Recently my family and I had an amazing adventure on the other side of the world. We flew from Glasgow to Malaysia in the heart of Southeast Asia where the weather is always hot and steamy, even in December. From the capital city of Kuala Lumpur we took a four-hour train ride (with f-f-freezing cold air conditioning) up the coast to the island of Penang.
The main city on the island is called George Town, and it has a long history as a trading port. Today the city is a modern metropolis with high-rise office blocks and fancy hotels, but there are still some beautiful historic buildings that give a sense of the old way of life in Penang.
One of these is the famous Blue Mansion on Leith Street. It was built in the late 1880s by a very successful Chinese businessman and diplomat, Cheong Fatt Tze. Born into relative poverty in southern China in 1840, Cheong fled civil war and settled in Jakarta, Indonesia, where he started as a shopkeeper before building an impressive business trading rubber, tea and coffee. He had three ships which travelled between Penang and Sumatra with trade goods, and soon he was rich enough to buy a bank.
Cheong Fatt Tze was so well known and admired in Penang that the Chinese government appointed him as Chinese Consul, responsible for the wellbeing of all Chinese residents of Malaysia and Singapore. For this highly prestigious position, Cheong decided he would need an impressive residence as his base.
The Blue Mansion was built according to the principles of Feng Shui, a Chinese philosophy linking architectural design with the elements of nature to ensure a lucky and harmonious life. For example, the house has five courtyards open to the sky, allowing rain to enter, as water is a symbol of wealth and prosperity. The house is also built on a gradient which allows drainage and represents the upward steps toward progress and self-improvement.
Because Cheong was an international trader, he chose the highest quality materials for his mansion from around the world. These included Victorian encaustic floor tiles from Stoke-on-Trent and decorative cast iron from William Macfarlane’s Saracen Foundry in Glasgow.
Being a Glasgow resident myself, I couldn’t resist finding a Macfarlane imprint on one of the columns!
The floor tiles are typical of the time and the same patterns can be found in Victorian houses around the UK.
The exterior of the house is finished with a lime wash (mixing powdered lime – not the fruit – with sand and water) which is spread on the surface like plaster. Natural lime wash dries white, but because this colour represents death in Chinese culture, Cheong’s mansion has the addition of indigo dye which creates a beautiful blue colour.
At the eaves, Chinese craftsmen have added an amazing floral decoration in the Chien Nien style with pheasants, parrots, crabs and fish. These are made with red, yellow, white and green ceramic bowls which have been broken to create curved mosaic pieces. All very labour intensive!
Cheong Fatt Tze had eight wives and six sons. His favourite wife (number 7) lived in the Blue Mansion, and Cheong used part of the building as his office as Chinese Consul in Penang. He died in 1916 and his will stated that the mansion must be shared by his descendants and could not be demolished or divided up. Over the years it fell into disrepair, and was eventually inhabited only by drifters and rats.
In 1989 a group of Penang conservationists who saw the historic importance of the Blue Mansion bought the property and spent many years and a great deal of money (supported by UNESCO and other heritage agencies) restoring the building. It is now open to the public and has a museum installation on the first floor with guided tours three times daily. (We went on one and the guide is very entertaining!)
The mansion also houses a luxurious 16-room hotel and a restaurant called Indigo. It’s an impressive building with so many surprising details, not least of which is the fascinating story of Cheong himself. I think if we ever go back to Malaysia it will be my hotel of choice!