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Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Blue Mansion, Penang

Once upon a time, a long long time ago... in the Middle Kingdom we now know as China, there lived a young man who dreamt big dreams. With nought but the clothes on his back, he left his homeland to seek his fortunes across the South China Sea, arriving first in Medan, Indonesia then Penang, a little British colonial island northeast of the Straights of Malacca. Cheong Fatt Tze was the name of this young man. From the age of 16 he started off as a humble water bearer to become a famous Mandarin with a vast empire under his command, the "Rockfeller of the East".

With the immense wealth he acquired from agriculture and shipping he built this mansion, blue because... well just because he liked the color blue. After all, there was only white, mustard or blue paint in those days. Grand and elaborate, this mansion had 38 rooms, 5 courtyards, 7 staircases and 220 windows designed with optimal fengshui in mind: a smattering of pineapples (wong lai) and bat (bian fu) motifs into the walls and windows to beckon Fortune into his home.

This is too big a place for one man! you may exclaim. Indeed, Cheong Fatt Tze had many wives - eight to be exact. As a wealthy and successful man, it was accepted and expected that he would acquire many brides (plus girlfriends). Is it any different today? Perhaps discretion has become the keyword in modern times. To keep so many females *peacefully* living under one roof must have been a great headache to Mr Cheong (or any man for that matter). The mansion housed three of his eight wives, six sons and many daughters. The latrine and kitchens were located away from the house and servants lived in a separate block of residence across the street.

When Cheong Fatt tze passed away, it was stated in his will that this house be never sold until the death of his youngest son. When the family fell into gentile destitution, instead of hastening the departure of the bequethed they sold off the furniture within the mansion piece by piece (see, contracts can have loopholes). When that was done, the many rooms were rented out. Or rather, a hat was passed around and whoever could contribute, stayed. Needless to say, with ages of neglected the once majestic mansion faded into debilitation.

This beautiful piece of 19th century architecture would have been demolished to make way for shinny new highrises if not for the efforts of a small but determined group of people who saw the true value of this heritage building. In 1990, the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion was acquired with private funds and restored to its glory as it stands today. Hats off to these visionaries who fought to preserve this extraordinary piece of heritage for generations to come. Like many, I was in awe of the architecture and stories woven into every intricate interior design (no photos allowed within, sorry!) and I am certain that many visitors feel the same.

Winner of the "Most Excellent Project" UNESCO Heritage Conservation Award 2000, National Architecture Award for Conservation 1995, ASEANTA 2004 Excellence Awards "Best ASEAN Cultural Preservation Effort, the Blue Mansion also serves as a heritage boutique hotel ("Excellence" Award in the "Best City Hotel" Category from the Expatriate's Lifestyle 2008 Polls). Guided tours are held twice daily at 11am and 3pm for a fee of RM12 per person.

Address: 14 Leith Street, 10200 Penang, Malaysia.

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