City&Country: Cover Story-- ‘Epic journey’

The 15-minute drive from the airport in Bayan Lepas to Weld Quay in the heart of George Town, Penang, transports us into a world of colonial buildings and pre-war shophouses. Most of these buildings appear well maintained and some of them have been refurbished to house banks, restaurants, teahouses and the random moneychanger.

Our trip to the island was specifically to visit the site of a project by Asian Global Business Sdn Bhs (AGB) called The Rice Miller Hotel & Residences near the old harbour, flanked by the well known banking street called Beach Street and Weld Quay.

The developer has been in the news over the last few years, particularly since George Town was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in July 2008.

The Rice Miller Hotel & Residences site lies in the city’s core heritage zone. This means preliminary designs and development plans drawn up before the Unesco World Heritage Site status have to be reviewed to comply with requirements and regulations governing the architecture of a heritage site, including height restrictions. There was a 13-storey building in AGB’s initial plan but its height has since been reduced to five storeys in compliance with the new regulations.

Indeed, getting the project off the ground has been a baptism of fire for AGB and its lady captains chairman Kate Lim and managing director Dr Noraini Abdullah, who are literally taking maiden steps into the realm of property development.

The three-acre site consists of four adjoining tracts of freehold land, most of which belonged to the Lim family while the rest was acquired from previous owners.

AGB’s journey thus far has been full of challenges, says Lim. “An epic journey, really,” she smiles. First, there were land ownership complications, even in the parcels belonging to the Lim family, which were settled only recently.

Lim tells City & Country that AGB generally accepted the changes that needed to be made to its initial plan. “Real estate business is all about location and we believe we have a great location for our project. There are numerous banks and various businesses. We were also able to inspire the neighbourhood because since we started this journey, new shops have opened here as well.”

The Rice Miller Hotel & Residences comprises a 48-suite boutique hotel, 99 low-rise serviced suites known as City Residences, a private club, gym, events hall, pool and spa. Also included are lifestyle restaurants, cafes and retail spaces as well as two office buildings. The total development value of the project is RM250 million.

The City Residences range from studio to 3-bedroom units with built-ups of 760 to 3,350 sq ft. They are priced from RM916,000 to RM3.5 million and have seen a 30% take-up rate to date. AGB is conducting marketing campaigns for the suites overseas, including in Singapore, Hong Kong and Jakarta.

As for the hotel suites of about 550 sq ft, the developer is looking at rates of about RM1,000 per night.

How it all began
Most of the site’s three acres had belonged to the Lim family — one of the island’s five “old families” — for more than 100 years.

Kate is the great granddaughter of Lim Choo Guan (1884-1901), the first rice miller in Penang and the inspiration for the name The Rice Miller Hotel & Residences (see accompanying story).
So, what prompted Kate to do the project? Fate, she says.

In 2004, Kate met Noraini — who was then working for Gamuda Bhd — at a charity golf event she had organised at the Kota Permai Golf & Country Club in Kota Kemuning, Shah Alam. She then asked Noraini to visit her family-owned land in Penang.

Says Noraini: “I remember standing in the empty plot in the middle of a row of buildings near the harbour and it felt like I was in a place where time had stood still since the 1960s. I had this feeling that this could be the place for something great … history-making if you like.”

Thus began their dream of turning the plot into an integrated waterfront resort development. Noraini says AGB respects the traditional urban character of the surrounding area and aims to restore the city’s sense of dignity and importance.

“We are looking at waterfront developments such as the London Docklands and Sydney Darling Harbour. In fact, in the empty waterfronts of Boston, New York and Baltimore, new housing has transformed wharves and crumbling old buildings into festival marketplaces,” Noraini says.

The Rice Miller Hotel & Residences will be built from the ground up in the infill portion of the tract. The rest of the site, comprising two adjacent godowns and one teahouse, will be refurbished and restored accordingly.

“We actually received offers from a group which wanted to turn the site into a retirement resort. We see The Rice Miller Hotel & Residences as a city resort close to the waterside and our buyers are above 45 years old. We want to celebrate Penang’s first settlers with our development.”

