Rice Miller: A Projection of Penang’s Pioneer Spirit

loading

Overcoming a string of hurdles and multiple delays, The Rice Miller Hotel & Godowns is on the verge of completion and will open its doors by Christmas.

The hotel lobby.

Residence living room.

Located right in the heart of the inner city, facing the old jetties that sustained many of Penang’s early communities, lies the site of The Rice Miller Project. Covering over three acres of prime land – believed to be the last sizeable chunk of freehold land in George Town – the ambitious undertaking involves a top-end hotel, two blocks of city residences, a restored 1920s godown and a handful of speciality dining outlets ready to transform the landscape of the heritage city’s waterfront.

Upon completion, it is set to become a symbol of elegance and grandeur, welcoming both visitors and residents to an experience of modern luxury living. For Asian Global Business (AGB), it has been a baptism of fire for a small group of novice developers setting out to rediscover the pioneering spirit of Penang.

A Bumpy Start

2008 was drawing to a close when Dr Noraini Abdullah, AGB’s group managing director and CEO, woke up to surprising and unwelcome news.

Reports of a maximum height limitation in George Town’s Unesco World Heritage Listing guide filled the headlines, singling out four upcoming hotels in the area that would be affected. Two – an E&O Hotel extension project and a 23-storey hotel by the Low Yat Group – were located in the heritage buffer zone. Boustead’s Royale Bintang Hotel and The Rice Miller, AGB’s flagship property, were both on Pengkalan Weld and sat right inside the core zone.

The guidelines limited new developments to five storeys and threw a spanner in the works for all four establishments, which had already received approval from the state planning authorities. “Nobody told us anything,” says Noraini. “We just woke up one day, reading about us in the papers saying that we are this nasty, evil force. We were treated like outcasts and all we were told was that if we don’t do it, then Penang was going to lose everything.”

Cutting a hotel down from the planned 11 storeys to just five was no laughing matter. “The conventional wisdom for hotels is the more rooms, the more money. And suddenly, from initially having over 200 rooms, we now only have 46 suites. Our banker nearly died,” she says ruefully.

What also greatly stung, Noraini said, was the “with me or against me” attitude taken by several heritage activists who went all out to denounce the projects. Instead of banding together as a unit to fight George Town’s decline, many instead opted to paint the hoteliers as single-minded money-makers. “I think it was very unfortunate that the NGOs didn’t invite us for a sit-down. Remember, when we started out, it wasn’t as if there was a whole queue of investors waiting to come into George Town. It was quite easy for people to pontificate about conservation, but the fact of the matter was that the inner city was in decline.” Noraini adds that most critics of The Rice Miller had not even seen the project’s building plans and were unaware of how much conservation had already been planned.

To make matters worse, AGB was also embroiled in a land dispute, which cost them a year in court. Later they would discover that the site had very poor soil conditions with a high water table (the level below which the ground is saturated with water), significantly delaying the project’s earthworks.

The Spirit of the Pioneers

Throughout the hard times that AGB faced, Noraini says the company dug deep and tried to draw inspiration from the state’s early pioneers like Phuah Hin Leong, who The Rice Miller is branded after.

Phuah, understood to have co-established the country’s first rice mill in Penang, carried himself out of poverty in the late 19th century to become one of the state’s wealthiest men. “I admit, I am now drawn and driven by what I see as the spirit of the pioneers of Penang. I never thought that I would be so besotted with Phuah Hin Leong and the people of that generation who came over in little boats and what they went through to get their business going. Now, I’m not even afraid. There were times in the past several years when I wondered whether we would have enough money to stay in business but I didn’t care. I just gritted my teeth and rode through it,” Noraini says, adding that the pioneering spirit also lived in AGB in a literal sense – company chairman Kate Lim is one of Phuah’s fourth-generation descendants.

So, AGB pushed on, restructuring the hotel and dealing with the derailment of their financing strategy. “When we lost the height, we started to go higher up the scale – gentrify the hotel, make it upmarket. That’s when we ran into trouble with our project financing. Our bankers rejected our propositions and even slashed our financial projections. When we insisted that in our business model, occupancy wasn’t the ‘be all and end all’ and instead restaurants were to make up the main source of our revenue, the bankers were really upset. To this day, we continue to have that tug-of-war with them, but we hang in there because we have been able to sell (residential units), so we have been putting those sales back into the hotel,” Noraini says.

