“Do you need a hand with your bags?”
I hesitate. It’s a polite offer, and the stairs are rather steep.
“Really, it’s no trouble,” my host says. She picks up my suitcase and places it carefully in a large wicker basket. Then, calling down to her colleague, she uses a rope to carefully lower the basket through the airwell. The suitcase and basket disappear. A moment later, we hear a shout from downstairs: “Got it!”
Not so long ago, the same basket would have been used to trolley heavy batches of medicine up and down the building. This hotel, Ren i Tang, was once Chinese medicine shophouse. The name of the hotel derives from the medical hall’s name – Yin Oi Tong.
The Chong family leased the property from a clan association, Cheah Kong Si, for over 120 years.
Yin Oi Tong was once Southeast Asia’s oldest medicine hall. First established in 1796, the business moved to Lebuh Penang in 1885. In its heyday, the medical hall and its bulk retail warehouse took up seven shoplots. The Chong family leased the property from a clan association, Cheah Kong Si, for over 120 years.
Today, there are remnants of the past on display in the hotel – an accounts ledger, herbal storage jars and even the Chinese characters that were once used as a shop sign. All these relics were found, cleaned and conserved by the current hotel’s proprietors: Eu Yeok Siew and Low Teng Lei.
Yeok and Teng Lei are not Penangites. Neither are they trained hoteliers or architects. But this didn’t stop them from embarking on an ambitious project to open a hotel that embraced its long history.
Five years ago, they first walked into the dark, dank shoplot crumbling with old plaster. By then, the colonial building on the corner of Lebuh Penang and Lebuh Cina had faded from its glory years. It wasn’t the hub of commerce it had once been. The Yin Oi Tong business had scaled back and the Chong family had moved to a smaller, more manageable location in Ayer Hitam. Mr Chong was ready to retire and leave the business to his daughter-in-law, leaving a large, empty building.
Yet Yeok and Teng Lei saw the potential of the place. “Even in its worst state, there was something quite airy about it, a good energy,” says Yeok. Teng Lei adds that she fell in love with the place at first glance: “I thought, I have to do something with this building. It was so beautiful.”
They set about the process of negotiating the lease. The building was still held as an icon of the neighbourhood, so this was by no means easy. But Yeok and Teng Lei had support from friends within the community, including the Presdient of Penang Heritage Trust, Khoo Salma.
Once the lease was signed, there was the daunting task of renovating the building. Besides the fact that Yeok and Teng Lei had never undertaken a project like this before, the whole idea of conserving the old was – then – still new. Penang had not yet hit its current phase of “heritage fever”. “When we started there weren’t many examples of heritage to look at and learn from” says Yeok.
The pair came from a media background, running an online tourism business, Journey Malaysia. So they relied on the advice of local friends, such as the proprietors of China Tiger, and the skills of their contractor. The whole renovation project ended up taking two years and was funded by personal savings of Yeok, Teng Lei and their partners.
“It was not in a terrible state but it needed work from top to bottom. The walls were in tact, the beams were in tact,” says Teng Lei. But they still had to clear out decades of remnants. Rather than throw these away, they kept as much as possible. They also maintained the main structure, down to the airwell and the original wooden stairs.
Beyond the structure, there are now little touches of history everywhere. Original cupboards and shelves have been filled with books. Rescued medicine jars hang with plants in the courtyard garden, where guests gather for a chat and a drink. Photos from old newspapers are framed on the wall, a window into Penang’s past.
It’s easy to see why so many visitors come back to Ren i Tang. The hotel has an elusive charm: it’s homely, while still feeling like an escape from the ordinary. Rather than invoking grandeur, Ren i Tang harnesses the past in more subtle ways. “We want to create a feeling that you’re in a friend or relative’s home. After a while, when you stay in hotels it’s all ‘Yes mam can I help you?’ We like to treat our guests more personally.”
Unusually, this is a hotel where the proprietors can frequently be heard offering guests a cup of coffee, gathering bed linen, or buying breakfast from the mee hoon stall across the road. The hotel is managed by the cheerful Karen Choo, but Yeok and Teng Lei alternate between spending time there. They are keen to get the details right before hiring a lot of people.
“It was definitely more tiring after construction was done and everything opened,” admits Yeok. When it comes to running a hotel, there is no clock-out time. Besides, as word of mouth spreads, Ren i Tang is increasingly busy.
Like many of George Town’s tourist-oriented businesses, Ren i Tang is now riding the wave of investment that has brought renewed attention to the city. There’s a calendar of festivals throughout the year, and even during off-peak seasons, people visit for a taste of old world architecture, street art and food. New heritage hotels are appearing everywhere.
However, development doesn’t always lead to better conservation. Yeok suspects that some businesses don’t go through the proper channels before opening, which can lead to health and safety violations. “We’ve been here for four and a half years now, and I’ve seen a few horrendous fires around. It’s an old section of George Town and most of it is made of wood.”
There are also the multiple issues that go hand in hand with tourism. In a recent interview with The Malaysian Insider, Penang Heritage Trust’s Khoo Salma warned that gentrification can shut down smaller businesses and drive out residents.
Yeok and Teng Lei admit that gentrification is an issue throughout the heritage zones. However, Ren i Tang’s neighbourhood of Little India, still seems to have a diverse mix of businesses – from the Indian emporium Ramani, to local food stalls selling muruku and appam.
“George Town has always been recycling itself. Years ago during the duty free zone time, pre-70s, people used to come to Penang to buy stuff,” says Yeok. “There were lots of motels. When the government took that away, there was a fall in tourists and sales. Cities and towns like this will keep reinventing themselves.”
“Look at it from both sides – people come in to do business and if they don’t come, it’s going to be like how it was five years ago. It’s more vibrant now, there are more young people interested in heritage. When we started, people said, ‘Why are you doing this? No point.’ Now they say, ‘Wow, you did a really good job.’ The mindset has changed.”
Now, just over a year after opening, Yeok, Teng Lei and Karen are part of a community. In Penang, it seems that no man is an island. With the approval of the Chong family, the Cheah association, Penang Heritage Trust, and the ever-changing hotel guests, Ren i Tang is both part of George Town’s past and its future. The wicker basket won’t be allowed to rest just yet.
Find out more at www.renitang.com
Words and photos by Ling Low.