Multicultural Malaysia has an astonishingly rich architectural heritage, but sadly little is being preserved. Now Australian Narelle McMurtrie is hoping to save the country’s pre-war buildings, one hotel at a time.



In years gone by, visitors to Malaysia could tell a lot about the kampong, or village, by the style of its houses. Not just in size and stature, kampong houses varied significantly from state to state. Mid Peninsula houses, for example, were characterized by wings jutting out from the roof; Malacca houses were often shaded in candy colours; south-west Peninsula houses had two roof pitches. Tired of watching this architectural legacy disappear under the blade of a bulldozer, Australian interior-designer-turned-hotelier Narelle McMurtrie reclaimed and restored eight early 20th century kampong houses from around Langkawi, the largest island in Malaysia’s Langkawi archipelago. Reassembled overlooking a lagoon on Langkawi’s east coast, the resulting Bon Ton Resort, opened in 1996, offers visitors a glimpse of the country’s rich heritage. Now McMurtrie has set her sights upon showcasing the country’s architectural diversity at the recently opened Temple Tree, a jumble of nine colonial-era houses collected from across the Malay Peninsula, set around a Taoist shrine adjoining the Bon Ton property.

Since Malacca and the old British port of George Town on Penang were granted World Heritage status in 2008, “restoration” has become a hot topic across Malaysia. Interest in colonial architecture is booming. For some, this carries the promise of a quick buck; UNESCO and the Penang government are currently brawling with developers over plans to turn the early 19th century waterfront Boustead Holdings building into an 18-story hotel and the adjacent Rice Miller building into a 50-story tower. Both developments would contravene World Heritage obligations, and UNESCO is threatening to strip the town of its heritage status as a result. For others, including McMurtrie, this spotlight offers a chance to breathe new life into the country’s historical buildings. In George Town’s old quarter McMurtrie opened her 110 Armenian Street hotel last September. The charming four-roomed hotel occupies a 110-year-old Chinese shop front on one of the town’s best preserved roads. Although it’s beautifully decorated with period furniture- a Chinese artists table with green sandstone inlay, a collection of Chinese leather chests and a 150-year-old day bed- it’s riddled with the quirks of time. The wooden and ceramic furniture is uncomfortable and the glassless shuttered windows offer little noise protection from the street below.

Similarly, McMurtrie’s goal with Temple Tree was to faithfully reassemble the nine houses she collected from across the country- their structures either destined for demolition or on the verge of collaps- foibles and all. She hired a team of carpenters specializing in restoring antique furniture to disassemble the buildings at their source and then transplanting them to Langkawi where they were meticulously reassembled, piece by piece, on a site adjacent to Bon Ton over a period of 18 months.

“The houses would arrive as big bundles of planks and framing. It was just like a big jigsaw puzzle,” says McMurtrie, a slight woman with a mop of platinum blonde hair. “We rebuilt them being as faithful to their originals as possible- without allocating rooms or putting in the electricity or plumbing. We wanted to let the houses speak for themselves. If the original house had a small bedroom and huge closet, then so be it.”

McMurtrie first moved to Kuala Lumpur from Sydney in the late 1980’s to sell Sheridan linen. Arriving in the middle of a recession, it was a sideline serving cake and coffee to shoppers that really took off, prompting her to buy an old Malay house and turn it into a restaurant. The cuisine- a hearty blend of Nonya with Pacific Rim, or what McMurtrie calls “Western with spice”- became an instant hit and Bon Ton Restaurant blossomed into one of Kuala Lumpur’s most popular eateries. A second restaurant followed (in a refurbished Malacca shophouse) and then a third, on Langkawi, which today sits amid guest rooms at Bon Ton. There are more restorations on the horizon; McMurtrie recently bought four co-joining Chinese shop-houses on Armenian street in Penang which she intends to turn into a small hotel.

Back on Langkawi, McMurtrie has arranged the nine houses into a grid, somewhat how they would have appeared in their origin. The only exception is the Chinese House, which was sourced from a farm in Johor Bahru, and now overlooks an infinity edge pool and lily-filled lake. Hotel life revolves around the Straits Club House, the reception area with restaurant serving the same excellent food as Bon Ton- think chicken tikka wrapped in pita, Malacca style laksa, grilled houlimi and dips. The, library, TV room (with the only network reception in the resort) and private dining room bundled into an airy colonial style building that was built by a British family living in Penang in the 1930’s. The house has wide verandas and elaborate wooden carvings that allowed the air to flow between rooms, while inside, peaked ceilings and butter-coloured walls give it a distinctly colonial feel.

The guest houses brim with similar characteristics. The Chinese/ Malay House boasts circular hand-carved air vents, each more decorative than the last. From the wide verandah of the Chinese House, guests can enjoy views over the surrounding mountains. The 1920’s Colonial House, once home to wealthy gold traders from Penang, has hand-painted floor tiles, a fish-scale lattice balcony and exposed-beam ceilings. The glossy exterior of the Black and White House, dating back to the 1940’s, is complemented by windows studded with panes of colored glass. The 80-year-old, turquoise hued Penang House, plucked from Guerney Drive on the neighboring island of Penang, has wonderful British accents – reminiscent of an Art Deco cottage, but adapted for the tropics with shuttered windows and wooden floorboards. It sits in front of the sunflower yellow Ipoh House which dates back to 1903 and has elaborate wooden eaves. The rectangular shaped Estate House next door, with its cathedral ceilings and shady verandahs, was built to house Indian migrants working on the British Malaya rubber plantations.

Except for the Black and White building, each of the eight guest-houses is broken into individual rooms. Guests can rent the entire villa or check into a single room, each with their own bathroom facilities, with rain showers and wooden bath tubs. All rooms also have mini kitchens where breakfast provisions- bread, cake, fruit and yoghurt- are laid out the night before.

While the exteriors remain true to their origins, the interiors have been filled with McMurtrie’s retro beach-house-meets-Asian-chic furnishings. Rust-orange carpets are thrown over unpolished wooden floorboards, and modern leather sofas sit beside bespoke tribal baskets. Heavy antique benches glow beneath dainty crystal chandeliers, while other lamps sport vibrant vintage prints. And everywhere there are mountains of multi-colored cushions.

My favorite house is the Black and White one, a 1940s villa brought in from Mantin in the rural state of Negri Sembilan, south of Kuala Lumpur. Staying here is a bit like being treated to a weekend at the house of a wealthy friend. The stark white bedroom has a spongy four poster bed, Japanese-style wooden tub with antique fittings, and blood-red Chinese cupboards. An old bird cage sourced from a Penang market hangs in the corner. But it’s the airy living room that stands out: dramatic latticed air vents create patterns of light that fall across an antique marble dining table and Persian carpets.

The result is striking, although like 110 Armenian Street, the houses are not without their idiosyncrasies. The old wooden buildings can become stifling during the day: the slat windows don’t always close properly and lattice vents mean that the air conditioners spend as much time cooling the outside as they do the inside. In the Colonial House, the floorboards creak and the plumbing clunks. There are no telephones in the rooms, and as the Straits Club House doesn’t open until 9 a.m, you’re on your own through the night.

“It’s about offering a truly Malay experience” says McMurtrie, making no apologies for the property’s foibles. “People are fascinated to know what it was really like to live in a colonial house a hundred years ago; many Malay families check in so they can show their children a piece of their country’s heritage,” she adds. “We realize the houses have their quirks. But to gentrify them would defy the point.”

Temple Tree @ Bon Ton; Pantai Cenang, Langkawi;; +60 49551688; double rooms from $135.

This article appeared in the June/ July 2009 issue of DestinAsian Magazine.