Up until early June, 70% of the 99 private residences had been snapped up, with a large majority of buyers being local Penangites. “About 80% of our buyers are from Penang and I’m very happy about that. It is true that the first wave of buyers were foreigners. Then we started selling in Singapore and they came to us in droves. These were Penangites living and working in Singapore who intend to come back. After that, there was a third wave and these were people here in George Town itself. Their parents owned shops and in some cases didn’t even have a car, but they went away and made good,” Noraini says.

Describing the sales of The Rice Miller City Residences as a long journey, Noraini says she has come to accept that the residential project was one that would only appeal to a select group of people. “A Singaporean (buyer) said to me, you don’t realise it but you’re actually selling a work of art. But how many people buy art? People look at IJM and IGB; they just open a counter and everything is gone by noon. We’re not going to be in that situation but the people who buy are people who actually appreciate history and what we’re trying to do for the inner city, and they want to be a part of it,” she says.

Milling Success.

Hotel room.

Now, roughly two years after the initial projected opening date and a dozen years after the project was first conceptualised, all that grit and hard work is finally bearing fruit. Fortified with an unprecedented RM30mil in conservation works (a full quarter of the hotel’s total RM120mil cost), The Rice Miller Hotel & Godowns is physically complete.

Furnished with top-of-the-line in-room interactive technology, butler services and the hotel’s Rolls-Royce at guests’ disposal, the establishment offers the highest standards of service and amenities. Also on the premises is a fully-restored 1920s colonial godown which serves as a state-ofthe- art events centre and banquet hall that can accommodate 350 guests.

Lining the north side of the luxurious neoclassical hotel is The Carriageway, a cobblestone pathway housing retail outlets and five signature restaurants managed by the hotel. There is Kate at 9, featuring avant-garde cuisine in a restored 126-yearold Straits Settlements shophouse. A few steps away are Sweet Spot which offers confectionary delights; The Mill, a classic brasserie with international offerings; and Tray, a modern bistro with hearty fivecourse gourmet food trays that change daily. Rounding up the row of gastronomic delights is Zyp, an ultra-modern bar serving molecular cocktails and other one-of-akind modernist creations.

For Noraini, for whom The Rice Miller Project is the first venture out on her own, the experience has been extraordinary. “It has been one hell of a battle and one hell of a great learning exercise. We all walked into it perhaps stupidly – young and brave Then we had to swim against the tide and everything that came our way. I’m just very pleased that I’m able to be part of all these changes that are happening in George Town.

An unbeatable view from The Rice Miller Hotel penthouse.

AGB Creative Director Hafiz Anwar showing off the view of the Custom's House clock tower from one of The Rice Miller Hotel's 46 suites.

Then we had to swim against the tide and everything that came our way. I’m just very pleased that I’m able to be part of all these changes that are happening in George Town.

 

“This is history in action. Not many of us get to participate in it; we only get to read about it. For a very long time, George Town stood still. Slowly, with the Unesco status and the changes that each one of us are trying to make, we have created and contributed to the momentum and brought the energy level up. I’m just so grateful that I have the chance to be part of it and, come this Christmas, The Rice Miller will be here to celebrate.”

 

Phuah Hin Leong, Pan Xinlong
(1844-1901)
Rice and Oil Miller, Merchant..

Phuah Hin Leong was one of the first modern rice-millers and oil-mill owners in Penang. He arrived in Penang as a young man in the 1860s and found work ferrying passengers from ships anchored at sea to shore.

His given name at birth was Lim Choo Guan (Lin Ziyuan) and he was born in the village of Hor Khiew in Fujian Province. Village troubles drove him to find refuge in the village of Phua Choo where he was adopted by Phuah Bong Yew. In gratitude, he assumed the name Phuah Hin Leong.

From his savings, he established Gim Bee, a sundry shop in the Tanjong Tokong area and earned a good reputation as a small-trader. Eventually, he teamed up with Choong Chiat Thor to supply sundry products to the newly established tobacco estates of North Sumatra in the Bindjei area.

