When people gush over Eythrope’s breathtaking views, Mark Saw always credits his grandfather and granduncle for purchasing the Penang Hill bungalow from Ida Margaret May Bulford, wife of the original owner, Edward Bulford. At the reception area, a copy of the sales and purchase agreement dated June 27, 1951, states that Saw Choo Theng and Saw Seng Kew paid $70,000 for the Summit Road property.
As for why they made the purchase, Mark can only guess. “Probably because the British allowed people to buy. He was among the first to do so, together with Yeap Chor Ee [the Penang philanthropist]. Theirs is freehold and farther down the hill. Ours is leasehold, with another 90 years or so.
“My granddad was involved in plantations, banking and, eventually, property. He was very good at picking property and he picked it well.”
That is one ability property consultant Mark, who manages the family business, well appreciates. Looking at the visitor log, he found the Saws spent just about one month a year in Eythrope. “We still had to maintain the place and it was rundown in some ways.” He decided everyone could still enjoy the place as a family but allow others to do so too.
Thus, Tan Bee Eu, founder of BETA Architects, was engaged to transform Eythrope into an elegant retreat where guests could have privacy and indulge in the rich biodiversity of its surroundings. Work began in 2021 and was completed last October, and the bungalow built in 1929 — among the first modern residences that sprouted at various altitudes on Penang Hill then — quietly opened its doors in November.
“The idea is all about making sure your assets work for themselves and not having one that is draining. Leaving it empty means you need to spend more to maintain it. This way, eventually, it will more than pay for itself. This a good long-term venture. We’re still in our infancy; we’ll get there eventually,” says Mark, also a partner at Knight Frank Malaysia.
Some cousins suggested following the same path taken by nearby hillside bungalows open to the public. “I said we should go high-end and be in a category of our own: luxury.” As for classic or contemporary, there was a compromise and the decision was classic modern.
The family is happy with the total makeover. Eythrope has retained most of the features on the outside and it stands like a picture postcard, grand and inviting. Broken wooden window frames and doors were refurbished and reinstated while new windows were put in to soundproof the building. Two family suites and three bedrooms look out to George Town and Butterworth, with views of nature set against the backdrop of busy Penang with its culture and heritage. Each room, curated to off er a unique experience, is equipped with comforts that indulge both mind and body.
The Punchinello and Lacewing suites, measuring 78.4 sq m and 74 sq m respectively, are named after butterflies and have original archways leading from the lounge to enclosed balconies that tempt visitors to sit and do nothing. Tiger, Wispy Umbrella and Purple Rain have stories to tell about when these orchids flower and how prominent features in the rooms, such as timber beams and wood flooring, reflect the strong characteristics of those species.
Food used to be a hassle when the family went up to the bungalow for a holiday. They had to bring everything needed for meals and clean up the whole kitchen before even lighting the stoves. Then they had to wash and wipe again before heading home. Most times, they went up only for the day, not keen to stay the night worrying about mosquitoes buzzing in from the open windows. There was also the logistics: one jeep for family and food, and another for friends.
Meals at Eythrope are now a leisurely affair, with two chefs based downtown ready to prepare food that can be pre-booked and delivered vacuum packed. Guests can heat up their choice of Western, local or Nyonya dishes, set them out on the viewing deck and enjoy dinner to the sounds of the night and the sight of lights winking in the distance.
As for transport, hop into a 4WD vehicle at the Botanical Gardens or take the faster and comfortable funicular train ride — about six minutes — from the lower station at Air Itam. This service, which will mark its centenary in October, runs from 6.30am to 10pm daily and those who dislike queuing can pay to take the express lane!
Eythrope’s cool charm is tied to the history of Penang Hill, where the first bungalows — wood, bamboo and attap structures that sheltered those who wanted to get away from the tropical heat and experience the hill environment — were built at the beginning of the 19th century. Water was drawn from natural springs and wells, and oil lamps and candles lit up the night.
The stories of those early residents or travellers would enthral guests huddled around the lounge, with hot beverage in hand. Mike Gibby, author of The Bungalows of Penang Hill, traced descendants of the Bulfords to Australia. They do not know how the name Eythrope — which they pronounce as Ee-thrope — originated. “They think the family must have come from Buckinghamshire, in southern England, where there is a village called Eythrope. After the mother [Ida Bulford] sold the property to us, they went back to Dorset and gave the same name to their house there,” Mark relates.
“What I find amazing is that there have been only two families holding the bungalow. They built it in 1929. In six years, Eythrope will be 100. That it’s still here after so long is something to be proud of.” For him, the fact that the Saws have owned it longer than the original family is also nice to know.
This article first appeared in issue No. 109, Autumn 2023 of Haven.