Monday, March 23, 2015

The Blue Mansion

Another museum we visited in Penang was the Cheong Fatt Tzee Mansion, otherwise known as "The Blue Mansion." With only two daily tours a day (otherwise closed to the public), we had to cut short our meanderings in order to arrive on time. 
The periwinkle blue stood out from modern hotels and skyscrapers behind it, making it an easy building to spot. Made from natural indigo dye mixed with lime, the lime wash helped keep the building cool and repel moisture.

The size of this 19th century Straits building was also quite remarkable; 38 rooms, 5 courtyards, 7 staircases, and 220 windows. From the guarded gates, it looked quite Chinese (it is one of only two such buildings of this size outside China) and its floor plan was essentially Chinese. Typical of so many Chinese buildings I saw in Malaysia, its style was quite eclectic, incorporating both European and Chinese elements. The mansion was carefully planned and constructed according to feng shui principles.

The Blue Mansion was one of several homes in Asia owned by Cheong Fatt Tze, a self-made millionaire who arrived penniless from China at the age of 16. Starting out as a water carrier, Cheong Fatt Tze applied hard work and diligence as he branched out from trade in rubber, coffee, wine and tea to banking. At the time of his death in 1916, flags throughout the British and Dutch colonies were flown at half mast for this "Rockefeller of the East."
Artisans were brought from China (along with their tools) to complete this masterpiece. Tze had hoped that 9 generations would be housed in this massive building. It was the command center for his capitalist ventures as well as being the home of his favored 7th wife. Those family members with higher status lived in the central portion of the mansion, while lesser relatives and those who had fallen out of favor lived in the wings. A row of outhouses, bathrooms and stables were built behind the mansion; the main house actually had no indoor plumbing. 

Our excellent tour guide explained that the mansion had fallen into severe disrepair and at the time of acquisition in 1990, it had squatters in it. Provisions of Tze's will stipulated that the mansion stay in the family and not be sold until their death. After the death of the last son in 1989, a group of Penang conservationists purchased it and began the painstaking conservation to return the building to its original form. Artisans, master craftsmen and materials were brought in to complete the restoration. The Cheong Fatt Tze Museum received several conservation distinctions, including the winner of the "Most Excellent Project" UNESCO Heritage Conservation award.

A portion of the mansion is now a boutique hotel.

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