the floorboards occasionally creak as one walks over them and even with the doors tightly closed, voices travel across the wooden landing and up the wooden staircase easily. far from being causes for concern, however, guests embrace these as part of the charms of living in a heritage building such as the one housing opposite place, a boutique hotel that was converted from one of the atypical 19th-century long, narrow shophouses that are ubiquitous in melaka’s jonker street area.
this third property by musang lena residences, founded by advertising art director soon lau and fashion stylist david chang, follows the success of their first two ventures that had won the hearts of many a visitor to the historical city. “45lekiu was our first foray into the hospitality industry, followed by the stable,” says david. “both properties are now rather established with returning guests and a steady flow of new clienteles. with 45lekiu being a high-end guesthouse and the stable targeting the lower range, we felt that we needed something in between.”
boutique bounty opposite place is composed of two separate rooms that face each other across a wooden landing that looks down into the courtyard. like their previous efforts, the hotel is hidden in plain sight, sandwiched by unassuming shops with no signboard on its facade – as if it doesn’t want to be found. look, instead, for eat@18 cafe, which occupies the ground floor of the two-storey shophouse, its entrance marked by wooden railings and a small gate. the front patio, paved with pebbles and a stone walkway, seats four guests at two small tables underneath hanging trellises of leafy plants. this semi-al fresco spot is one of four small dining areas; there are pub-style high tables inside, lined against the wall and along the bar-like open kitchen, that leads to the courtyard where mismatched tables and chairs offer a more chilled out environment. beyond that, a private dining room is reserved for functions and events.
diners are often unaware that above them sits a boutique hotel, accessed via a wooden staircase in the courtyard that’s part of the original fixtures of the building. “the property had been left unoccupied for a number of years when we took possession. it was stripped to its bare minimum but luckily, all of the original beams, floorboards and roof tiles were left untouched,” soon recalls.
in fact, the interiors were in fairly good condition, leaving little need for reconstruction except for the restoration of some broken pieces. old, unsightly paintwork on the wooden beams and floorboards were stripped clean to let the natural features reclaim their place in the spotlight. “the main facade of the building was also well preserved and needed just a fresh lick of paint. we were thus able to adhere to melaka’s laws for heritage buildings, in that nothing much was altered.”
maintaining the overall original structure, as stipulated by the strict regulations governing melaka’s built heritage, was thus a relatively easy task but this is an old building after all and one that was not meant to be a hotel. in transforming it into one, certain limitations arose. “the most frustrating part of the renovation was the plumbing work. there were no pipes or plumbing upstairs, at the front of the building where the west room is located. all the plumbing was at the back of the building and so we had to basically re-do all the piping work as well as add septic tanks in the building,” soon reveals, adding that the other challenge they faced was in adding two internal courtyards into the property, “as we wanted a green space. proper drainage was required and choosing the right foliage that will thrive in a semi-covered area is crucial. we made this work with the help of a landscape designer.”
the result is two patches of mini green lungs that punctuate the bricks-and-wood enclosure like breaths of fresh air. the first is a feature wall of creepers that forms the backdrop at eat’s courtyard dining area, the luscious greens a striking contrast to the bright orange eames style eiffel side chairs. the other nestles right toward the back of the ground floor, adjacent to the function room, from where you can get a full view through large glass windows that let the sunlight in.
contemporary luxury guests who have stayed at musang lena’s previous properties will identify with recurrent design elements such as the exposed brick walls that are original features that had been covered by plaster for years. now allowed to ‘breathe’ in their bare form, they frame the interiors throughout to create that raw, industrial backdrop that’s a recurrent theme throughout musang lena’s hotels.
in the west room, a muted palette and dim warm lights complements the nude walls with a tasteful mix of decor pieces that provides chic accents throughout the room: above the king-size bed, a monochrome portrait of tilda swinton hangs in the spotlight with more framed photographs above the oversized sofa parked against the facing wall. dressed like a suite, the first portion of the room is the living cum dining area, where a vintage chinese wall cabinet complements the dark marble table and a wooden chest that doubles as a low wardrobe, crowned by a life-sized deer sculpture.
