Before Nicolas Chiew and Michael Geraghty met up for a now-memorable chat at a café in Avalon Beach, Sydney in 2011, it is likely that neither could have envisioned their professional paths being so thoroughly conjoined just a few years later. What arose from that fateful discussion ultimately became the basis for Colonial Trading Company, a unique Australian outfit that specialises in importing recycled timbers procured from decommissioned warehouses, unused kampong houses and old fishing boats in Chiew’s native Malaysia.
Following a recent launch in Sydney that artfully showcased sample hardwood timbers in the form of a pre-fabricated pergola, the company has piqued the interest of everyone from architects to furniture-makers. A prolific collaboration with Australian landscape designer Charlie Albone at the recent Australian Garden Show didn’t hurt either, keeping the spotlight trained on the company’s timeless, one-of-a-kind wares.
But far from being a mere supplier of exotic wood products such as unseasoned eucalyptus timbers and rose gum, the Colonial Trading Company’s real allure lies in its role as a purveyor of narratives; whether its salvaged goods are reimagined as bespoke tiling or the rustic interiors of a stylish new Chinese eatery in New South Wales, colourful stories – including those of its founders – are ultimately being celebrated through each respective resurrection of weathered quality wood.
Hailing from Kuching, Sarawak, the vernacular architecture of old kampong or village houses is a backdrop that resonates with Chiew. A child of mixed parentage – his father is Malaysian-Chinese while his mother originated from Australia – he’d spent much of his childhood vacationing in traditional longhouses and pared down beach bungalows with his family; vivid impressions of these simple, idyllic structures continued to punctuate his memory long after he left the city, acquired a background in engineering, and co-founded a telco business. Around the time that Chiew sold his stake in the business and was eager to involve himself in a new venture, he met and bonded easily with Geraghty over shared memories of his home country.
Australian by birth, the latter lived and worked extensively in various parts of Malaysia over a 15-year period before returning to Sydney. Geraghty had grown well acquainted with the lay of the land, cultivating in depth knowledge of Malaysia’s diverse terrain through his years as a seasoned oil palm industry professional. Enchanted by their connection to heritage and ancient customs, he found himself lamenting the fate of these historical dwellings whenever he’d hear of one that had succumbed to the pressures of modernisation.
“From the outset I was fascinated with the architecture and construction of early kampong houses, and subsequently upset every time I saw one being pulled down,” he recalls. “[My wife] Judy and I would wonder why they did not re-use the timber, and we are talking about the most beautiful hardwood timber species in the world. I would often tell myself that one day I would set up a business recycling this discarded timber,”
Steeping themselves in the complexities of an import and export business, Chiew and Geraghty utilised their understanding of the country’s cultural and geographical workings, and their extensive network in both Australia and Malaysia to ensure that shipping, as well as the ethical procurement of suitable timber species, could go off without a hitch. “It is primarily due to my close relationships, knowledge, and love of Malaysia, which is built on a foundation of many years, that makes this all possible,” says Geraghty.
Carefully orchestrated logistics aside, the Colonial Trading Company is, at its heart, propelled by the idea of giving back to a country that continues to hold many emotional ties for both founders. It is essentially this devotion to heritage and the land that set its wheels – or rather, its metaphorical sails – in motion, giving Malaysia’s humblest splendours their due.
Colonial Trading Company