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Travel & Holiday

Getaway in a piece of Ipoh history

Architect adds another eccentric gem to chain of lovingly restored offbeat guesthouses
The Sunday Times - May 20, 2012
By: Carolyn Hong
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Getaway in a piece of Ipoh history Mr Ng's Sekeping Kong Heng guesthouse in Ipoh. -- PHOTO: NG SEK SAN

With yellow paint peeling off its walls and a tree growing inside, it looks like an abandoned building.

Welcome to Sekeping Kong Heng, the latest in the family of eclectic guesthouses built by one of Malaysia's best-known landscape architects Ng Sek San, 52.

Opened a few months ago, the guesthouse in the heart of old Ipoh is already attracting fans of Mr Ng's offbeat work.

Located above one of Ipoh's best-known coffee shops, the former hostel for Chinese opera performers was falling into ruin when Mr Ng and his friends rescued it three years ago.

They turned it into the seventh guesthouse in the Sekeping family that has become a hit with Malaysians and foreigners.

Sekeping means 'a piece' in Malay.

The guesthouses are not just eccentric but also located anywhere Mr Ng finds a building that intrigues him. They include two in the swanky neighbourhood of Bangsar, another in a working-class area in Kuala Lumpur, one in a forest next to an Orang Asli village, and one in an abandoned warehouse in Penang.

Despite the guesthouses' odd locations and distinct disregard for creature comforts, they pull in a steady stream of visitors. The Bangsar guesthouses are often fully booked, and on average, the occupancy rate is 60 per cent.

Singaporeans make up a substantial number of lodgers, said Mr Ng.

Mr Ng, who is better known for his work on swish condominiums in Mont Kiara and Bangsar, as well as the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre and Kuala Lumpur City Centre park, among others, said that he never intended to open guesthouses.

His first project, Sekeping Serendah in a forest in the Selangor foothills, was a weekend getaway for his family and friends.

It opened to the public only four years later in 2004, and Mr Ng suddenly found a new hobby.

'I like to save some of these old buildings that nobody puts any architectural value to, industrial buildings like warehouses. They are beautiful but nobody preserves them. The attention is concentrated on the ornately decorated pre-war shophouses,' he said.

He started searching for buildings like warehouses in the last few years, or derelict abandoned buildings. His biggest finds were two former tin foundries in Perak which he painstakingly dismantled into thousands of pieces, to be transported to the Sekeping Serendah site in Selangor.

It all sounds madly expensive but Mr Ng insists that his style of restoration is cheap. Derelict buildings also come cheap, and anyway, he said, the projects are not about making money.

'It's driven by a desire to experiment with building accommodation that is slightly offbeat. For me, it's about testing architectural ideas and pushing some of it to the limits,' he said.

So the guesthouses come with quirky touches like glass bedrooms suspended from the ceilings, or bathrooms with trees growing inside, or even suspended beds that can be lowered at night.

They are, in short, as quirky as Mr Ng, who never allows himself to be photographed by the media.

An Ipoh boy, he is also well known for his trenchant political views honed from his university years in New Zealand. He supports the electoral reform movement Bersih and Occupy Dataran, an ongoing encampment on Kuala Lumpur's historic Merdeka Square. He cycles regularly around Kuala Lumpur, dressed in an understated pair of shorts, T-shirt and a hat.

He is now seeking to build his eighth and last guesthouse in Ubud, Bali, likely to be called Sekeping Perestenan.

All the guesthouses are built from material recycled from other abandoned houses or scrapyards. And Mr Ng does not believe in slapping on fresh paint to hide their heritage.

For the newly opened Sekeping Kong Heng in Ipoh, he scoured the demolition site of colonial-era government quarters in Kuala Lumpur. Hundreds of doors and windows were salvaged and used in the Ipoh guesthouse.

'I want people to experience for themselves the intrinsic qualities, and history of these buildings. That's why we don't repaint them. I don't believe in that. We want them to experience the history, and the layers of it,' he said.

That is why a tree that grows in an abandoned building is not touched - 'it's part of its history, we shouldn't chop it down'.

But after Bali, he wants to take a long break. 'I am really tired,' he said.

There will be no more new Sekeping guesthouses, for now.

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