the overall effect is one of restrained decadence that recalls 45lekiu (which is just across the road) but the bathroom takes it to another level. taking up almost half the room, a vintage murano chandelier takes centre stage above a clawed bathtub with the showers and toilets encased glass cubicles, and everything sits on a raised wooden platform. heavy velvet draperies offer privacy from the rest of the room if needed, or drawn to leave an open space as soon envisioned. “in order to maintain the fluidity of the room, we kept the floor uninterrupted, with no walls to break up the space. and in keeping with this concept, we decided to have the bathroom blend seamlessly with the bedroom.”
the spatial comfort is further enhanced by removing the attic, thus doubling the height in both rooms. where the west room has dark tones to bring out its opulent flair, east room is contrastingly airy and well-lit with a contemporary cinematic allure. “we wanted a room flooded with natural light but that still remains cosy. we created a long corridor of light with the use of louvered windows that can be opened to reveal the two courtyards downstairs,” soon explains. “we also wanted a hip youthful interior with the interior design so we added in a mix of vintage pasolini posters and mid century furniture juxtaposed by traditional chinese calligraphy.”
pops of colours brighten up the bedroom, in the posters and artworks plastered above the bed and a collection of hardcover books that are both decor and reading material. an entire collection of architecture and design journal domus – 12 issues dating from 1928 to 1999 – sits above a sleek retro cabinet facing the bed, with amenities like a flat screen television, mini bar and nespresso machine hiding behind sliding panels.
if you think west’s bathroom is a highlight, east’s version is definitely a talking point. walk through the original wooden door that separates it from the bedroom and your eyes will immediately be drawn to the end of the room. like the indoor dining area of eat@18, two tall chairs flank a small high table to afford a hangout spot, right next to a replica eames la chaise while wrap-around louvred shutters stream in soft light that’s partly filtered by dark bamboo blinds hanging outside.
at most hotels, the bathroom is simply a utility point and nothing more, an essential that doesn’t usually warrant more than a cursory mention. this, on the other hand, is a spot that you actually look forward to spending time in, an extension of the living area that doesn’t take away from it. “the bathrooms were design in such a way that you can be just as relaxed in the bathrooms as you would be in the rooms,” soon elaborates.
artisanal enjoyment rather than convert the ground floor into more rooms, the duo opted to have an in-house cafe to complete their hospitality offerings for guests at all their three hotels. “with the cafe, we are able to provide additional services that we were not able to do previously, like breakfast and in-room dining,” says david. “eat@18 also stocks a selection of fine wines and can cater for private dining for up to 20 people in the dining room.”
eat@18 is managed by eli lum, who also plays the role of caretaker for opposite place and guests check in with her. eli specialises in artisanal breads that are made of organic flour and free from preservatives or additives, which are sold in loaves and also incorporated into the hot food menu. previously based in kuala lumpur, she was a home baker and had a stall at the plaza mont kiara market on thursday nights and also supplied to jasons food hall at bangsar shopping centre. under her knead & simple label, eli also sold a variety of cookies.
the hot food, like the breads, are authentic and honest-to-goodness dishes that emphasise freshness and well-balanced flavours. staying guests have a choice between three breakfast sets: scrambled eggs, french toast and scones – all made freshly and from scratch. the creamy eggs are served on a thick slice of toasted wholemeal bread, with a side salad while the toast is well-browned and sits among fresh berries and bananas. the scones, buttery and crumbly, are served with fresh cream and eli’s homemade strawberry jam. thick but silky and not too sweet, the jam also features in desserts like the beautiful meringue nest, served with a scoop of haagen-dazs vanilla ice-cream. for diners, other options are available, including a savoury grilled bell pepper and chicken with sides of roast potatoes and a salad.
since its opening in mid-2014, eat@18 is already drawing a good crowd that’s made up of more locals as aside from those staying at the three hotels, few tourists venture along this quiet street that branches off the main jonker street. the relative solitude and seclusion are part of opposite place’s plus points, affording the intimate privacy that’s ideal for a restful escapade within such homey settings. it’s no wonder that some guests check into the rooms and hardly venture out, except to troop down the stairs for a bite at eat@18.
that is when you know you’ve truly found a home away from home and you can expect more of such welcoming abodes from david and soon. “we intend to add more properties under the musang lena residences brand,” david confirms. “restoration and preservation of heritage buildings are our passion and that is what we will be focusing on in our future projects.”
this article first appeared in crave/themalaymailonline on 2 nov 2014