Beyond the 21st century muddle of cars, garish signs and ugly expanses of tarmac and concrete, the houses along Lebuh Leith still conceal the ghosts of a bygone era, when Penang’s Chinese elite lived out their lives of luxury among the shady tropical gardens that once existed here. Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, otherwise known as the Blue Mansion, has retained every inch of its original glory, and you can still get a glimpse of what life must have been like for Georgetown’s mercantile millionaires at the turn of the 20th century.
The original owner of the house, Cheong Fatt Tze, is one of Penang’s most celebrated success stories. Born into poverty in China, he 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.
The mansion is a true amalgam of Chinese and European architectural styles. 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 jian nian 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.
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.
Sadly, after Cheong Fatt Tze 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.
Daily tours are led by very knowledgeable and entertaining guides, who will 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 shui 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 payed off, since the mansion is consistently cited as the most impressive in Penang.
Tours are conducted daily at 11:00, 13:30 and 15:00 and cost 12 ringgit per person. Photography is not allowed inside the house, so be aware of this before you cart along your heavy camera. If you want to get an even better feel for the mansion, it also operates as a boutique hotel and you can stay in one of the 16 guest rooms for between 420 and 800 ringgit per night, including breakfast. Who knows: the longer you stay, the better the chances that some of that positive feng shui will work its magic on you, too.
For post-tour refreshments, the Blue Mansion is just around the corner from the popular cafes on trendy Muntri Street, including Mews Cafe. If you don’t want to stay chez Cheong Fatt Tze, why not go for one of the other nearby options, such as Ryokan, Syok @ Chulia, Guest Inn Muntri or Muntri House.
By Mark Thompson.
Last updated on 18th February, 2017.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.