The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion is arguably one of the most unique and well conserved heritage buildings in Georgetown, Penang. The architecture and craftsmanship of the mansion is said to have originated about 3000 years ago from the Su Chow dynasty period in China. This historical building, which survived the Second World War, is certainly worth a visit for old and young alike.
The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion was built in the 1890s by its namesake, a prominent Chinese merchant who hailed from Tai'pu, a Teochew district in China. Despite his humble upbringing, Cheong Fatt Tze became one of the richest men in the East via a number of lucrative business ventures.
Dubbed the ‘Rockefeller of the East’, the Chinese tycoon owned many residences throughout Southeast Asia. However, he reportedly built his most elaborate and lavish mansion in the UNESCO World Heritage city of Georgetown, Penang.
The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion served as the base for his commercial enterprises, housed the Chinese Vice-Consulate and was also home for his favoured 7th wife. He made the decision to build a traditional-style Chinese courtyard house despite the popularity of modern Anglo-Indian designs at the time.
Prior to that, Cheong had consulted with the era's preeminent feng shui masters before selecting the plot of land as he had hoped to house nine generations of his descendants in the mansion.
The historical structure, which boasts 38 rooms, 5 granite-paved courtyards, 7 staircases and 220 vernacular timber louvred windows, is reputedly one of only two such buildings remaining outside China. The majestic mansion was constructed by master craftsmen from Southern China over a seven-year period from 1896 to 1904.
Also known as the ‘Blue Mansion’, the century-old architecture is a striking contrast to the whitewashed homes and businesses in the area. The distinctive colour of the indigo-blue walls was created from a mix of lime with natural blue dye made from the Indigo plant.
Inside The Blue Mansion
The two-storey courtyard house, which has a built-up area of about 3,000 sqm, consists of two main components, namely, the main house, which is distinguished by the gables of the main roof, and two side wings.
All major activities such as business meetings, the administration of the Chinese Vice-Consulate and the formal greeting of guests were conducted in the front halls, while the rear halls were for ancestral prayers and dining. The first floor housed rooms for significant family members, while those who had lost favour, as well as lesser relatives, were relegated to the wings.
The craftsmen paid careful attention to the principles of feng shui when constructing the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion. For example, they made sure the mansion had an unimpeded view of the sea for strategic reasons with the Penang Hill in the rear for protection.
Inside, the mansion is decorated with intricate Chinese timber carvings, Cantonese timber lattices, Hokkien ‘Chien Nien’ porcelain works, Gothic louvered windows, Scottish cast-iron balusters, trompe l'oeil paintings, art nouveau stained glass windows and ornamental archways.
A closer look will reveal some of the more delicate features including lavish doors, russet brick walls, pillars made from the Glasgow cast iron works by MacFarlane's & Co., and the finest floor tiles from Stoke-on-Trent.
The main hall is adorned with materials which constitute the basic, 'must-have' feng shui elements of metal, timber, water, fire and earth. In the middle of the main hall is the open-air courtyard.
When it rains, rainwater runs through a network of pipes from the roof through the upper ceiling, down the walls and collects in the central courtyard before it is channelled away via a similar network of pipes underneath the entire flooring system.
A Precious Heritage
When Cheong passed away on 11 September 1916 due to pneumonia, his will stated that the mansion must remain in the family until the death of the youngest of his 6 sons.
Many of his descendents, however, stripped the mansion bare of its rare collections of sculptures and carvings, porcelain, tapestries, embroideries, lacquers, bronzes and other antiques when they migrated to Australia.
When the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion was finally sold in 1989, it was found to be in an extremely dilapidated state as the remaining descendents could not afford to upkeep the mansion. The new owners, a group of heritage conservationists, spent four painstaking years and RM7.6 million to restore it to its former glory using only original materials.
The restorations works, which started in 1991, subsequently earned the mansion the 'Most
Excellent Project' title at the inaugural UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage Conservation Award in 2000. Last year, it was selected 'One Of 10 Greatest Mansions In The World' by Lonely Planet.
The mansion has been featured in various films including the 1993 Oscar-winning French film ‘Indochine’ starring Catherine Deneuve, 'The Red Kebaya', ‘Road to Dawn', '3rd Generation' and the critically acclaimed 'The Blue Mansion' in 2009 by Singapore director Glen Goei. The heritage mansion currently operates as a 16-room boutique hotel-cum-museum.