Interior designer Raymond Lee’s transformation of a Penang shophouse juxtaposes heritage and modernity with sensitivity, flair and refinement.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

The pair of original Tok Panjang tables (traditional Peranakan long tables used for feasts) in the dining room came from an antique store. 

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The facade of this late Straits eclectic style was stunningly restored by specialist craftsmen from China, who were also working on a restoration of a major temple in Penang. 

As the tide of restoration projects surges unabated in Penang, the inner city continues to be restored to its former glory. One such project is located on the famous food haven of Kimberly Street, which became dilapidated from years of neglect. It took the combined talents of conservation architect Tan Yeow Wooi, a specialist on South-east Asian Chinese houses, and KL-based interior designer Raymond Lee to transform it into a house equipped with elements of modern luxury that respects its history.

Previously an Indo-Malay bungalow, the house began its life as part of a row of five brick shophouses built in the late Straits eclectic style of 1903 – reminiscent of the long and narrow Malacca typology. The owner, a local businessman who deals in salvaged timber and vintage furniture, met Raymond when the designer was working on his first Penang project on Lorong Carnavon.

“I was attracted to the fact that I was going to be a part of the team going to restore this elegant townhouse and make it a space for contemporary living. It has good bones with tall ceilings and several intact original features such as the magnificent staircase,” says Raymond.

The restoration of the facade, complete with full-height Venetian windows and highly decorative plasterwork featuring garlands of SinoEuropean flora, was carried out by specialist craftsmen from China. Coincidentally, these skilled artisans were in Penang and working on the restoration of a major temple, and the architect was able to enlist their help. The courtyard was also restored to its original glory, with many of the original granite slabs still intact. 

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The main hall and living area are separated by a traditional screen bought after the property was purchased and restored by using its original carvings as a guide. 


A couple who uses this as their weekend holiday home

HOME Restored 1903 Straits eclectic shophouse

SIZE 7,018 sq ft 

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Quirky accessories add charm and character 

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The magnificent staircase was intact at the time of purchase.

When Raymond first saw the place, it was a warren of small rooms, many without windows. But the building’s history and provenance captured his imagination and he was inspired to create a space which effortlessly balances the past and present. He recommended that the first floor be reimagined into what it would have been like a hundred years ago, with several large, spacious and well-appointed bedrooms. They finally landed on four bespoke suites, each with en suite bathrooms clad in Italian marble and fittings.

As for the interiors, Raymond was inspired to create a haven that blends Asian vintage chic with contemporary flavour: “The mere thought of transforming a neglected, badly renovated property into a beautiful and functional home was inspiration enough. Also, my trips to countries like Sri Lanka, Laos and Indonesia have exposed me to many different historic properties, private homes and hotels alike that have been lovingly readapted for modern everyday use.”

Drawing on his previous experience with restoration projects and his passion for heritage, Raymond decisively assessed what could be kept, what needed to be restored, and what had to be added. “The partition in the main hall was missing from the house when the property was purchased. With a stroke of good luck, we were able to find a frame that fitted the space. Some of the original carvings were still intact and we had carvings made to complete the partition. The latticed timber panels upstairs were restored and painted white, providing a contrast with the balau wood floorboards.

“For the bathrooms, we added new marble finishes for a luxurious touch – white Carrara marble for the walls and grey Emperador for the bathroom floors that are paired with a black Assoluto granite vanity top. New vintage-style encaustic floor tiles were used in the dining and living room, facing the courtyard which has vintage granite blocks. Throughout the project, we were fortunate enough to work with many skilled local craftsmen from Penang and the nearby states,” enthuses Raymond. 

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Modern armchairs are juxtaposed with traditional blackwood pieces to great effect. 

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The courtyard has been equipped with a modern retractable skylight and a 19th-century buyong (water urn) to catch rainwater. 



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Modern-minimalist four-poster beds were commissioned for all the bedrooms. 

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En suite bathrooms feature white Carrara marble walls with grey Emperador floors contrasted with black furniture. 

The furnishings are a mix of vintage and modern. Many of these, including a pair of original Tok Panjang tables (traditional Peranakan long tables used for feasts) in the dining room, came from vintage and antique stores in Penang and nearby states. He also included store-bought pieces of a more contemporary bent from Janine, Gudang, Urban Edge, Ashley Homes, and Nasim Carpets.

Romantic four-poster beds and nightstands that take pride of place in the bedrooms were custom-designed and made in Penang. The finishing touches include a curated collection of artworks by mostly local artists from Penang and the northern states, such as Tang Hon Yin and Koay Soo Kau, that came from the Galeri Seni Mutiara in Georgetown.

Now that the home is completed, it’s a great credit to Raymond that the transition between old and new feels so seamless. The designer confesses that he has a natural affinity to such projects: “For a previous one in Malacca, we restored the facade of the property but completely refitted the interiors in a modern contemporary style. This is my second such project in Penang. As a designer of Peranakan heritage, being a part of this project is a dream come true. I was able to draw on my personal experiences of the Straits Chinese culture and my exposure to the various types of renovation and conservation projects around the world, particularly in and around the Asian region.” 

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The lattice timber panels upstairs were restored and painted white, lending the bedrooms a romantic feel.