The Blue Mansion (Penang)
Singapore, together with Penang and Melaka in Malaysia, formed a triumvirate of British colonial presence in Southeast Aia. All were, at one point, trade centers for this vast empire, and much of their colorful past remains to be viewed by those interested in the history. After a trip to Melaka earlier this year, we set off for Penang last weekend to complete the circuit.
While there is much to see in Penang, my favorite sight was the Cheong Fatt Tze House, sometimes called “The Blue Mansion,” because of its brilliant color. Cheong Fatt Tze (1840 – 1916) built his awe-inspiring home in the 1880’s in traditional –albeit luxurious – Chinese courtyard style.
Arriving from China penniless, Cheong began his career at 16, delivering water to homes. He later became so wealthy and influential that many referred to him as the “Rockefeller of the East.” An entrepreneur, he also served as a Consul General for the Qing Dynasty, a Special Trade Commissioner for Southeast Asia, and Director of China’s first bank and inaugural railway. Called “the last Mandarin,” for the title he was granted by the Empress Dowager, he was so well regarded that upon his death, colonial Dutch and British government offices flew their flags at half-mast.
The house, painted a deep blue, boasts 38 rooms, 5 courtyards, seven staircases, and 220 windows. I especially loved the Victorian ironworks, imported from Glasgow, the art nouveau stained-glass windows, and the mosaics made with shards of old Chinese ceramics. Cheong Fatt Tze’s home deservedly won a UNESCO award in 2000. It’s not a surprise that producers “Indochine,” were also impressed, and chose the mansion as the setting for this fine film.
In 1989, the house was scheduled to be demolished. A small group of businessmen stepped in to save this cultural treasure, and today, it is a sixteen-room heritage hotel. Tours are offered twice daily by an engaging guide who shares the mansion’s colorful history and explains why it is an example of perfect feng shui.
Photos: An iron staircase, imported from Glasgow, exterior of the house, Cheong Fatt Tze, doors to the front porch, rickshaws left over from filming of “Indochine,” and modern sofa outside two of the guest rooms.
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