A new life for Island Plaza

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GEORGE TOWN: The small enclave of Tanjong Tokong is ready for a new revival.

A Hong Kong businessman, among many seeking prime land and buildings in the state, has snapped up the long-neglected Island Plaza in the region and promises to make it a big draw again.

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The buyer, known only as Law, said it would bring Hong Kong’s creative economy – musical and performing arts, film and television production – to the mall.

As an added attraction, there will be the former British colony’s iteration of the coffeeshop, called cha chan teng in Cantonese, which literally means ‘tea and dish room’.

Cha chan teng is characterized by a laid-back atmosphere, with a menu of gourmet specialties in addition to Hong Kong street food.

Island Plaza was sold for an undisclosed sum to the property mogul who said he would bring all of Hong Kong’s successful retail strategies to the state.

“What we have learned in making Hong Kong an international destination for culinary arts and fashion, we will bring to Penang,” he said.

He said he fell in love with the peace and prosperity of the state.

“You can have a plate of noodles for a few ringgits or a hundred ringgits, and they will all be delicious.

“In terms of cost of living, Penang is 1/15 (6.66%) of the cost in Hong Kong (for a high-end lifestyle). Yet whatever Hong Kong has, you have,” Law said.

For more than a decade, the people of Hong Kong, including its celebrities, have settled in Penang.

Many have come here to retire, but in recent years Hong Kongers have started buying properties for investment.

The Star recently reported that Hong Kong investors had bought the last old bungalows along the famous Gurney Drive promenade.

Law himself came to Penang six years ago.

“I have an insurance agent over 20 who was born in Penang. He kept urging me to come to Penang for vacation,” he said.

During his first vacation here, Law kept extending his stay.

“I chose Eastern and Oriental Hotel. It was more beautiful than the best traditional hotel in Hong Kong.

“It was then RM600 to RM700 per night here. In Hong Kong it would have cost RM2,000 a night,” he said.

The real estate tycoon started buying properties in Penang on his first trip and bought his first home here – a nearly 11,000 square foot super condo in Gurney Drive.

Each time he returned, he bought at least one more property.

“I now own more than 10 properties in Penang, including a private museum and a boutique hotel in the heritage enclave,” said Law, who is 70.

On his first holiday in Penang, Law said he was sad to see many beggars and drunks outside his hotel.

“After a few years, I no longer see them. Penang is improving and this kind of socio-economic progress is really rare,” he said.

Mega Realty Sdn Bhd director Jenny Yeap, who currently runs the Island Plaza lettings office, confirmed plans for the redevelopment and redesign, including a high-tech facade of the mall, have been submitted to council municipal.

“We are negotiating with many large anchor tenants to set up a boutique at Island Plaza now,” she added.

Yeap said Island Plaza was sold to Law just before the movement control order was imposed on March 18, 2020.

The mall is a landmark in Penang as it heralded a new phase of consumerism in the 1990s.

Opened in December 1995, the 500,000 square foot mall was then worth RM200 million.

In 2016, a business periodical reported that a shopping mall investment fund bought Island Plaza for RM120 million in 2007 and injected RM40 million into refurbishing it.

It was the only other major shopping complex besides Komtar in 1995 and prompted luxury concept stores including Versace, Fila, Oshkosh B’gosh, Polo Santa Barbara and Mizuno to open for the first time in Penang.

However, many new shopping complexes sprang up later, relegating Island Plaza to the background.

Malaysian Mall Association adviser Richard Chan said the shopping complexes need frequent regeneration.

“They have to change their skin from time to time. Change is the only constant. Colours, concepts, even types of retailers have to be constantly changed.

“It’s not about the size of the mall. It will be a challenge to bring Island Plaza back to its glory days, but it’s a good challenge,” he said.

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