It was a natural progression from sundry goods to rice milling as Phuah now had access to the networks and markets of Dutch Sumatra and British Malaya. As rice-milling was labour-intensive, he spearheaded its modernisation by using steam-powered mills. He formed a partnership with the leading Chinese businessmen of the time including Lim Leng Cheak (Lin Ninchuo), Cheah Joo Jin and Cheah Ewe Ghee, to form Khie Heng Bee rice mills.

His first mill was beside the Prangin River but he soon expanded and built a modern mill at Sungai Pinang on land that once belonged to Khoo Tiong Phoe (@ Khoo Tiong Poh, Qiu Zhongbo). The 183,769 sq ft of land housed Khie Heng Bee’s modern rice and oil mills processing rice from Kedah, Perak, British Burma, Siam and Indo-China. Copra was imported from Sumatra. He also invested in an 8,000-acre tapioca and coconut estate in Padang Serai, in Kedah where he made a successful bid for the Sultanate’s rice monopoly.

At the time of his death at the relatively young age of 57, he had amassed a great fortune and the Lim family in Penang was among the wealthiest, owning not only rice mills but also godowns in Beach Street. The family house was aptly named Millview as it looks out on the first rice mill located next to the Prangin river. He also built a Chinesestyle courtyard house with curved roofs and several courtyards in his native Hor Khiew. A similar ancestral “house” was built for his family in Phua Choo village. Phuah Hin Leong was also a benefactor of Penang’s enduring educational and charitable institutions. He donated generously to St. Xavier’s Institution where all his sons had their primary and secondary education. He left a $5,000 endowment to St. Xavier’s, the Penang Free School and the Anglo-Chinese School. He also donated $10,000 each to the Indian Famine and Amoy Famine Funds respectively. Other recipients included the Confucian Chung Hwa School, the Maternity Hospital and the Chinese Quarantine Camp in Jelutong.

Phuah Hin Leong had four wives. Ong Teng Neo of Penang was his primary wife. On his return visit to China, he took a wife in his native Hor Khiew and Phua Choo villages according to the standard practice of that time. Wives were necessary to take care of his parents in both those villages. His fourth wife, Lee Choey Neoh, was also from Penang. Reverting to the Lim tradition, all his children were given the surname Lim. His eldest son by Ong Teng Neo died at birth while Lim Cheng Teik (Lin Qingde), his second son, went into business with him and eventually succeeded him as the head of the firm. From his Penang wives, he had three other sons including Cheng Law (Qinglu), Cheng Kung (Qingjiang) and Cheng Ean (Qingyuan). He also had three daughters with Ong Teng Neo, Saw Ean, Saw Gek and Saw Boey.

In recognition of his charitable acts, the government named Phuah Hin Leong Road after him. It links Northam Road (Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah) to Burmah Road; housing governmental quarters newly turned into trendy restaurants.

Neil Khor Jin Keong

References:

Lim Phaik Gan, pp. 3-9; Wright, pp. 824-828;

Wu Xiao An, 2003, pp. 92-93; HPP, p. 133.

Reprinted from Neil Khor Jin Keong, “Phuah Hin Leong, 潘興隆, Pan Xinlong (1844-1901) Rice and Oil Miller, Merchant,” in Loh Wei Leng, Badriyah Haji Salleh, Mahani Musa, Wong Yee Tuan and Marcus Langdon (Eds.), Biographical Dictionary of Mercantile Personalities of Penang, copyright 2013, with kind permission from Think City and MBRAS.

Andrea Filmer is a freelance journalist who has lived in the US and Australia but, for reasons unknown to herself, finds it impossible to call anywhere but Penang home.



Related Articles

FEATURE
Jan 2012

Building on the past

As SERI transforms into the Penang Institute, we take a look at the think tank's past.

FEATURE
Feb 2017

Back To Beca

It's time to make Penang's iconic trishaws thrive again.

FEATURE
May 2014

Canvassing nebulous memories

Penang-born British artist Kate Hunt draws from her subconscious to create melancholic works of abstract art.