The Oldest One Standing
The Eastern & Oriental Hotel, or the E & O, as it is more familiarly known to Penangites, was one of the first of its kind in Southeast Asia – a grand hotel in the European tradition, offering accommodation and amenities catered to the sophisticated needs of the well-heeled world traveler at the turn of the 19th century. It is also the oldest of its kind still standing, established in the year 1885 by the inimitable Sarkies Brothers – the pan-Asian family of Armenians originating from Persia – who would go on to establish the E & O’s more illustrious sibling, the Raffles Hotel, two years later. Evoking its heyday at the turn of the 19th century, when the likes of Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham and Douglas Fairbanks graced its walls, the present-day E & O is the product of a 5-year restoration and refurbishment effort undertaken in the late ‘90s, during which much of the hotel was gutted out, refitted with modern amenities, and painstakingly refurbished. The effect is quite simply stunning. Stepping into its spotlessly white lobby and reception area, one keenly feels the old-world charm and nostalgia, achieved through retaining many of the original features of the interior – like the famed rotunda with its “whispering” dome; a still-functioning vintage Waygood-Otis elevator tucked in a corner, and the period khaki uniforms, complete with pith helmets and knee-high socks, that the porters sport. The service staff, all local, are also impeccably polite, speak excellent English (more so than service staff in Singapore) and seem genuinely to love working at the E & O.
The hotel’s most enduring feature, celebrated since its opening more than a century ago, is the awe-inspiring view of the Malacca Straits along one of the longest private sea-front promenades of any development in the region. That’s not all. As the marketing materials emphasise, the E & O is a “5-star, all-suite heritage hotel”: all 101 of the rooms it offers are full-service suites, with distinct living, sleeping and bathing areas. An impressive 88 of these suites have sea-views, with only a mere 13 facing the city of Georgetown. This ubiquity of the sea from every possible vantage point ensures the E & O remains one of the most inspiring places to be in to write a novel, romance a lover, or simply slip-away from the hustle and bustle of city life. One would imagine the hotel thronged with guests, clamoring for a piece of the E & O experience; but like the rest of Penang, it remains a little sleepy and laidback.
I spent my first afternoon lazing at the famous pool on the hotel’s back lawn, contemplating the shimmering waters of the Malacca Straits, with their distant ships bringing cargo from afar, exactly like they have done for more than two centuries. Occasionally, I would doze off, and awaken to find myself momentarily disoriented, unsure of where, or rather, when I was. It being a Friday afternoon, there were less than a dozen guests, mostly a mix of Caucasian and Chinese women in their 30s to 40s, sprawled in cushioned deckchairs with fashion magazines or the latest popular novels. The weekend crowd of young couples and conference attendees would arrive that evening. As I sipped at my glass of iced water, I observed a foot-long monitor lizard emerge from a drain slat mere inches away from my deckchair, and clamber onto the seawall to take in the sun, as though it too was one of the guests. At that very moment, Singapore seemed like a world away.
Later on in my room, I luxuriated in a cool bath to banish the heat of the sun from my limbs. Lying there in the capacious bathroom with its geometric, black and white tiles, exquisitely detailed art deco fixtures and stained glass door, I fancied myself transported from the present into 1920s New York or Shanghai. I half expected my butler to emerge from the bedroom with towel, night-robe and gentle words of admonishment for my having strewn dirty linen all over the bedroom floor, yet again. Incidentally, every suite in the hotel came with “VIP Butler Service,” activated by an innocuous bedside switch. On a whim, I rang for the butler and sat waiting expectantly, anticipating an immaculately suited man magically appearing before my door in a matter of minutes; a Jeeves to my Wooster, so to speak. Disappointingly, the phone rang instead, and a woman’s voice, from across the ether, demanded politely what it was that I required. A little embarrassed at having rang for nothing in particular, I ordered an in-room aperitif, before heading out with some local friends to an open-air hawker centre not far away for dinner.
