City&Country: Tudor-style homes in the highlands

A new high-end development was recently launched in Cameron Highlands, one of Malaysia’s favourite holiday destinations, known for its cool weather, fresh fruits and vegetables. The project, called the Royal Chateau, is coming up on a 2.3-acre tract next to YTL Corp’s Cameron Highlands Resort, between the towns of Tanah Rata and Brinchang.

The developer is Ritz Garden Highlands Resort Sdn Bhd.  The owner and managing director, Bob Chai, runs two hotels in Ipoh — Ritz Garden Hotel and Ritz Kowloon Hotel.

Royal Chateau is his first residential development.

Chai’s journey to get to where he is today is an interesting story.

An interior designer by training, he became a manufacturer and then a hotelier, before venturing into property development.

When Chai returned from London in the 1960s, he realised that there was not much demand in Malaysia at that time for interior designers.

He had spent six years in Dublin and London, but ended up working in the sales division of his father’s tapioca factory in Chemor, Perak. He remained with the family firm for more than six years.

“Then, I received a call from a friend working in Kuala Lumpur to set up a design company. I told him I would only join him if there was actually a job. He managed to find one and so, I set up a furniture factory in Puchong in 1974, specifically for the fit-out business,” he explains.

Chai says the years spent working in his father’s factory did him good as he managed to learn a lot about running a business.

His big break came when he was in his 30s in 1976. His company was selected for a RM27 million contract to fit out Genting Highlands Resort in Pahang. The job covered 18 floors of hotel rooms and facilities, including the revolving restaurant, casino and convention hall.

Chai was also involved in the Awana Hotel Apartments in Genting Highlands, Tanjung Jara Resort in Terengganu, Club Med in Cherating, Subang Sheraton Hotel, Federal Hotel, The Andaman in Langkawi, Melia Hotel and The Palace of the Golden Horses in Kuala Lumpur.

Things were going well until the recession hit in 1986.

“There I was with a whole lot of furniture for a five-star hotel. The company owed me RM4 million but was unable to pay. I made a decision to hand over my factory in Puchong to the government, transported all the furniture to Ipoh and went back to helping out at the tapioca factory.

“After some time, I found that a 65-room hotel was up for rent in Ipoh and I decided to take the offer as I had the furniture all ready. Ritz Garden Hotel opened in 1989/90. The rent was not very high and we did some renovations. We ran it for a good 12 to 13 years until the owners decided to sell the building. We then bought a 40-room hotel and added an additional block at the back with 100 rooms — that’s where Ritz Garden Hotel is now,” he explains.

In 1998, Ritz Garden Hotel in Taman Seputeh, Kuala Lumpur, was built in a joint venture with Sima Group. After running the hotel for six months, he and his JV partner decided to sell the hotel when the 1998 recession hit.

Today, Chai, a father of three, owns the Ritz Garden Hotel and Ritz Kowloon Hotel in Ipoh, both of which enjoy an average occupancy of 70%. He is looking for land in Kuantan to expand the business, as well as for a 200-room hotel in Kuala Lumpur.

Asked to state the biggest lesson he has learnt so far, he says the recession and the problems he faced in getting to where he is today turned out to be a blessing in disguise: “Without the recession and the decision to transport all my furniture back to Ipoh, I might never have ventured into the hotel business. I enjoy what I do ... it feels like a holiday as I get to spend a few days a week in Ipoh and then I go up to Cameron Highlands for a few days.”

Chai is excited about The Royal Chateau.“I bought the land in 1992 and waited for the Simpang Pulai link [to Cameron Highlands] to be completed. Initially, I wanted to build a hotel with six-star facilities.

It took 15 years for the Simpang Pulai link to be completed. “I changed my mind and decided to build eight units of luxury bungalows, each with its own unique European design. I love Cameron Highlands ... the cool weather reminds me of the UK,” says Chai.

“I consider the project to be more of a hobby. I was looking to do something different, something I could design, build and manage myself,” he adds.

The bungalows come with individual lifts, heated swimming pool, steam/sauna room and jacuzzi. The layout offers a choice of four or seven rooms, with built-ups from 5,000 sq ft to 8,381 sq ft. Priced from RM2.6 million to RM3.7 million, the gated and guarded development was launched on March 25. The project will be attractive to avid golfers as it faces a public golf course.

Construction started four months ago, Chai says. He expects  good response for the Tudor-style bungalows as Cameron Highlands is constantly packed, especially during school holidays, and will remain a favourite among families.

He has plans for a 2-storey hotel and perhaps even a mall near the Royal Chateau after the bungalows are completed. Plans are still in the initial stage, but he is thinking of a 3-storey mall, with a semi-high-end boutique and amusement centre, which will be leased out.

For now, the developer is taking things one step at a time.


This article appeared in City & Country, the property pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 853, Apr 11-17, 2011

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