If you ask older Penangites about the once-famous Loke Thye Kee restaurant on Jalan Burma chances are you would hear how it was the place to be in the good old days. "It was a lovely and big Hainanese restaurant, somewhere you took your date to if you wanted to impress her or go to have dinner with family or friends for the food. It was really an icon in those days," says retiree Anthony Lim, 75, who was born in Penang but moved to Kuala Lumpur in the mid-1980s.
The restaurant, also known to many as Loke Hai Kee, was said to be the oldest in Penang, starting operations in 1919. Loke Thye Kee means House of Happiness in Chinese (see side story) and operated from a 3-storey building on Jalan Burma from 1929 to 1996.
The same year it shut its doors, the owner sold the building and some surrounding properties to a developer. If there were any plans for the buildings, they didn't happen and the buildings were left as they were.
The following year, the Rent Control Act was repealed, but it took another five years before it was enforced in 2002. The repeal of the Act eventually sent prices of pre-war buldings in George Town surging.It took another five years for a change in the fate of the buildings, with the entry of 1919 Global Sdn Bhd in 2007. That year, the company — owned by a Singapore family — acquired the Jalan Burma building and the surrounding properties, including the former Majestic Theatre.
The Loke Thye Kee building, Majestic Theatre building comprising the cinema and 12 shophouses, and another five shophouses fronting Jalan Penang offer a total gross floor area of about 34,000 sq ft, Jonathan Foo, director of 1919 Global, tells City & Country.
There are plans to refurbish the properties into serviced apartments and commercial retail space, with the refurbishment of the Loke Thye Kee building already completed. The name of the company, incidentally, is derived from the year the Loke Thye Kee restaurant, formerly run by the Loy family, first opened for business. It moved to the Jalan Burma premises in 1929.
Says Foo, "The restoration was completed in December last year. It took us about eight months but of course there was a lot of planning before that. We felt the building has a lot of history and is a Penang icon. If you look at the location in downtown Penang, all roads lead to Loke Thye Kee and so everyone has to pass by it. For many years, it was an eyesore.
"We actually met up with the fourth generation of the Loy family, the grandson of one of the founders, and he told us a lot of stories of how they started the business. They even gave us old photos and cutlery that were used in the restaurant. We also have the original investment agreement among the partners. He was very happy to share the history of Loke Thye Kee."
Take a walk around the building today and you can imagine how it must have been in its heyday.
The 3-storey building sits on 3,500 sq ft, with its built-up measuring 8,282 sq ft.
In the refurbishment, about 80% of the geometric floor tiles were cleaned and restored, with the damage portions replaced with customised cement tiles from Vietnam.
The partially covered rooftop on the third floor gives visitors a lovely view of the historic city.
Says Foo, "The restoration of the Loke Thye Kee building marks the launch of a series of developments we have planned. We also felt it was the most iconic of all the three parcels we have acquired. We see people have responded well to it. We wanted to create something that was true to its heritage yet complements the modern setting. We brought in air conditioning and other modern elements yet maintained the classical look by keeping to a lot of the original design, colours, and architectural lines. We moved panels that actually revealed original arches, for example."
The restored building has been leased to Food People Sdn Bhd. A bistro is operating on the ground floor while the first and second floors are used for exhibitions and functions.
"We're very excited about the potential of our next developments. The cluster of our developments is situated just at the corner of the buffer zone of the Penang Heritage Zone," says Foo, 40.
The 1919 Global director has a rather interesting résumé, including being a film director who has been in the media business for the past 20 years. He has to date completed nine feature films, including Song of the Stork, a film about the Vietnam War, which won the Best Feature Film award at the Milano Film Festival in September 2002.
He is currently lecturing at the Singapore Institute of Management University, or SIM University. He teaches and develops media programmes for the university via the family's education business called Creative Media Academy, which was set up last year.
"I love restoring old properties. It is just a different outlet of creativity. It is satisfying when you start off with a building that was an eyesore, a place that people did not dare to enter any more and then transforming it into something new and usable again," he says.
