“What did this building used to be before it was the Else Retreats?” I asked the helpful concierge as he brought me to the sunken living room area on the property‘s second floor.
“Popular bookshop,” he replies with a grin as my eyes train upward, then left and right. It’s hard to imagine how this airy, poetic space was once home to stationery, assessment books, school bags, and students gathering at the pen rack to try out the latest writing paraphernalia technology.
While I settled into Mantra Room 211, a quick Google search revealed more information about Else Retreats’ not-too-distant past. A Malay Mail story from 2016 reported that the Popular Bookstore in Petaling Street would be shuttering come April after having served one million customers for close to 13 years. The reason given: Changes in demand and consumer profile.
Today, the former yellow facade of the Category 2 Historical Building has made way for more updated design sensibilities and colour schema of greys and whites. But before it became Popular, the bookstore, Else Retreats was The Lee Rubber Building, established by Lee Loy Seng, the founder of Lee Rubber Company, a rubber trading firm founded in 1927. It’s a piece of the hotel’s history to which the owners of Else Retreats — Justin Chen and Javier Perez — dutifully pay homage with the retention of the former rubber firm’s textual emblem at the top of the building.
Of dialogues and contrasts
Still, what impressed me the most about this Small Luxury Hotel of the World property beyond its rich history is its architecture — a push-pull confluence of past and present, raw versus refined, light and moody. In the middle of the hotel, air wells ensure sufficient cooling ventilation throughout the space, even at the apex of KL’s sweltering dry spell.
Lining the perimeter are the 269 sq ft Mantra rooms, the 742 sq ft Sutera rooms, and the Urban rooms that clock in at 355 sq ft. Else Retreats’ bigger 904 sq ft suites are located on floors five and six, which were added during construction and ensure complete privacy for the weary traveller.
Local design studio Studio Bikin is the architectural firm tasked with transforming the space into an urban retreat away from the hustle and bustle of Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown.
“We wanted to create a dialogue between the existing 1930s art deco-style building that had a shadowy past and its present transformation into a place of respite and wellness,” Studio Bikin’s founders, Farah Azizah and Adela Askandar explained in the hotel’s quarterly in-room zine. “While there is an obvious effort to restore the building envelope, we were conscious of wanting to connect the users.”
It is this sense of connectedness that makes a stroll along Else Retreats’ corridor one that, in the day, invites reflection while at night, stillness. “It is an energetic exchange when we occupy a building, the way a soul is breathed into a body to bring it to life,” Studio Bikin elaborates further.
“We create this synergistic imprint onto the vessel of the space we occupy, and that is why when we visit certain buildings with some historical significance, we feel a difference in our bodies and minds.”
Wong Mee Coffee Stall
Step outside Else Retreats’ heavy doors, and you will quickly understand how the hotel is, in many small ways, an exercise in contrast. Whereas inside Else Retreats is calm, understated, modern, and refined, outside, Chinatown hums and buzzes ever so steadily over the convivial pulse of Petaling Street.
Nowhere is this conviviality more apparent than at Wong Mee Coffee Stall, situated in the back alley of Else Retreats. It was an entirely accidental discovery, brought about by my quest for a cup of latte too early in the morning. I was looking for Arabica beans, but the universe paved the way for me to a comforting cup of Robusta made by a Chinese gentleman out of a tiny booth, no bigger, I assume, than 53 sq ft.
Here, I had an upsized serving of Kopi C, two half-boiled eggs, and two slices of kaya butter toast as I watched a group of Chinese men pass around one hundred ringgit bills as payment for some form of community savings — you know the type.
A stone’s throw away, Weng Hoa Flower Boutique paddles flowers, plants, and garden paraphernalia to locals and tourists alike. There are also two different houses of worship nearby — Taoist temple, Guan Di, and the historic Hindu temple, Sri Maha Mariamman. Needless to say, the neighbourhood is littered with cafes and coffee shops everywhere you look, and Gen Z Malaysians dressed a little too cool for school.
Else Retreats is great not simply because of its warm customer service, thorough attention to detail during room turndown and morning refresh, or the fact that the staff leaves a small card detailing the weather for the next day for guests to plan their day (and outfit) better. These are all great and, as card-carrying members of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group, are par for the course.
Instead, what makes Else Retreats a property worth staying at is its charm. From its intentional architectural choices to interior fittings to the mise en scene, the hotel is a living, breathing ecosystem of old-world beauty meets modern negative space.
Studio Bikin says it best: “We think of architecture in esoteric terms at times because conversations regarding preservation for the sake of preservation can be dry. Our eyes often trick us, and we forget how to feel and evaluate with the rest of our senses.”
“So we would rather open a dialogue on how a space makes you feel than what you see sometimes.”