My work colleague recommended that I visit the Blue Mansion in the heritage area of Georgetown in Penang. Since “heritage” was on my agenda during that trip, I did some research about the mansion and there were very good reviews. Immediately, I noted the time of the guided tour as I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
I signed up for the 2.00pm tour which costs RM16 (USD4.30). The group was not too large – about 10 of us – thus it was easy for us to get together in a small circle and listened to the interesting stories narrated by the guide about this mansion.
The mansion is actually called The Cheong Fatt Sze Mansion, and named after the owner himself, Mr Cheong. Due to hardship and suffering during the Second Opium War (mid 19th century) in China, Mr Cheong left South China for better prospects in South-East Asia. He sought his fortunes in Jakarta, Indonesia and became a shopkeeper. He continued to become successful especially after getting married and with the help of his father-in-law, he gradually established a trading company and expanded his business of agricultural products (rubber, coffee, tea) from Jakarta to Sumatra. Gradually he became a wealthy man.
In the late 19th century, Mr Cheong’s business expanded further to Penang so much so that he settled in Penang and built a mansion on 14 Leith Street. The uniqueness of this mansion is that – according to Wikipedia – its architecture originated from the Su Chow Dynasty in China but its interior is a mix and mash of Chinese porcelain works, and Gothic louvred-windows, Art Nouveau stained-glass windows, Stoke-on-Trent floor tiles and Glasgow cast iron works.
The mansion is also known as the Blue Mansion because of its distinctive bright indigo blue colour on the exterior walls. The colour is the result of mixing lime with natural dye from the indigo plant which was imported from India by the British during the colonial period.
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The mansion was built according to the principles of Feng Shui. For example, an airwell is built in the central courtyard and when it rains, the courtyard is filled with water. Water is considered good luck in feng shui but to prevent flooding in the courtyard, the entire flooring system is built with a step in the middle to create a slope. This “slope” symbolises the ride on the dragon’s back. Rainwater flows over the slope and then escapes through the pipes underneath the flooring system. At the same time, excess water from the rooftops can be channeled through a network pipes of the upper ceiling down to the floor pipes. With this design, the courtyard will be “blessed with good luck” of water when it rains but it never floods.
Over the years, Mr Cheong began a political career and in 1890, he was appointed the Chinese Consul based in Penang. During his capacity as a Chinese Consul, he worked relentlessly for the interests of overseas Chinese residents through diplomatic channels with the British. Nine years later, he was sent to China twice to present a national development plan to the Emperor of China, and that plan was well-received which resulted in him promoted as a minister for the provinces of Fujian and Guangdong.
Mr Cheong died in Indonesia in 1916, leaving behind eight wives and six sons. He stated in his will that the mansion was to remain in the family but monies left to maintain the mansion were badly spent. Eventually the 38 rooms in the mansion were let out to illegal squatters and over a period of 7 decades, the mansion fell into a severe state of dilapidation.
With the death of Mr Cheong’s last son in 1989, the mansion went on the market for sale. But conservation laws in Penang were non-existent at that time and developers were waiting greedily to get their hands on the mansion. Fortunately, a group of conservationists in Penang purchased the mansion and made plans to restore the mansion to its former glory by adhering to international best practice standards.
Local artisans together with those from Fujian Province of China painstakingly carried out restoration work in 1991. These artisans and craftsmen used original materials to rebuild the mansion; the restoration process took 6 years to complete and finally by 1997 the mansion was opened to the public for viewing. In 2000, UNESCO bestowed the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion an Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for Culture Heritage Conservation.
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The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion remains as a private residence but the property also operates as a boutique hotel of 18 rooms; a restaurant serving Chinese and Sichuan cuisine; and a perfect venue for weddings, parties and private dinners. In addition, tours are offered in English three times a day (11am/2pm/3.30pm) to central parts of the house.
Here’s a fun fact: the Blue Mansion was featured in the 1993 Oscar-winning French film “Indochine” starring Catherine Deneuve 🙂
So if you’re ever in Penang, do not miss the chance to visit the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion – the 1.5 hours guided tour is absolutely worth it!
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