You wouldn’t think there is an award-winning space behind the no-frills facade of the Sinkeh Hotel in George Town. But the boutique hotel and arts space actually won one of the categories in the prestigious Cityscape Awards for Emerging Markets.

The awards, which are part of the annual Dubai Cityscape Global real estate exhibition and conference, celebrate excellence in real estate development and architecture. The Sinkeh Hotel topped the awards’ Leisure & Hospitality (Built) category, beating the Hyatt Regency Dubai Creek Heights in Dubai and Zaya Nurai Island Resort in Abu Dhabi.

Standing out from the plethora of boutique hotels in the UN-designated Heritage City of George Town is no mean feat either….

The word “sinkeh” means “newcomer” in Hokkien and refers to Chinese immigrants to Penang in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Much of the trade they carried out and the industry they participated in took place in buildings that now comprise the heart of George Town’s heritage area as well as enclaves closer to Penang’s port. Sinkeh Hotel is located in one of these outlying areas, in a buffer zone around the inner heritage site, on Lebuh Melayu Road.

The space was reimagined by Lillian Tay, a principal at Malaysia-based international architecture and design firm, the Veritas Design Group.

“It’s quite an honour to win an international award,” says Tay, who is also deputy president of the Malaysian Institute of Architects (or Pertubuhan Akitek Malaysia, PAM).

Tay has just returned from the topping out ceremony of the 56-storey W Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, the tallest project by Veritas so far, when we meet for an interview in her office on Jalan Ampang, KL.

Note how the new – and very modern – steel and glass pavilion does not touch the aged party wall on the left.

Note how the new – and very modern – steel and glass pavilion does not touch the aged party wall on the left.

“For the Sinkeh project, we did not treat it as a conservation project but rather one where conservation could provide opportunity for innovation. We wanted it to be a place not only where people can appreciate history but which still serves today’s functions. The past should not be a burden but a bonus,” Tay explains.

In 2015, Sinkeh also won the Gold Award in the Alteration & Addition category at the PAM Awards and was named Building of the Year.

The idea for Sinkeh came about when Penang-born arts veteran Chee Sek Thim wanted to nurture emerging practitioners and create a space where theatre groups could rehearse and have small performances.

Tay, who has known Chee for many years, wanted to support his work in the arts.

“He is also a visual, artistic and creative person so it was a good collaboration between architect and client,” says Tay, adding that Chee did the interior design and fitout of the space, making sure to incorporate a studio that the island’s arts community can rent for rehearsals and performances.

The nine-room, 500sqm property has retained as much of its original architecture as possible, including its upper facade, the traditional central open courtyard, and party walls.

While the facade officially dates from the 1920s, according to Tay the shoplot has existed longer than that because it appears on a map of Penang from the 1890s.

“For the upper facade, we took a conservation approach out of respect for the street. To me, conservation is about maintaining the character of the whole neighbourhood.

“But the back is a new world and totally transformed. We wanted the architecture to represent the concept of bridging the old and new,” says Tay.

Tay sees the past as a bonus, not a burden, when it comes to repurposing old spaces. Photo: The Star/Sia Hong Kiau

Tay sees the past as a bonus, not a burden, when it comes to repurposing old spaces. Photo: The Star/Sia Hong Kiau

The back half of the building incorporates a new, three-storey steel and glass pavilion constructed so that it doesn’t touch the aged party walls.

When Chee bought the shoplot in 2009, he had been attracted to it by the existence of a narrow, tapering gap (about 1.5m at its widest) by the side of the building – and that gap has since been turned into a landscaped area featuring a water channel.

“All the hotel rooms have little balconies that open onto this narrow airwell, water feature and the old party wall,” says Tay.

The entrance features a subtle, modern design.

“For the front, what we did was a new intervention. We made a kind of a blank wall to symbolise a new page and a new start, and then used recycled timber (balau) from floorboards from the back to create a door. It’s a very modern, abstract facade and because of that people stop to look and ask what this place is.

“We were delighted that the (Cityscape Awards) jury recognised the concept and the process of working with an old building and taking it into the modern day. That’s probably the main reason we received the award,” says Tay, adding that the old floorboards in the front of the hotel were retained to “let the old part of the building express itself in the front lobby”.

Inside, a big pivoting door can segregate the front and back or be opened up for studio space for rehearsals and performances.

“The difference with Sinkeh is that it’s like staying in an arts location. It’s not just any hotel but one that wants to draw you into the world of arts,” Tay says.

In fact, Sinkeh’s website, sinkeh.com, states that for every ringgit received from guests, 20 sen will go towards supporting the arts.

Cosy: The courtyard and landscaped areas inside Sinkeh Hotel. Photo: Veritas Design Group

Cosy: The courtyard and landscaped areas inside Sinkeh Hotel. Photo: Veritas Design Group

The courtyard in the building’s centre acts as another bridge between old and the new, with timber blinds installed to keep out the rain.

Another highlight is a timber walkway inspired by Penang’s historic Weld Quay clan jetties that have houses facing timber walkways. Similarly, all rooms in Sinkeh face the timber walkway.

There is also a little roof terrace upstairs where guests can relax and mingle.

“As one walks into the hotel, there is an industrial simplicity and edgy feel to it. There is also a rich sense of history and contemporary spirit to the place,” says Tay.

All rooms come with modern comforts and fittings, with floor-to-ceiling glass windows allowing ample natural lighting to penetrate.

The bathrooms are glass boxes that also allow light to filter through and help make the rooms feel bigger.

“What we wanted was the feel of having an outdoor shower,” explains Tay, adding that her favourite part of the hotel is the bathroom.