“No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure.” Hemingway’s words of wisdom does ring true. The scion is a natural storyteller, but most importantly, he has lived those stories and seen the world in ways most people could only imagine.
I’ve always embraced people who are different or have something interesting to say. I’ve talked to one recently. Christopher Ong is a man of character, a hotelier, heritage hero, purveyor of old houses and an expert foodie (he has a food guide!).
We have arranged to meet there, in Muntri cafe, also where the Muntri Mews is. The conversation veers, naturally, to ‘why here’. Though outwardly utterly metropolitan, Ong lives just down the street, in an old house he restored, intrinsically furnished with genuine Peranakan pieces. He then unveiled the intimate relationship he had with the street — it was beautiful, very much like reconciling with an old flame.
There was a sense of history in the middle of mayhew. The family’s presence on the street could be traced to a century ago, as early as 1920s. It was then the peak of the rather short-lived peranakan culture. Muntri Mews used to be a communal mews for horse carriages and it was also the car garage of Ong’s grandfather who had one of the first cars in Malaya, an Austin.
His passion for peranakan antiques was instilled when he was young. He inherited a few pieces from his grandmother (b. 1900). It’d be intriguing to know just how much the peranakan antiques might now be worth. When he had to leave, he brought old photographs, his first Kam Cheng (nyonya covered jar) and some precious pieces with him. The sentimental value of the poignant legacy is invaluable.
“I am a product of the new Economic policy.” Ong left Georgetown by himself as a teenager as a result of the new Economic policy. He went on to receive his tertiary education in Australia. “I am always in a hurry. I couldn’t wait to grow up.” He then worked as an investment banker at Credit Suisse and got to the top pretty quickly. “I guess when you fight harder in a place that value meritocracy, you succeed.”
The Road Not Taken
The impulses of life as they occur are the magical moments. “Part of me has always love Asia,” he continued. “The Asia I remembered when I was young and when I was at 40 were very different. Developed Asia all look the same, Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul… You don’t really know where you are because they all look the same out of your hotel window.” Inside me, I was yearning for ‘Old Asia.’
“There was a calling,” he explained. At the age of 40, he retired as a banker and decided to embark on what he loves doing — restoring old buildings.
Led by his unswerving desire, Ong returned to Asia. He was trained as an investment analyst, hence he had the advantage of applying his set of skills in investing. His style? Invest in something that no one wanted, undervalued or out of fashion.
“Sri Lanka was the country that jumped up at me.” Nothing was more invigorating than this place which reminds Ong of home. “It was very much like the Malaya I knew when I was growing up. When I was there, I felt instantly at home.”
And so it begun — the journey of discovering the land where footprints left by Ibn Baṭūṭah and Cheng Ho can be tracked.
Galle (southwest coast of Sri Lanka, was built first in 1588 by the Portuguese, then extensively fortified by the Dutch during the 17th century from 1649 onwards) is a fortified town where there is a community living inside. “I was totally charmed by this place,” said Ong with twinkle in his eyes. It is sophisticated yet backward, has the same history as Malacca, with backwater secrets.
He decided to run a hotel with Australian partner Karl Steinberg after emancipation. It was an abandoned Portuguese-Dutch residential estate built in 1700, with no bricks in the wall, only rock, coral and clay. They successfully transformed the Bawa-ish building into a luxury boutique hotel without forgoing the spirit of the place. Since then, Galle Fort Hotel has won rave reviews from critics and travelers, not too shabby for someone who ‘has never run a hotel’.
People tend to say that we only remember moments, not dates. That night, Ong remembered both because it was an unforgettable Boxing Day. It was Boxing Day 2004. A satisfying dinner deemed to be the perfect way to end the night — He had lobster; He tasted the stars. Just when he muttered ‘woah’ over his career transformation within 18 months, tsunami came to the hotel’s doorstep.
Everyone inside the fort was safe. Next thing you know, the hotel turned into a refugee center.
“The hotel was full. Staffs all ran away. We were at the high point inside the fort. Inside the fort, it looked like venice, the road became canals.” Ong recalled. He likened the situation to ‘being at the war’.
Hollywood might tell the story with a twist, but this is when the phrase ‘based on true story’ appeared on the silver screen. The whole hotel was taken over by the US army (just after the second war in Iraq). True story. “I just didn’t know what was happening!” Ong exclaimed.
It was a blessing in disguise because he initially thought that he had to close the place. “They are so well-behaved. I just didn’t know how to charge them,” he laughed. The US army footed the bill with their ‘per diem’ (daily allowance for expenses).
Months after, the US army left. Journalists and travelers came from different parts of the world, dying to get a better grasp of the unfortunate event, so did a group of Penangites. When they found out about Ong, they said to him, “What are you doing here? You should be doing this in Georgetown.” It was indeed an a-ha moment but Ong’s scepticism was largely dictated by the lack of heritage protection in Georgetown.
“I could do all these in Penang,” he thought. Nonetheless, after being away for thirty years, he was also worried that he wouldn’t feel connected to the place. It did not take long till he realise that there is no place like home. He got to spend quality time with his widowed mother and brought her out of depression. “I got to know her again, it’s amazing.”
He is back to where he belonged.
Live the legacy
Ong wanted to purchase the house of his grandfather but to no avail. After a long period of house hunting, he stumbled upon one on one fine day. It was a typical home of a rich Baba of a century ago with a big courtyard in the middle. “I went in there and it was exactly what I wanted.” The notion of recreating history was on his mind. When he found out that the place was owned, it was bound to be a disappointment. Unexpectedly, the buyer turned out to be a long lost friend. The encounter then makes up the spectrum of possibility, the deal was done on the same day.
“I took the antiques to come back to Penang. They should return home. These things should stay where they belong.” It was tremendous joy, to be able to live out his peranakan fantasy in this old house he restored. This was his first project in Georgetown. Clove Hall was born in 2009, and then more, one was born every year after.
Even in Georgetown, Seven Terraces stood out as an aesthetic anomaly when it opened. The seven shophouses and its carefully curated interior was nothing short of extravagance — Chinese carved-wood panels and English floor tiles, ultimately unmoored to a time or place. Genuine pieces are being displayed because in Ong’s words, “they should be treasured”. Ong was ushered in an era of fascination with Nyonya cuisine, all well-reflected in the hotel’s bespoke restaurant — Kebaya.
“This street owes so much to Christopher,” one of the shop owners (on Muntri Street) told me.
Georgetown is certainly glad to have you back. ◆
Gallery photo credit: Seven Terraces