THE Malaysian island of Penang is an important center of trade and culture – and has been so for hundreds of years, since the coming of the British. In the late 1700s, the island, which was then under rule of the Sultanate of Kedah, was leased to one Captain Francis Light, a seafarer for the British East India Company, in exchange for protection against invading Burmese and Thai attacks to the north. This resulted in a boom of shipping and trade, and Penang was called the Prince of Wales Island – the first of the British settlements in South East Asia.
This rich historical legacy can be seen from the old world mansions and buildings dotting the island, from the various migrant cultures arriving on Malayan shores in search of a better life. One such place is the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion along Leith Street.
The building is easily spotted from its surrounding neighbours, thanks to its beautiful coat of deep indigo blue.There is a well-kept garden outside the mansion, with tender-looking weeping willows and Chinese-style round tables and chairs placed on the lawn. Like many Chinese architectural gardens, the walls are made to look like bamboo openings.
A part of the mansion was converted into a Bed & Breakfast, so only a small portion is open to visitors. There are three tours in a day – 11am, 2pm and 3.30pm – and no one is allowed to wander the halls on their own. At RM16 per entry, the price tag is hefty, but is it worth it?
So who exactly is Cheong Fatt Tze and what’s the deal with his mansion? His is a tale of true rags to riches… but it also has a pretty sad ending. Born in 1840, he hailed from Guangdong Province in China. As a child, he was dyslexic and could never learn words, but was business-minded and smart.
At the tender age of 15, he voyaged from China to the Indonesian city of Batavia (now Jakarta), working as a water-carrier for a wealthy family. Whether or not it was part of his grand business schemes, but within a few years, he had distinguished himself as a fine worker and married the daughter of the family he worked for : thus opening up capital and opportunities. From then on it was a roll. Cheong invested in everything from shipping to trade, rubber, coffee, tea, mining, banking… you name it, and chances are he had an investment in it. He amassed such a fortune that he came to be known as the Rockefeller of the East.
Not bad for a young boy who came all the way from China with nothing but the clothes on his back. Listening to his story, I couldn’t help but marvel at the indomitable business spirit and will to survive so prevalent in many overseas Chinese families. My own great grandparents worked themselves to the bone to raise a family in then-Malaya, and although we aren’t wealthy, we have built a life to call our own here after so many generations.
Like most wealthy moguls, Cheong had the means and ability to marry not one, not two, but EIGHT wives. The mansion in Penang housed his purported favourite, the seventh mistress, and it is here that he raised his six sons (from the different wives). Cheong loved Penang so much that he spent most of his days in this particular house. According to our guide, the house was not blue when it was built, but white, because blue was often synonymous to death for the Chinese. ( I got quite confused though… the website said the mansion was always blue because it was a popular colour for colonial-era buildings then. Anyone can enlighten me on this?)
Our big tour group stood in the main hall while the guide explained the house’s history. Built in the 1880s, the place had 28 rooms, five granite-paved courtyards, seven staircases and 220 timber louvre windows, some done in the Gothic style. There is Chinese ‘cut and paste’ porcelain work, Stoke-on-Trent floor tiles made from geometric pieces fitted into a square, Glasgow cast iron works and stained glass windows – in short, the best of the best from all corners of the world. The house’s interior is decidedly sombre compared to the cheery Peranakan Mansion I visited before, even though they were completed in the same era.
Tall, stained glass windows at the front. Can you guess what the patterns are made to look like? They are Chinese fans – a symbol of good luck and fortune (like everything the Chinese like to put in their houses) :)
Most of the furniture here are not originally owned by Cheong Fatt Tze. Remember what I said earlier about the place having a sad history? It started with his death. Cheong was working right up til his 70s, and his favourite mistress, the 7th wife, had just given birth to a son. When the son was a year-old, Cheong died on a sea voyage, leaving his huge inheritance behind. In his will, he divided the items among his favourite wives and children, and stated explicitly that none of the items in the house or the house itself were to be sold until the last son had died.
“They waited for more than 70 years,” our guide said dramatically. By then, nobody was taking care of the once great Cheong family business. His eldest had been disinherited due to opium addiction, and the rest of the family were scattered. The great mansion, once so lively and full of life with bustling servants and people, was left in a dilapidated state. It was rented out to poor families who quartered up the halls into small rooms, but after they were gone, the house fell further into ruin.
In 1989, some descendants finally bought over the house to prevent encroaching development and possible demolition. And with that, the last of the furniture, antiques and valuable items were carted off by a grandchild to Melbourne, where some are housed in museums and the others sold off. Restoration work on the house was painstakingly done over a period of a few years, whereby artisans from China were brought in to return some of the home’s former glory.
Isn’t it sad that such a great empire had no successors to carry it on? I’m glad that they did manage to save the house though. It is a true gem of history and behind it, the inspiring story of an extremely industrious man.
