George Town’s Blue Mansion gets a new lease on life.
Words and photographs by Leisa Tyler
Cheong Fatt Tze—tycoon, diplomat, polygamist, wine buff, and humanitarian—left more behind than just an extensive family and the legacy of an illustrious career. His favorite house, an indigo-blue mansion on Leith Street in Penang’s historical center, George Town, has been the island’s principal tourist attraction since it was renovated and transformed into a living museum in 1995 and later, a small lodging. Now refurbished by Samadhi Retreats, the 19th-century Blue Mansion (previously known as Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion) has undergone yet another incarnation, adding to Penang’s growing crop of boutique heritage hotels.
Born to a poor Hakka family in Guangdong in 1840, Cheong lived a rags-to-riches story, working as a village cowherd until the age of 15 when he joined the throngs of Chinese laborers sailing to the British-run Straits Settlements on the Malay Peninsula. Seeing opportunity in Southeast Asia’s burgeoning agricultural industry, Cheong started trading tea, pepper, and tobacco, eventually building an empire that dubbed him “the Rockefeller of the East.”
For Cheong, it was one thing to acquire money, but quite another thing to keep it. Following the placement principles of feng shui, he set about building a house in Penang that would use the energies of wind and water to both attract more wealth, and prevent haphazard energies from blowing away what fortune he had already accumulated. Erected “off the dragon’s back” (i.e., on a slope with the rear areas higher than the front) for luck, with the ocean before it and Penang Hill behind, everything in the mansion was designed to enhance the flow of harmony and money, from the elaborate gold-leaf screen divider straddling the main entrance to the gold buried in each corner of the courtyard.
There were Art Nouveau stained-glass windows, Scottish-made cast-iron balusters, and porcelain shipped in from Fujian. Overseeing every last detail, Cheong also purchased the land directly opposite his house to ensure that a T-junction could never be built and disrupt the flow of positive energy.
While feng shui principles worked well for Cheong, who died a very wealthy man in 1916, the same cannot be said for the building itself. Falling into ruin and overrun with squatters, the Blue Mansion was tagged for demolition before a group of concerned locals led by architect Laurence Loh purchased it in the late 1990s and set about restoring it to its former grandeur. Paying exceptional attention to detail and using all original materials, Loh hoped to raise the bar for heritage preservation in Penang. His efforts earned a UNESCO conservation award and later helped George Town to receive its World Heritage listing.
Alas, the years since have seen the mansion, which opened its doors to paying guests more than a decade ago, slip back into shabbiness, something that its new manager, Malaysian hospitality group Samadhi Retreats, has been quick to address. The recent renovation involved gutting the 18 guest rooms and adding new beds and bathrooms (some with claw-foot tubs), paisley-print vintage furniture, all the latest gadgets, and a selection of antiques chosen from Cheong’s family estate. Water features have been added to the two guest-room annexes, and the top floor of the main house has been converted into a sleek Cantonese-inspired restaurant serving dishes like beef with black pepper and zesty seafood salad. Superseding all is an overhaul of the mansion’s once-hidden and disused bamboo gardens, plus the welcome addition of a swimming pool, to which some rooms have direct access.
All of this has given the property a new lease on life, as I discovered on a visit in August to see a fashion show titled “Indigo: The Blue that Binds.” Staged as part of the annual George Town Festival, the event had svelte models strutting about the property in looks by Indonesia designer Nita Kenzo and Singapore’s Ong Shunmugam. No doubt Cheong Fatt Tze would have approved.
14 Leith St., George Town, Penang; 60-4/262-0006; The Blue Mansion; doubles from US$182. Outside guests curious about the Blue Mansion’s architecture and feng shui details can join one of three daily tours of the property.
This article originally appeared in the October/November print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“An Icon Revisited”)