Ghosts from the Past
Perhaps due to the long period of decline the E & O underwent in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, my local friends were rather disparaging of it, wondering why I had not sought accommodation instead in the newly refurbished Chong Fatt Tze Mansions, just across the street – a UNESCO World Heritage site, also known as the Blue Mansion, now converted into a heritage bed and breakfast. “The only kind of experience you are likely to have,” one of them remarked in amusement, “is going to be of a supernatural nature. The E & O, as everyone in Penang knows, is haunted. Don’t be surprised when you look into the mirrors at night, and see someone else there.”
While I did not see anyone but myself in the many large mirrors in my suite, I discovered in the course of my short stay that the E & O was indeed haunted, though not quite in the way my friends had described. It was haunted by personalities from its past, most notably the four Sarkies Brothers with their evocative names – Tigran, Martin, Aviet, and Arshak. The portraits of three of them – no one could tell me which three – hang along a corridor that takes guests from the main building of the hotel to the adjacent Victory Annexe. The name “Sarkies” also graces all but one of the hotel’s dining establishments. Among all of them, it is the youngest brother, Arshak, who came to be indelibly linked to the hotel. Historical accounts relate that it was his vision and larger than life personality that raised the standing and reputation of the hotel to its legendary level. Similarly, it was also his generosity, largesse and impossible head for accounts that brought the hotel to ruin and bankruptcy when he died, of a heart attack in 1931. Some say his ghost still haunts the site of the old ballroom – now demolished – where he can be seen, a stout but ebullient man, dancing through the night with a glass of champagne in one hand, and leading a fashionably dressed society woman with the other.
And then there is Robert Townsend Farquhar, Lieutenant-Governor of Penang from 1804 to 1805, not be mistaken for William Farquhar, first British Resident and Commandant of Singapore. He lends his name to the street on which the E & O sits – Lebuh Farquhar (Farquhar Street) – and also to the hotel’s bar, an exquisite piece of vintage interior design, resembling a colonial British Gentlemen’s Pub, replete with wooden furniture and a faint, oaky odour. While the furnishings might have been a tad too authentic – being somewhat hard and uncomfortable for modern behinds, used to generous cushioning – there is no denying that the place has real character. In the day, when views of the sea could be had from its north-facing windows, one would be hard-pressed not to imagine one’s self on the set of a Merchant-Ivory picture. (“Brilliant view, eh, old chap?” “Extraordinary, James. Simply extraordinary.”) At night, however, the lights are turned on a little too bright for the space to feel cosy, and the bar is also a trifle too deserted to be intimate.
Nevertheless, I decided to spend my second evening in the E & O at the Farquhar Bar, with a nostalgic tome and a glass of pinot noir, hoping to relive the good old days. That evening, the bar was sparsely populated with a small, chatty group of globetrotting Brits and Australians, a local couple enjoying a private evening together, and myself, seated in the far corner of the bar so I could observe, enigmatically. Unfortunately, there also happened to be a live band on the premises, playing ‘60s pop standards. Since no one else in particular seemed to be paying attention, they resigned themselves to privately serenading the local couple, who responded good-naturedly with faint bobs and sways of their heads. I was just about to give up on channeling the past and leave for my room – the music was simply too loud and distracting – when suddenly the band broke into a medley of classic P. Ramlee songs, requested, no doubt, by the couple they were serenading. Ramlee, a famous director, actor, singer, composer and songwriter for Malaysian and Singaporean films in the ‘50s and ‘60s, was Penangite, born and bred. Tragically, he died of a heart attack at only 44 years of age, after having been credited for more than 66 films and 360 songs. That night, however, his spirit was very much in fine form at the Farquhar Bar as the band – transformed magically into a keroncong ensemble – played one after another of his hits till late in the night. I stayed on, transfixed, my book forgotten, ordering glass after glass of the pinot noir.
