Rebuilding An Oasis in Love Lane

Penang is shaping up nicely indeed, if going by the lovely restored buildings of character each day. Just last Sunday, we were at the old Oasis Hotel on 23, Love Lane.

Love Lane is a quaint old name, conjuring all sorts of imaginative visuals – why Love Lane? (It’s good alliteration too…rolls off the tongue in one long loop!). Did secret love trysts happen here? Was it named after someone called Love?

Love Lane reminds me of my maternal grandparents who used to live in a rented room (room, mind you, not even a house) on 76, Love Lane. Like a movie, I can remember as a child of 4 or 5 being in this little room which functioned as a bedroom and dining room. I can still recall the amalgam of smells of that room. Like a whiff of everything – food, old people’s minyak urut, old newsprint and Tiger plasters. I cannot recall exactly but the people who rented rooms in that building shared their bathrooms and kitchen. I can imagine the morning rush!

Anyway, Love Lane also connects to Convent Light Street and St Xavier’s. These are the schools my mom and dad studied at, respectively. Apparently that is how most girls met their future husbands. (Why are all convents situated near boys’ schools? I studied in a co-ed school so I really can’t understand why boys and girls can’t just study together instead of separated?)

Almost Missed It

We almost couldn’t tour the old Oasis Hotel as Nic forgot to RSVP Sook Foong of PHT. Luckily some who RSVPed did not turn up so we quickly joined the PHT tour. As the boutique hotel of 10 rooms is not yet open to the public(it opens on 1 December), joining PHT has its privileges! We were taken on a private tour of this new premises, restored and perhaps looking even better than it was looking before!

Dr Gywnn led us to gape at the wonderful work that has been done on this building. It certainly looked painstaking and arduous, going by the ruins it was in when the current owner bought it in 2008. Back then, this building was an old backpackers’ hostel called Oasis Hotel and owned by the Tan family (who now runs the famous Rainforest Bakery on Chulia Street).

No Photos Please

Despite most PHT members coming armed with cameras, we weren’t allowed to snap any photos. It was a pity as the restored hotel is absolutely beautiful. It abounds with nostalgia. Hence, you won’t see any photos here. But I am sure you will soon see them as the hotel prepares to be launched next month.

You can of course follow their restoration blog where they’ve chronicled every detail which went into making this building a pride of George Town again. This is truly a helpful and immensely detailed blog, useful for people who are looking to restore old buildings and wanting to know what work goes into it.

It helps that the rooms are impeccably decorated with classic teak furniture and lots of local artwork. It seems that finally the owner has a place for his art pieces and furniture he’s collected over the years. I for one am glad that there isn’t any ugly or cheap furniture. You may spot one or two IKEA items. The best piece of furniture has to be the Planter’s Lazy Chair on the verandahs -a lounge chair where one could lie back and have a ‘stengah’ or two!

The new hotel is also wheel-chair friendly so disabled guests can also enjoy this little boutique hotel.

While working/digging the old hotel, workers found shards of old crockery. These are cleverly used as decor pieces around the hotel. An old horse shoe or two was also found, giving some information that there used to be a horse stable at the back. Even the Chinese doors when sanded off their paint revealed some Chinese couplets!

A Touch of Charm and Then Some

I love old buildings like these – high ceilings, lots of wooden louvred windows complete with sheer cotton curtains with deep green borders fluttering in the breeze. The only modern items would be the Sony iPOD dock and Sony TVs in each room. Other than that, it simply reeks old world charm all around.

The upper floors are made of real wood, not the laminated floorboards we know today. Walking barefooted on real wood floors is divine.

We never did find out how much accommodation per night costs here but we hope it will be affordable enough that locals can try out a night or two. I was bemused when one of the staff commented that Nic and I could stay in their “Secret Room” with the Spectacular Bath for our honeymoon. Nice try but I’ve been married for a decade already. Too bad. Otherwise I would book it for our honeymoon!

Until then, I’m satisfied that I know what is behind the Chinese gate.

I could say this place could be called The House No One Loved, Look At It Now….fabulous!

Cinema, Coffee & Sinful Desserts

Over the past few years (and way before Georgetown was declared a UNESCO Heritage site), many people have been intrigued and more than fascinated with old Georgetown.

