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The grand old dame

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  • The grand old dame

    New Straits Times, Malaysia
    Nov 30 2008

    The grand old dame


    She may be getting on in years but the venerable grand dame of Penang
    is at her sparkling best, writes MARINA EMMANUEL.

    TIGRAN, an Armenian, started in 1884 with the Eastern Hotel in George
    Town and a year later elder brother Martin opened the Oriental Hotel.

    The Oriental was extended and renovated entirely in 1889 and the
    Sarkies brothers gave up the Eastern.

    The savvy Sarkies, not wanting to lose the goodwill and familiarity of
    the Eastern name, renamed the Oriental as the Eastern and Oriental
    Hotel, which became better known as the E&O Hotel.

    The two brothers from Isfahan in Persia, as Iran was known then, were
    joined later by two more brothers, Aviet and Arshak, and they went on
    to found a string of luxury hotels in Singapore, Indonesia and Burma.

    The E&O has since evolved into an institution in Penang which has
    welcomed kings and queens, Hollywood royalty and noted scribes.

    Besides serving as a home away from home for the likes of Noel Coward,
    Douglas Fairbanks, Hermann Hesse, Rudyard Kipling and Somerset
    Maugham, this famous architectural landmark has also been a valued
    part of the personal history of local weddings, birthdays and other

    By the 1920s, the E&O was being hailed as `the premier hotel east of
    the Suez'.

    It boasted more than a hundred rooms, 40 of them with adjoining
    bathrooms, hot and cold running water, individual telephones and a
    842-foot seafront, touted as `the longest of any hotel in the world'.

    `Today, after weathering two World Wars, and more reversals of fortune
    than it has changes of ownership, the E&O has reclaimed its legacy,'
    said the hotel's director of group communications and investor
    relations, Lyn Chai.

    In telling the story of the hotel's legacy, the E&O Group will be
    launching a coffee-table book The E&O Hotel ' Pearl of Penang next

    The book, authored by Australian-based freelance writer Ilsa Sharp,
    contains personal photographs, stories and anecdotes from individuals
    who have helped inject colour into the story.

    A notable feature of the book is the previously unpublished pictures
    by one of the pioneers in Malaysian photography, Sultan Ismail
    Nasiruddin Shah, the 15th Sultan of Terengganu and fourth Yang
    di-Pertuan Agong.

    `My grandparents stayed at the E&O in 1954 when the pictures were
    taken,' said Raja Mohd Zainul Ihsan Shah, who is the grandson and
    custodian of The Sultan Ismail Photograph Collection.

    The royal couple stayed at the E&O after visiting their sons, Tengku
    Seri Paduka, Ibrahim, and Tengku Seri Laksamana Raja, Sulaiman, who
    were studying at the Malay College Kuala Kangsar.

    Raja Ihsan said his grandparents appreciated the hotel and its
    historical value.

    Describing his late grandfather as a photographer who was accomplished
    technically and pictorially with strong compositions, Raja Ihsan said:

    `His favourite camera was a German-made large format Plaubel Makina 3
    and he visited the factory in Germany in 1968 when he was the Yang
    diPertuan Agong.'

    The E&O also provided a backdrop for a love story of a couple from
    different continents.

    Patsy Addington, an American, married Malaysian Victor Oorjitham at
    the Tamil Methodist Church in July 1956.

    The book talks about how the bride wore a dress she had sewn herself
    while Oorjitham made all the plans for the wedding while she was in
    the US.

    The newly-weds held their tea reception at the E&O and guests were
    served sandwiches, curry-puffs and cake.

    Fifty years later in 2006, the couple returned to the E&O to celebrate
    their golden wedding anniversary where tea was almost like how it was
    in 1956 ' sandwiches, curry puffs, scones, fresh fruit, cake as well
    as a replica of the wedding cake.

    The Oorjithams had found the hotel almost like how it was in 1956.

    `All over the world, many and much more difficult restoration works
    have been carried out most successfully like the Dorchester in London
    and Danieli in Venice,' says E&O managing director Datuk Terry Tham.

    Restoring the hotel to its original splendour has been painstaking and
    financially demanding but Tham hastens to add that the sight of the
    many original furniture and fittings never fails to bring back
    positive emotions to those who share a love for heritage in general,
    and the E&O in particular.

    `Until today,' says Tham, `one of the most talked-about features of
    E&O is the famed echo dome in the main lobby, which is regarded as a
    triumph in engineering and construction.

    `One of the oldest Java trees in Asia still stands on our lawn, along
    the longest sea frontage of any hotel in the region.

    `To build a new five-star hotel from scratch would have been an easier
    option but it would mean chopping down the Java tree, a sacrilege.

    `You cannot create heritage overnight. I consider it a rare
    opportunity and privilege to be able to contribute to E&O's continuing

    Photos Current_News/NST/Sunday/Focus/20081129211021/Artic le/index_html