The Morning After
The morning of my departure, a storm brewed on the horizon. Seated at the al fresco breakfast area, sheltered by a large glass and wrought-iron canopy, I could see the storm clouds gathering at the horizon, beyond the cargo and cruise ships that still plied the Straits, oblivious to the impending tempest. Breakfast was a sumptuous buffet spread of international and local Penang delicacies. I opted for a bee hoon soto ayam – rice vermicelli suspended in a light but flavorful chicken broth, alongside crisp baby bok choy and a generous sprinkling of bean sprouts and cilantro. Accompanied by slices of red chilli pepper infused in light soya sauce, the dish was a simple but flavorful contrast to the rich dinner I had had at the hawker centre the night I arrived, which had been a veritable feast of other delicious local standards like char kway teow, oyster omelette and pig’s organ soup.
The storm had broken by the time I was done with breakfast, and since it would be inconvenient to head once more into town in the heavy rain, I decided to explore the grounds more thoroughly, searching for spots where the past would not be held at bay, and seemed to seep into the present. One of these spots was at the covered walkway between the main hotel building (where the lobby and reception area was) and the new Victory Annexe (where the breakfast area was). There, standing like a sentinel, was a giant kelupang, or Java olive; the largest and the oldest tree of its kind in Penang, older than the E & O itself. Gazing up at its towering frame, I wondered how it must have been like to stand there so silently a century ago, hearing the strains of waltz music as guests twirled the night away. Many a courting couple must have gotten engaged beneath its spreading branches, intoxicated by the heady, tropical night air, or by the perfume of frangipani blossoms.
Back in the main building, I peeked through a small glass panel in the door of the luxurious 1885 restaurant, serving fine European cuisine in an exquisite period drawing-room setting. Inside, it was dark – the restaurant had yet to start serving for the day. Light from the far end of the room cast a ghostly pallor upon the unoccupied tables and the exquisitely carved mahogany side panels. It seemed as though I was looking through a window to the past: to that hour before dinner in 1885, when the maître d’hôtel and waiters were just about to prepare the dining room for the night’s revels, and when the hotel guests were making the final touches to their evening attire – stiff, starched collars and formal, black dinner suits for the men; elegant evening gowns and delicate hairpieces for the women – before they descended from their suites. As they descended, they would have heard the evocative bellow of a maritime foghorn, suggesting the arrival of the passenger ship that would take them, the morning after, to their next destination.
Wherever that destination might have been – Rangoon, perhaps, or Batavia, or most likely Singapore – their last evening in the E & O would have been most splendid and magical; one to remember for the rest of their onward journey.
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Julia de Bierre and James Bain Smith, 2006. Penang: Through Gilded Doors. Penang: Areca Books.
Isabella Bird, 1883. The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither. 2010 Digital Edition. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Ilsa Sharp, 2008. The E & O Hotel – Pearl of Penang. Singapore: Marshal Cavendish Editions.
 The oldest of the grand colonial hotels in Asia are in the Indian Subcontinent. In Southeast Asia, only the Hotel Des Indes in Jakarta, the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok and the Hotel Continental in Ho Chi Minh City are older. Unfortunately, the former was demolished in the 1970s and the footprint of the second has been largely built over with a contemporary hotel building. The third still stands but can hardly be considered a luxury hotel by today’s standards.
 The dome was ingeniously designed, such that seated just beneath it, excellent acoustics ensured you could hear every other conversation taking place around you. It was exceedingly popular with hotel guests when first introduced.
 Incidentally a man with the requisite butler-like livery did appear some moments later, bearing my aperitif. But that was really just room service. I had tried a few of their “signature” cocktails the night before and decided it was safest to stick to wine. In particular, one of their most signature cocktails had tasted most unpleasantly of the attic; insofar as a drink could taste of attic. One wonders if this was what hotel guests had been drinking in the heady 1920s.
 Keroncong is a form of folk music in the Malay Archipelago, inherited from the Portuguese and fused with traditional Malay elements.
 Char kway teow refers to flat rice noodles stir-fried with fresh shrimp, cockles and Chinese preserved sausages. The pig’s organ soup tastes far more delicate than the name suggests, though it does indeed, feature pig’s innards, suspended, with salted mustard greens, in a clear consomme.
 The tree stood just outside where the old ballroom used to be, back in the hotel’s heyday.