MALACCA - Old houses have souls, and I don’t mean ghosts! There is so much history in them, waiting to be discovered.”
That’s the answer from David Chang, when asked about the appeal of pre-war buildings.
Chang, 44, and his business partner Lum Heng Soon, 43, own three luxury guesthouses in Malacca. The first, called 45 Lekiu, was opened in 2010, followed by The Stable and Opposite Place.
“All our properties are beautiful pre-war buildings that – through either neglect or haphazard renovations – have lost their identity. It amazes me what you find once you start tearing down the extensions and scrape off the layers of paintwork.
“Restoring and refurbishing these wonderful buildings is a romantic love affair for me. To see them in their glorious former state and be able to share them with our guests is very gratifying,” enthuses Pahang-born Chang.
“After my tertiary education, I was managing one of Sydney’s best known boutique hotels. It was my wish then to own something similar,” says Chang, who graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Sociology) from La Trobe University Melbourne, Australia.
“Now I am able to fulfil that dream of running boutique guesthouses where luxury and chic come hand in hand.”
When he’s not busy with the guesthouses, Chang works as a freelance fashion stylist for TV commercials.
Not surprisingly, Chang’s work in fashion has influenced his aesthetics when it comes to the properties.
“A fashion stylist creates a story through clothes, props, photography and lighting; every shoot tells a different story,” explains Chang.
“The same applies to the guesthouses, which bring you back to a bygone era of a pre-war period; albeit a more comfortable and luxurious one. We strive to recreate the glamour of the period with details like romantic louvre windows and doors, Baba and Nyonya furnishing, imposing chandeliers and charming courtyards.”
As a fashion stylist, attention to details is crucial during a shoot, according to Chang.
“I apply the same rule when managing the guesthouses – the placement of the towels, the mood of lighting in the rooms, the choice of artwork and sculptures – every minor detail needs to be in place to enhance the enjoyment of our guest.”
Chang adds: “When I am on shoots, reacting quickly to potential problems is crucial. This problem solving reflex also applies to the day-to-day running of the guesthouses.”
As his properties are relatively small, the daily operation is fairly easy. “We pride ourselves in giving guests their privacy, therefore we do not intrude on them. They are given the keys and shown around the property and after that, we leave them alone to enjoy themselves. Unless they require something, we do not intrude except for housekeeping chores. As such, we only need a small army of staff to keep the places running.”
Occupying a pre-war 1941 Art Deco building, 45 Lekiu has three levels which are meticulously restored, with two bedrooms. Guests get the full run of the property which feature a tranquil lap pool, a spacious bathroom (complete with bath tub) and an inspired mix of contemporary pieces and centuries-old furnishing (including a Chinese opium bed).
The Stable – as its moniker suggests – was previously used as a horse stable for wealthy merchants. The space is decorated with pop art posters, mid-century and Oriental furnishings. Opposite Place is situated directly opposite 45 Lekiu; it features two individually appointed rooms and a cafe on the ground floor.
“45 Lekiu and The Stable have been operating for a few years and are rather established in the market,” explains Chang.
“Opposite Place is relatively new so we are putting our efforts into promoting this property before we start thinking about expansion.”
When it comes to his working relationship with Lum, Chang says: “We have been friends for about 20 years. We got to know each other from our commercial shoots where I did the styling and he did the art direction.”
Chang manages the staff and marketing while Lum keeps an eye on the upkeep of the guesthouses.
“There is no clear definition of our roles, as our responsibilities often overlap. We also have a wonderful hotel manager to help us with the daily running,” muses Chang.
“We play our parts well, so the working relationship is a mutually beneficial one,” concurs Lum, who designs props and sets for TV productions.
Asked to name the most challenging aspect of running the guesthouses, Lum replies: “The maintenance of wooden structures is in itself a challenge. As the wood constantly deteriorates, we have to replace them; if we replace them with concrete, the charm is lost.”
Chang adds: “The main challenge is to keep guests happy so that they stay with us again the next time they are in Malacca.”
Speaking of the historial city, Chang – who is based in Kuala Lumpur – regularly travels to Malacca to check on his properties.
“A favourite place of mine in Malacca is the Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum which showcases the Peranakan heritage. I also walk around the heritage area to see what treasures I can find or afford at the antique shops.”
Otherwise Chang prefers to while away the hours in one of his luxurious guesthouses. And who can blame him?