Stoke and Trent floortiles. They’ve been preserved well over the years thanks to dust and grime. After the house began falling into ruin, nobody swept the floor anymore, not even the squatter families living temporarily in the quartered up halls, since the philosophy was ‘it isn’t my house’ and ‘why should I clean if the other families aren’t doing anything?’. This resulted in a thick layer of dust and grime to build up over the tiles, thereby preserving the colour and wholeness. And there you have it folks – a guide to good housekeeping that will last through the centuries!
A tiny bat figure that if our guide hadn’t pointed out, most of us would not have noticed. While in the West they are often associated with evil or darkness, bats are auspicious animals in Chinese culture – so having one in your house is considered a good omen!
We moved on to the back portion of the house, where the courtyard was. It started raining through the opening at the top, causing us to scurry into a room to avoid the droplets. The water fell into the deeply built square pond in the middle, creating a sort of mini lake and draining through two holes at the sides.
“Mr Cheong, like most Chinese businessmen, believed strongly in the power of feng shui,” our petite and knowledgable guide chirped over the droning sound of rain pattering on the stone courtyard. In feng shui, the best position for a home would be to have a ‘mountain at the back and river in front’. Since even Cheong couldn’t move mountains with money… he decided to make a ‘mountain’ instead. Part of the house is elevated to a higher level than the rest – thus creating a hill-like effect.
This was probably my favourite structure in the house: the intricately carved metal railings surrounding the first floor. Nothing is, of course, done without takingfengshui into account – the five elements: water, wood, earth, fire and metal – are prevalent in Cheong’s mansion, and the railings are the ‘metal element’. The courtyard’s pool of water represents water ‘coming in’, symbolic of good fortune.
Wooden panels done with real gold leaf, some of which have peeled through the ages. The later restoration works were completed with gold paint instead. The carvings featured landscapes of lotus flowers, plants and clouds.
Beautiful details everywhere
A smaller museum on the first floor housed a few original items salvaged from the house, including these embroidered cloth and bead shoes worn by the mistresses and daughters of Cheong. The seventh wife was from a Hakka clan, known as the big-footed women due to their unwillingness to conform to the then trend of foot-binding.
Old cheongsams belonging to the mistresses of the house. Cheong was 50 years older than his seventh wife, just fyi. @-@
A lot of the decorations around the house were destroyed as the house crumbled, so as part of the restoration works, more than 10,000 ceramic bowls were shipped over. The bowls, which were glazed on the outside only, were then broken into shards and shaped to form the desired piece, fitting them back into the various decorative animals or patterns adorning the house.
All the old Hokkien families in Penang would save these pieces from their own stash of broken bowls and donate. Annnnd that’s another thing I like about old overseas Chinese families – their willingness to work together for the good of their race. It can be seen as racist to some other people, but I think all of us are inborn with a pride for our culture, no matter how far we have come from our homeland.
An old four-poster bed with amazing detailing, donated by another old family, complete with old pillows. Some were made from wooden blocks, while others were simple woven rattan. No fluffy feathered pillows, but apparently mum (who has slept on them before) said that they were pretty comfy (?).
We moved on to the last part of the tour, which had a replica of Cheong’s will in yellowing paper. He was definitely a very affluent businessman and shrewd at politics. At least one remaining legacy was his investment in wine, which he loved. The Chang Yu Winery (Chang is a different way of pronouncing his surname, Cheong) is still operating today, but I guess under different people. It is one of the largest winery suppliers today. It was so popular in late 19th century Europe that he was invited to a conference in San Francisco, but being ‘yellow’, was denied passage on a fleet of cruise ships headed there.
This part tickled me: naturally offended, he decided to put an announcement in all the major British colony papers – Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya, and even in Indonesia and Philippines, whereby he announced that he would be operating his own fleet of luxury cruise ships to America and Europe, at half the price. The original cruise, sensing that they had just pissed off a powerful and very wealthy man, tried to make amends by providing Cheong and his delegation with four all expense paid tickets. Cheong accepted, with one condition.
“From now on, you provide passage to all people, regardless of their race, if they can afford to pay for it.”
And that was that.
Verdict: The Rm16 price ticket is a little expensive, and there is not as much to see in Cheong Fatt Tze compared to the Peranakan Mansion. However, if you’re a history buff like me, I guess it is a small price to pay for a journey back in time, to hear the story of one of the Far East’s wealthiest businessmen.
Note: Cheong Fatt Tze has many mansions scattered all across the globe, with one in Jakarta where everything started off for him, as well as another in Taipu, his ancestral home in China which is said to be many times larger than the Penang mansion.
CHEONG FATT SZE MANSION
14 Leith Street Penang, 10200, Malaysia
Phone: +60 4-262 0006
Ticket price: RM16
Getting There: RapidPenang bus from Georgetown – Chulia Street (CAT, 103, 204 and 502)