Spirit of Penang in a hotel

Lim Yu-Beng and Tan Kheng Hua present a play set in an iconic hotel in the Malaysian town

The production, Pearl Of The Eastern & Oriental, is set in the iconic E&O hotel and stars Malaysian actress Lez Ann Chong (above).
The production, Pearl Of The Eastern & Oriental, is set in the iconic E&O hotel and stars Malaysian actress Lez Ann Chong (above).PHOTO: CRISPIAN CHAN
The production, Pearl Of The Eastern & Oriental, is set in the iconic E&O hotel (above) and stars Malaysian actress Lez Ann Chong.
The production, Pearl Of The Eastern & Oriental, is set in the iconic E&O hotel (above) and stars Malaysian actress Lez Ann Chong.PHOTO: EASTERN & ORIENTAL HOTEL
Lim Yu- Beng.
Lim Yu- Beng.
Tan Kheng Hua.
Tan Kheng Hua.

Husband-and-wife duo Lim Yu- Beng and Tan Kheng Hua are presenting a tale of modern Penang in Pearl Of The Eastern & Oriental, a production commissioned for the George Town Festival next month.

The play, which is written by Lim and produced by Tan, will have the audience led through various parts of the Eastern & Oriental Hotel in George Town as they encounter different guests and ghosts of the hotel. For example, the predesignated route will include a visit to the Noel Coward suite, named after the English writer who stayed there in 1929.

The title of the play refers both to its main character, a young female butler of the hotel named Pearl, and Penang's nickname as the "Pearl of the Orient".

The show runs from July 28 to 31 and Aug 4 to 7 and tickets cost RM200 (S$66). To date, about 80 per cent of tickets have been sold.

Lim says the history of the hotel, known fondly as the E&O, reflects the history of Penang. He spent time at the hotel earlier this year researching its history and interviewing staff who had stories to share.

He says: "The hotel is a repository of anecdotes and history. It's gone through the war, the period of Merdeka and today it's fully owned by a Malaysian. There've been all these people who have stayed in it, including movie stars."

The E&O was established in 1885 by the Sarkies Brothers, pre-dating Raffles Hotel in Singapore, also owned by the Armenian brothers, by two years.

But Lim does not want to just focus on the past. Instead, he would like the production to capture the spirit of modern Penang - a state that is often romanticised as just being a pretty town, but actually has the third-largest economy in Malaysia.

Protagonist Pearl represents that spirit of modernity in the play. She is played by Kuala Lumpur-based actress Lez Ann Chong, who was last seen in a telemovie on Okto in August, titled Second Chances.

Says Chong, 29: "Pearl is a young, bright, hardworking and full-of- heart Penangite searching for her future."

The cast is predominantly Malaysian, except for two actors who are based in Singapore, actor and educator Andy Tear and recent Lasalle graduate Mitchell Lagos.

Tear will play the ghost of writer Noel Coward.

Tan says: "It was hard to find Noel Coward. We were really trying to have an all-Malaysian cast, but in the end, we opened it up to Singapore actors."

The annual George Town Festival is a month-long celebration with more than 100 events, performan- ces, installations and collaborations spanning arts, culture and heritage. It was introduced in 2010 to mark George Town's designation as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Tan, 53, and Lim, 50, have been involved in the festival since its inaugural year, either as collaborators, performers or as audience members. In 2014, they also presented a site-specific work, 2 Houses, which involved a Singaporean and Malaysian cast and was held in a colonial mansion. The sold-out play was part of the SIN-PEN Colony, a pop-up festival within the festival that celebrated the shared heritage of two states.

This time, Tan says that the 90-minute show is "more of a Penang story" that is "crafted for Penang". She estimates that 90 per cent of people who have bought tickets are Malaysian.

Still, Singaporeans making the trip up to Penang - about eight hours by car or under two hours by plane - can relate to the story as well.

After all, Singapore and Penang, along with Malacca, were part of the Straits Settlements under British rule and more occupied during the Second World War.

Lim says that the Japanese took over the E&O during the war, using it as an officers' mess and lodgings for its top-ranking staff.

Tan says: "These stories will be as resonant to Singaporeans as they are to Penangites. We are very similar people and we share very similar histories."

• Limited tickets are available. For more information, go to georgetownfestival.com.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 07, 2016, with the headline 'Spirit of Penang in a hotel'. Print Edition | Subscribe