"I think the satisfaction is wonderful. It is like when you produce a movie and after the toiling and sweating, you finally complete the movie and do your premiere screening. It's the same thing with property. You start off with very raw material, then you bring in the craftsmen, designers, builders. There's so much hard work that goes in before you can reveal the beauty of the building. The feeling is great and we're really looking forward to the next phase."
Foo is involved in the design aspects of all the properties. "Particularly with old properties, you have to be very involved. It is not just something you pay a professional to do, you've got to go in, smell it and listen to the building. You can't just look at drawings. We go into the buildings, sit down, listen and look around … the answers will start to form somehow. We have to focus on what we have and understand what needs to be done while respecting how they were built in the past using the materials used. This is our first time in the property field and it has been interesting and satisfying so far."
Foo's mother is from Penang and he spent a lot of his childhood there. "But we never really delved into the culture and heritage, so it has been a steep learning curve for us. We have to look at it from the business approach as well," he says.
"It was a good lesson in history and we talked to a lot of people, dug up as much materials as we could, to understand the properties we have. I think we are quite proud of what we did. True to the spirit of this [Loke Thye Kee] building, we were able to bring life into that part of the building again," he adds.
"When we came upon this property six years ago, it was before [the city was awarded] the Unesco World Heritage status. At that time, we saw that the older properties in Penang were not in great shape and property prices were bottoming. There was no clear direction of the old George Town area but my father saw great potential in all these buildings and felt Penang has a bright future. Today, many view Penang positively, with tourism and medical tourism growing.
"When we took over the properties in 2007, it was more of wait-and-see as the financial crisis happened in 2008. As things picked up in the last three years, we decided it was a very good time for us to start developing the properties."
The Majestic Theatre (14,000 sq ft) and the 12 shophouses opposite will be developed into The Majestic Penang, with retail on the ground floor and serviced residences above. Foo says the plan is to lease the retails units.
The building has a height restriction of five storeys while the original building has two storeys. Plans call for luxury suites offering modern studio spaces, rooftop suites with private terraces and premium loft suites.
"We are currently working with designers and architects on this project but our initial plans would be about 50 to 80 rooms, but it depends on the design," says Foo.
The other five shophouses (behind Loke Thye Kee) will be turned into 10 to 12 serviced apartments for lease, known as Loke Thye Kee Residences. However, he is unable to reveal details of the plans pending approvals. The whole project is expected to be completed within two years.
"Being heritage properties, we have to maintain the façade. We are looking at the possibilities of extending the rear part of the building. Externally, we will restore it to its nice colonial look and retain the original structure but internally, it will be modern," says Foo.
"At this point, we will build it as though we will run it but we are in talks with various property consultants to look at what options are available for us." He is aiming for around RM500 a night per room for both serviced apartments, pitching them as value-for-money accommodation offering five-star service.
Foo says Penang already has a good selection of boutique hotels within the heritage zone.
"Many heritage hotels have brought back old-style furnishings and decor, and they are very nice, but we do not believe that is always necessary. Through the restoration of the Loke Thye Kee building, we have shown our respect for heritage buildings. With our other two properties, we want to show a different face to the concept of heritage restoration. The idea is that you do not always have to look at an old building and make it seem old. We have a piece of Penang heritage but we also want to create a new Penang heritage — a mix of the old and the new. While the façade and the history are there, we are going to bring new functionality into the building.
"We will definitely maintain the DNA of the building, but we also believe there are a lot of tourists and guests that want something that is very modern. We are promising a surprise for the market," he says.
On the rising demand for boutique hotels in Penang, Foo says tourist numbers to Malaysia have doubled over the last decade. "Of the 25 million tourists to the country in 2012, there were three million foreign hotel guests in Penang. On top of that, medical tourism is also growing. I think there is great potential for us."
This story first appeared in The Edge weekly edition of Apr 15 - 21, 2013.