Who would be a typical guest or resident of The Rice Miller Hotel & Residences? Travellers who want to be spoilt and drink in the history of George Town and Penang, says Noraini. “There will be a market downstairs as well as restaurants, medical consultation services and retail spaces. Our guests can also ring for deliveries. As one grows older, they want to be close to the amenities, among other things. They can also walk to the old waterfront to enjoy the view or ask for a car to be driven around the city. We are also lobbying for a museum at the clock tower nearby. We are doing our bit to make George Town liveable and walkable while bringing back the Old World charm of Penang.”

When asked how she became involved, Kate admits that she “softly rolled into the whole project”. “As time passed, I became more committed to it and I think the project is very worthwhile. I am privileged to be a part of it. The people of Penang have the right to enjoy the coast of the island.”
The AGB office in Penang, manned mainly by female employees, looks more like a close-knit family operation. Kate and Noraini jokingly refer to the men in the office as “supporting cast”. Kate’s nephew, Matthew, is involved in the business as well.

The duo say they may extend the brand to other countries in the future. In January this year, AGB appointed Zinc | InVision Hospitality, a joint venture between Thailand-based InVision Hospitality and Singapore-based investment company Cinnovation | CG, to manage The Rice Miller Hotel & Residences. The development is slated for completion in 1Q2013.

The Rice Miller Hotel & Residences
During our walkabout amidst the rubble at the site, we visited one of the 2-storey godowns. 

The short walk to the entrance of the 1929 concrete godown and stepping into the 18,000 sq ft building itself proves quite exciting. Even the design of the stairs to the first floor is authentic.

Noraini says this godown will be conserved with the top floor to be converted into an event hall due to its spacious layout and high ceilings. It is not difficult to imagine elegantly dressed people walking up the wide stairs to the event hall to sip wine or tea while enjoying a recital or sit-down dinner.

The ground floor of the godown will be transformed  into an energy bar featuring golf simulators. The other godown will be converted into a Mediterranean restaurant. In fact, when completed, the whole development will feature as many as four restaurants.

The existing teahouse will be relocated within the development and continue to be operated by Yap and her husband Lim. City & Country is served some refreshing Chinese tea by the couple, who demonstrate traditional tea-making methods which are rather fascinating. The teahouse showcases countless sets of teapots and cups as well as a huge variety of tea leaves from China.

Sharing her story with us, Yap says she has been running teahouses for about 27 years. “I moved to this area [Beach Street] in 2004 at the advice of my feng shui master who said it would be good for my business as there will be some new developments here. It was pretty quiet back then but now things are picking up and there seem to be more offices/businesses here.”

A few shops away from the teahouse is licensed money changer Shahjahan Mohamad Ibrahim. Having been in the business for about 40 years now, Shahjahan says he is very excited about The Rice Miller Hotel & Residences as he expects it to positively impact the surrounding area and businesses.

Jalan Beach that Thursday afternoon is pretty hectic. Walking around the area with Noraini and observing her interaction with the business owners is enough to show the bond they have established over the years. “We are very happy and grateful for the moral support we have been getting from the merchants and the community here,” she smiles.

The Rice Miller Hotel & Residences may be AGB’s first venture into property development and the hospitality business but the businesses in the area and investors are looking forward to the development envisioned to elevate that part of George Town to a new level.


The original rice miller

Kate Lim’s great grandfather Lim Choo Guan was the founder of the first rice mill in Penang. According to Streets of George Town Penang by Khoo Su Nin, Choo Guan was given up to a Phuah family for adoption because the Lim family was very poor then. Thereon, he was known as Phuah Hin Leong.

In fact, a road in George Town is named after Phuah. His was a rags-to-riches story of an early Chinese immigrant from Nanyang.

Phuah worked as a boatman ferrying goods and passengers across the channel. The frugal man owned some mills and the first mill stood where Komtar now stands. He also invested in the development of a number of godowns (including the ones on the proposed The Rice Miller Hotel & Residences project site).

Phuah’s children, however, were given his original surname. According to the book, when Phuah died in 1901, he was one of the wealthiest Chinese in Penang.


This article appeared in City & Country, the property pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 858, May 16-22, 2011

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