Penang haven

PHOTO: Penang haven

THE advantage of working in the hotel industry - especially when you're posted abroad - is to identify places in which to have a second home or to retire in.

Eddie Tan's first introduction to Penang was in the late 1980s, when the five-star Mutiara Beach Hotel was being built, and he's had a second home on the island ever since.

"Even after my stint at the Mutiara ended in 1997, I kept a home here - an apartment in Gurney Drive," says the Singaporean hotelier with a distinguished career, standing out as one of the rare breed of local general managers of five-star hotels in an industry dominated by Caucasian managers.

Mr Tan's first job in the hotel industry was at Cockpit Hotel (an interesting tale in itself, but more on that later) and he was last at Marina Mandarin, where he was the general manager from 1997 to 2005.

"Many people ask me why I chose Penang out of all the places I'd been to, but really, Malaysia is the best alternative to Singapore and there are so many similarities between Penang and Singapore. They're both islands, and predominantly Chinese. English is spoken here, and then there is the local food and then the hills, the heritage and the sea," he plugs.

Plus, Penang moves at a slower pace, compared to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, Mr Tan, who is in his 60s, points out. "There's that holiday mood the minute you land on the island," he says.

A pace which fits the Tans well, as Mr Tan now runs a hotel consultancy business that takes him around the region; most recently, to Jakarta where he has a couple of projects. Another big pull is his son is based to Penang.

Eugene Tan had long decided to make Penang his home, as he had set up his own interior decoration business, Concept Works, there after graduating in finance from the US.

Just three years ago, the Tans moved to a seaside villa in Seri Tanjung Pinang, one of Penang's newest residential projects by luxury property developer E&O.

"Actually, it was because we got a golden retriever, so it was a timely move," quips Mr Tan junior. Arguably, the latest addition to the family - his son - is the one who would soon enjoy the spacious home, however, once he starts toddling around.

The six-room villa, with 5,400 sq ft built-up space, is a bungalow which sees the Tans in their element: Mr Tan and his wife (who was visiting their daughter in the States at the time of the interview) enjoy their daily walks along the boardwalk around the whole estate when he's at home, and it's also a place where his son could put in his own interior design experience.

Once they got the villa, Mr Tan junior reconfigured some of the bungalow's spaces to suit the family's preferences, and also to add in the finishing touches that nudge the bungalow by the sea into a real designer villa territory.

Interior design is a passion, he reveals, candidly pointing out that growing up in hospitality - living and visiting hotels with his parents - could rub off on one. When his parents were posted to Penang, he was in his teens, and had studied at the American International School.

Changes to the house include a pavilion built out on the west side of the house so that they can maximise their outdoor living experience. That's also where a rectangular lap pool has been put in.

The family usually have their breakfast and lunch at the white marble-top table, and where there's ample fresh air and garden greenery, beside the blue water of the pool.

"I'm tired of being in air-conditioning all the time ... it's cool here, as there's not too much sun. And it's also very quiet and private," notes Mr Tan senior.

On the east side of the house, another pavilion has been extended, and this is where the Tans would entertain their friends, under the dappled shadow of bamboo trees.

A wet kitchen and yard were put in behind the house, which is also the place where the family dog calls his own; and the downstairs guest bedroom has been converted into a study.

There, a handsome marble-topped table takes centre place, complete with power points in the middle for connectivity ease.

Marble is a favoured material of Mr Tan junior, which explains the marble-topped tables in the villa. All the tables - from the coffeetable in the living room to the outdoor dining table - are customised with marble from Italy and Greece.

"To really design a space well, one often has to customise the furniture so that the dimensions are just right," he explains.

The sleek marble adds a sophisticated coolness to the place, which is also defined by the streamlined, understated flair of the mix of contemporary and classic furniture.

A Mies Van de Rohe Barcelona couch (a 1930s design) separates the living and dining area, as does an antique-style Chinese side table.

Over the Ming-styled dining chairs and dining table, an asymmetrical suspended light from Artemides jazzes up the space. The furniture is largely contemporary, but there is a commanding antique console from the Philippines which is the first thing that greets visitors walking through the front door.

The house has three storeys, and the senior Tans live on the top floor - with commanding views of the sea and the hills from the rooftop patio.

Here too, some spaces have been changed to accommodate a more comfortable lifestyle, like a pantry so they don't have to trek down for a drink, and walk-in wardrobes in the bedroom.

The younger Tans are on the second floor - where the landing is dominated by the playpen for the baby.

So how did Mr Tan enter the hospitality business? "My father was very interested in hospitality and was part shareholder of the Cockpit Hotel for a while," he explains.

That was the reason why Mr Tan went to study hospitality in Europe, and had worked at the Intercontinental in London and Sheraton in Hong Kong before returning to Singapore in the 70s.

"At that time, there were only two major hotel groups in Singapore: Shangri-La and Mandarin. The Mandarin was the first to reply to my application, which is why I joined them," he summarises.

Mr Tan still keeps to a jetsetting pace for his consultancy business, and as a hotelier, he wouldn't expect anything less than a resort-like oasis for his Penang home.

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