majestic Malacca

The Majestic Malacca, Melaka
This heritage hotel is a melting pot of Portuguese, Dutch, British, Malay, Chinese and Indian cultural influences, and this is reflected in its UNESCO World Heritage status. From churches and fountains to hip cafes along the narrow alleyways off Jonker Street, echoes of a glorious past resonate at every corner you turn. The Majestic Malacca’s thoughtful restoration and repurposing into a hotel is a textbook example of conservation done right.

This 54-room hotel located on the banks of the Melaka River comprises the original structure – a mansion in the front – and a new tower block behind which houses the hotel rooms. With the original porcelain tiled floor and teak fittings still intact, the hotel prides itself on its Peranakan or Straits Settlement Chinese décor that combined European influences.

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The Majestic Malacca is a melting pot of the best kind. Photo: The Majestic Malacca

Built in 1927 and completed in 1929, The Majestic Malacca was home to wealthy businessman Leong Long Man who hailed from Guangzhou, China. A rubber plantation owner, Leong’s private life – he had four wives – was as colourful as his taste in interior design.

He acquired refined taste and imported Victorian tiles, stained glass windows and European furniture to decorate his brand new home. Unfortunately, he contracted tuberculosis and died just two years after moving in. His son inherited Leong’s fortune but he squandered it and had to sell the mansion to another businessman named Lim Fang Heng in 1955. Lim converted the mansion into The Majestic Hotel and turned it into the place to see and be seen in Melaka during the 1950s and 60s.

Frequented by British planters and prominent locals, the hotel was a popular meeting place and wedding venue. It is said that it was patronised by Malaysia’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, when he was working on Malaysia’s independence. But the ravages of time and vagaries of fortune saw The Majestic Hotel fall from grace and shuttered in 2000. YTL Hotels bought the property in 2006 after a public outcry to preserve this historic building. After spending 15 months restoring it at a reported cost of US$10 million, its doors reopened in 2008.

The progressive city got the clarion call to preserve its past when the Hong Kong government initiated a heritage conservation policy in 2007 which spearheaded several attempts to conserve its historic buildings. Among them, a partnership that allowed NGOs to adapt and use government-owned historic buildings for social enterprise; government funding was provided for their restoration and renovation.

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Hullett House in Hong Kong was previously the headquarters for the marine police. Today, it is a stunning boutique hotel. Photo: Hullett House

Hullett House
If Richmond William Hullett were alive today, he would certainly approve of what has become of his namesake building. The former Marine Police Headquarters located in the heart of Tsim Sha Tsui has been transformed into a 10-suite heritage boutique hotel which pays homage to its home turf; each suite has a different décor which reflects various periods of Chinese history.

Built in 1881, Hullett House was a far cry from the glamorous persona it embodies today. As the Marine Police Headquarters, this 130-year-old white stucco colonial building kept Victoria Harbour and the surrounding waters safe and secure. The British outpost bustled with sailors, fishermen and policemen. When it was officially declared a monument in 1994, plans were set in motion to convert it into a heritage hotel with a shopping mall.

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The manicured lawns of Hullet House. Photo: Hullett House

Today it is one of the four oldest surviving government buildings and this US$670 a night hotel has a Chinoiserie-inspired pagoda bed in one of its suites and Chinese pop art adorning the walls. Each suite has a balcony located behind its colonnaded façade. As expected, the bathrooms are lavish, with one suite boasting a shimmering gold tile floor with a gold lion claw foot bathtub – apt, considering that this building is believed to contain Hong Kong’s first flushing WC.

The city states of Singapore and Hong Kong appear to be well-placed to preserve heritage buildings, as conservation is driven by government plans and initiatives, which in turn serve as a catalyst for rejuvenation and gentrification. Malaysia too has benefited from two cities having been accorded UNESCO world heritage site status which has attracted private investment to the area – from small cafes to larger hotel operators. What is clear is that in conservation and restoration, a strong public-private partnership is necessary to save our old beauties from being lost to history.

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