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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

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The grandest hotel in the east

Tags: Travel
The Jewish cemetery

Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel recently charmed filmgoers with a nostalgic look at the glory days of a mythical grand hotel in an unnamed country. Travellers in search of a genuine grand hotel experience can still discover special hostelries that deserve the appellation “grand.” One such gem is the Eastern and Oriental Hotel, in George Town, Penang, sister hotel to The Raffles in Singapore and The Strand in Yangon.  

Amid the island’s tropical heat and lively cultural scene, the E&O – as it’s always referred to – looms elegantly at 10 Farquhar Street, an oasis of elegance and calm since 1885. Its new extension, the Victory Annexe, is a colonial-themed five-star establishment, but for historical hotel buffs, the original wing (restored in 1996) is the place to stay.

Entering the marble lobby with its interior dome, bouquets of fresh flowers, and welcoming staff effectively closes the door on the world outside. We’re home. Some visitors may feel more at home than others, naturally. London architect Ben Grand, born in Penang in 1935, used to visit the hotel when his parents took him here for a haircut. For three E&O visits running, we’ve chatted with Ben and his wife Ria, as we sun by a pool tucked in an enclave symbolically guarded by two cannons from Fort Cornwallis, a 1788 British fortification. 

On a recent February morning the Star, a local tabloid, carried a story (“Keeping the Jewish Heritage Alive in George Town”) featuring the visit of Abraham Jacobs, a 90-year-old former fighter pilot, who left Penang 40 years ago, but returns each year to pay his respects at the Jewish cemetery, resting place of both his father and eldest son.

“It’s like paying respects during qing ming ”the Star quoted Jacobs as saying as he swept the graves – a reference to an annual Chinese festival of “tomb-sweeping.” 

The Jewish cemetery’s oldest gravestone dates back almost 180 years, with the burial of Mrs Shoshan Levi who died on July 9, 1835. Three years ago, David “Mordy” Mordecai, longtime and much-loved general manager of the E&O, was laid to rest here, the last of Penang’s resident Jewish community. 

“We all went to his funeral,” says Loh-Lim Lin Lee, who, with her architect husband, Lawrence Loh, is renowned for the passionate restoration of Penang’s heritage properties, especially the Cheong Fatt Tze or “Blue Mansion,” on Leith Street, not far from the E&O.

This Penang landmark, a former tin millionaire’s home, is now an upscale bed and breakfast and appears on everyone’s must-see Penang list for its rare Chinese art motifs and perfect Feng Shui. The couple’s second major project was the restoration of Suffolk House, the “country” property of Penang’s 18th century founder, Sir Francis Light. Long a neglected ruin, guests can now dine at Suffolk House in surroundings reminiscent of a grand European rather than a Far Eastern capital.

Founded by the English, Penang has a population today that’s largely Hokkien-speaking Chinese, but the former Free State’s original cultural mix included Armenians, Jews, South Indians, Malays, Thais, Burmese, Eurasians and a unique group called Peranakan (baba-nonya),  formed by intermarriage. This unique subculture has its own distinctive customs, dress and cuisine. 

The Jews are visitors now. The old synagogue is a photography studio. The community’s last representative, David Mordecai, was fondly called “Uncle Mordy” by Ben Grand, although he was in fact a second cousin. In the lobby of the E&O’s new wing, we discover the hotel’s museum, a treasure trove of memories of glory days, when everyone who could afford it celebrated their special occasions at the E&O. Three-year-old Ben is there, in one of many vintage photos.  His father was also Penang-born (the family originally came from Austria)  and he married a woman of Iraqi Jewish descent, achieving success as the agent for Phillips radios, until the postwar Communist insurgency cut him off from his clients for five long years.

Ben reminds us to look at the old Rolls Royce parked outside the Penang State Museum on Farquhar Street. Its bullet-scarred exterior is evidence of the Communist assassination of the British High Commissioner in 1951. During these tough times, there was no money for Ben’s schooling in England, so he did his national service, choosing the air force, he smiles, “because I liked the uniform.” Eventually he became a success in architecture. Ben and Ria have been coming back to Penang for two month-holidays since the 1990s. They always stay at the E&O.

Like so much of the island, the E&O was created by newcomers. It was the brainchild of four Armenian brothers, the Sarkies, who built their hotel overlooking the Straits of Malacca. It boasted a fancy dining room, a bar, and a ballroom. Naturally British high teas were served (they still are). The stone sea wall, at 275 metres, was the longest in the world. When the youngest Armenian brother, bon vivant Arshak, took over, the E&O had few rivals.

The hotel not only attracted colonials – rubber planters and the like – in search of an elegant evening, but also travelers such as writer Hermann Hesse, who called the E&O “the most beautiful hotel for Europeans that I came across in the East Indies.” Noel Coward – inspired by his colonial travels to write Mad Dogs and Englishmen – famously appeared on the E&O terrace in his silk tennis whites. Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham and Rita Hayworth were also among the legendary guests. Booker winner Peter Carey is a big fan of Penang.

Hot and bustling, George Town is so rich in history that in 2008 it was awarded (along with Melaka), UNESCO World Heritage status. Its warren of charming streets, wealth of British colonial architecture Chinese clan houses, jetties, and temples – together with what’s been called the best street food on the planet – has made the city a tourist favourite. The UNESCO designation has lately led to an infusion of chic: coffee houses, a camera museum and high-end eateries.

Yet 30-odd years ago, George Town and even its grand hotel seemed doomed by the rapid development overtaking much of the island. Efforts to keep up appearances at the E&O had led to some unfortunate decorative experiments with cement – including lounge chairs and tables – and neighbours like the Blue Mansion were being used as tenements, with motorbikes parked on the beautiful old floors.

Then Penang’s grand hotel was restored – its hidden dome uncovered, its old entrance revealed – and soon the Blue Mansion too emerged in all its brightness. It seemed the heritage movement had won the day. Ironically, there’s some worry among Old Penang hands of creeping “gentrification” as real estate prices soar while high-end restaurants and expensive B&Bs pop up almost weekly. But at the grand old E&O, where windows still open onto the blue Straits of Malacca, and the breakfast buffet remains magnificent, gentrification isn’t an insult, but a compliment. 

More information:  Penang Heritage Trust, www.pht.org.my, offers information on all aspects of Penang Heritage, plus walking tours; Eastern&Oriental Hotel, www.  www.eohotels.com; The Blue Mansion, www.cheongfatttzemansion.com; Suffolk House, www.suffolkhouse.com




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