Photo: Unforgettable indigo.

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

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Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, the former home of one of Georgetown’s most celebrated mercantile millionaires, both conceals the ghosts of a bygone era and stands out like the proverbial (blue) bruised digit among a 21st century expanse of ugly tarmac and concrete.

Join the hoi polloi at one of the three daily tours to get a glimpse of what life must have been like when Penang’s Chinese elite lived out their lives of luxury among the shady tropical gardens that once existed here.

There is a reason it is called the Blue Mansion. Photo taken in or around Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, Penang, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

There is a reason it is called the Blue Mansion. Photo: Sally Arnold

In a rags-to-riches tale, Cheong Fatt Tze was born into poverty in China, fled his homeland in 1856 and arrived penniless in Southeast Asia at the age of 17 but by the end of the 1800s he had become Asia’s wealthiest businessman, known as the “Rockefeller of the East”. He made Penang his main home and the opulent “Blue Mansion” in Georgetown reflects his remarkable life, during which he traversed between east and west in the pursuit of wealth and success.

Sadly, after he died in 1916, much of the original furniture was removed from the house by subsequent generations of his family, who squandered the fortune that he bequeathed to them and let the house fall into ruin. By the end of the 20th century the building was full of squatters, but was bought by a group of conservationists who restored it to its former grandeur and in 2000 it won a UNESCO award for heritage conservation.

Gorgeous inner sanctum. Photo taken in or around Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, Penang, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Gorgeous inner sanctum. Photo: Sally Arnold

The mansion is an amalgam of Chinese and European architectural styles, known locally as the Straights Eclectic stlye. Outwardly, the building is more obviously Chinese and the arched colonnade at the front is reminiscent of the five-foot ways seen throughout Georgetown. Meanwhile, the kidney-shaped fan lights, carved gilded doors and louvred windows are typical of the traditional Chinese architectural form, while the chien nien cut-ceramic decorations on the upper walls and the roofs derive from temple architecture. The traditional bright blue walls, painted using lime wash mixed with natural dye from the indigo plant, are what now give the building its popular moniker.

Inside, the imposing Chinese screen that separates the entrance hall from the rest of the house, elaborately carved, gilded and inlaid with mother-of-pearl, continues the Chinese influence, and yet it is complemented by distinctly European features, including floor tiles from England’s famous potteries in Stoke-on-Trent, intricate ceiling plasterwork, stained glass in the Victorian tradition with hints of Art Nouveau, hanging glass ceiling lamps, and wooden panelling on the walls.

Tempting for a snooze? Photo taken in or around Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, Penang, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Tempting for a snooze? Photo: Sally Arnold

In the centre of the house, a traditional Chinese granite courtyard is surrounded by sweeping staircases as well as a galleried landing supported by iron pillars from Scotland and decorated with European-style metal gratings, frieze and latticework. However, the pillars are topped with wooden Chinese carvings, so completing the unique fusion style that characterises the mansion.

Tours are led by very knowledgeable and entertaining guides, so it’s worth standing as close as possible to hear above the hubbub of the crowd as they regale you with stories about the big man himself, as well as his countless wives, his family and the architecture of the house. The tales of Cheong Fatt Tze’s obsession with Feng Ahui are particularly interesting, and you will be amazed at the lengths to which he went in order to channel as much positive energy into the building as possible. It seems that his efforts paid off since the mansion is consistently cited as the most impressive in Penang.

The classic Blue Mansion shot. Photo taken in or around Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, Penang, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

The classic Blue Mansion shot. Photo: Sally Arnold

The popular 45-minute guided tours are conducted daily at 11:00, 14:00 and 15:30 in English and Chinese and cost 17 ringgit per person (8.50 ringgit for kids under 12). Arrive early to avoid the long queue. The tour ends in the gift shop where you can pick up an excellent coffee table book on the history and restoration of the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. For a less crowded experience, book for lunch or dinner in the mansion’s Indigo Resturant or indulge in the luxurious style of the former owner and nab a room, as Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion also operates as one of Penang’s most notable heritage hotels. Who knows: the longer you stay, the better the chances that some of that positive Feng Shui will work its magic on you, too.

Don’t miss the opportunity to discover another of Penang’s A-list heritage homes at the opulent (and not as congested) Pinang Peranakan Mansion, an Aladdin’s cave of antiques and artefacts. Or if your travels continue to Sumatra, make sure you visit Tjong (Cheong) A Fie Mansion the former home of a relative and business partner of Cheong Fatt Tze. This and Cheong Fatt Tze mansion are believed to be the only two five-courtyard structures of this size and style outside of China.

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Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion
14 Lebuh Leith, Georgetown
Guided tours at 11:00 and 14:00 and 15:00 daily
T: (0426) 20 006
Admission: 17 ringgit, 8.50 ringgit for kids

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