There’s a wealth of history and nostalgia in every crack and pore of these crusty, musty buildings we call pre-war shophouses. Many have a link to their past when they come across these buildings. Many love the quaintness, the charm and the memories which have somehow brought them to Penang. Some aren’t even Penangites.

We got to know Kopi Cine from a friend.

Ann had come from Langkawi but she was gushing about these row of shophouses in Stewart Lane and Armenian Street which had been turned into retail shops, guest house and cafe. It helped that she knew the owner of these business ventures. It helped too that Nic and I too have met the highly successful yet no-nonsense lady proprietor some time ago on one of our trips to Langkawi.

We decided to check Kopi Cine out one night.

It’s not Kopi Cine as kopi orang cina. It’s Cine of Cinema. Its Chinese name says, Kah Fei Dian Ying which means Coffee and Cinema. A mouthful and one that will certainly cause little ego fights about its pronunciation.

Kopi Cine is owned by the same people who own Bon Ton in Langkawi. Bon Ton is classy, elegant and sophisticated, if you’ve ever had the pleasure of dining or staying there.

Kopi Cine is also a bit of hunt for people who’ve never ventured down the funky-smelling lanes and alleys of old Penang (for want of a better word, funky means anything that smells awkwardly disturbing but you just cannot place yourself to describe the vulgarity).

It’s on Stewart Lane, a narrow strip of road that’s more residential than touristy. This is the road just before the Goddess of Mercy Temple and certainly it is not your backpacker Chulia Street pub-drinking place.

The night we were there, we overheard a young girl asking, “Where’s the aircond dining section?”

If there’s any indication of what place you might step into, be forewarned – there’s no aircond dining section in Kopi Cine. It’s pure hot cond – it’s au naturel air which we call breeze. It’s open to the street and with its bright lights, it’s a beacon on a dark, silent street devoid of tourists.

The cafe is narrow with a dark wood bar running down on side and a few tables down the other side. It’s like those European cafes where its appeal lies in its cosiness. You get to doodle on the table too with Buncho crayons as you wait for your meals. You may also take home the white mahjong paper with your doodles if you so please.

Kopi Cine opens from 9am till 11pm and serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, desserts and lots of alcohol. (If you so please and have the budget for a bottle of bubbly, yes, you can get that here too! In fact their wine list is extensive, considering it’s in Stewart Lane. The wine list looks like something out of E&O’s wine menu!)

Food selections are limited but whatever we ordered that night, we actually loved it.

I ordered a Middle Eastern platter of Mezze which is good for vegetarians (not that I am one but sometimes I like to think I’m eating healthy!). The Mezze came with a good 8 quarters of soft pita, hummus, eggplant dip, dukka and salsa. If you like comfort food, you’ll find the hummus and eggplant dip highly satisfactory.

Nic’s order of BBQ Chicken Tikka was tender and juicy and he also had enough pita to mop up the side of cucumber salad, raita and spicy dip. Ann’s lamb sausages with mashed potato was a hearty meal.

We couldn’t leave without attempting dessert, stuffed as we were. Bon Ton is famous for its desserts and who could pass up a chance to try its homemade gula melaka ice cream? Plus, as Ann revealed, the desserts were less pricey compared to Langkawi.

My apple and guave crumble came in a tiny Chinese tea cup with a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream on the side. It didn’t look like a lot but it was sweet and filling. Ann’s steamed apple pudding with gula melaka ice cream was a delight. I especially loved the intense sweetness of the gula melaka resonating in the mouth. As its ice creams are homemade, it was also sheer pleasure digging into Nic’s layered ice cream cake smothered in chocolate sauce.

Of course don’t expect Kopi Cine to be your regular cheap eat.

It’s not.

It’s not when it has champagne on its menu.

It’s not when you realize it’s really like 32 The Mansion but tricked down to look rickety and rundown. I guess shabby chic is the order of the day. (And to recreate this look, here’s a hint: you can get most of the decor featured from SSF in Anson Road.)

The Reading Room is next door but the books aren’t for sale. A 60s Chinese movie plays silently, projected on the uneven walls at the back. Upstairs is the Stewart Lane Residences where you get to stay and experience the ambience of the forgotten Penang. Like some arthouse movie where nostalgia rings deep.

Yup, returning to your roots is in vogue again.