Cheong Fatt Tze’s blue mansion
Peering out of our window on the seventh floor, the house looked far smaller than it did from the street. But its romantic window shutters, tiled roof and walls painted in indigo blue were still magnificent. Although The Blue Mansion was just behind our hotel, it took Bama and I four days of slow deliberation before we stepped inside for a guided tour.
“The spirit of Cheong Fatt Tze has brought you and I here,” our guide smiles furtively, her eyes scanning the group. Dressed in a blue Peranakan kebaya, her face and voice are so expressive she instantly commands our attention.
For anyone outside Penang, the name ‘Cheong Fatt Tze’ rarely rings a bell. But there was once a time when this Chinese industrialist, politician and philanthropist was as well-known as his western contemporaries. At the turn of the 20th century Cheong’s influence and business empire was so great that he was nicknamed ‘the Rockefeller of the East’. And when he eventually died in 1916, the Dutch and British authorities paid their respects by flying their flags at half mast throughout their Asian colonies.
Cheong Fatt Tze was not raised in a world of privilege – he was the protagonist in a real-life rags to riches story. Born into an impoverished Hakka family in Guangdong, China, he left for Southeast Asia at the age of 16 without a penny to his name. The teenager disembarked in Batavia, capital of the Dutch East Indies (present-day Jakarta, Indonesia), where he started off as a common labourer and then a shopkeeper.
Cheong found a mentor in his wealthy father-in-law, who taught him everything he needed to know about business. According to our guide, the Hakka have a reputation of being stubborn, humble and extremely hard workers; they do not boast of their achievements. Cheong, she says, had all these qualities. He persevered and expanded his trading business from Batavia to Medan and then Penang, where he worked solidly for eight years to gain the trust of the British authorities. The Qing Dynasty soon appointed him the Chinese consul for the Straits Settlements, and Cheong’s influence in his home country continued after the last emperor was overthrown. In spite of his successes, Cheong kept a low profile: our guide calls him “a shy tycoon”.
For Cheong, marriage was as much a business contract as a personal relationship. His first six wives were carefully chosen to expand his growing trading network. But a strange, illogical condition came over him upon meeting wife number seven: true love.
Cheong Fatt Tze was already 70 when he fell head over heels for Tan Tay Po, then a 17-year-old. At this point in the story, much of our group reacts in shock. “This is the only part of the tour that you will remember tomorrow,” the guide cheerfully says.
Though Cheong had houses all over Southeast Asia, Penang became his primary home. In the 1880s he started building a mansion on what locals nicknamed ‘Hakka Millionaires Row’. The new mansion had 38 rooms and 220 timber louver windows, 48 of them in Art Nouveau stained glass. Inside, luxuriant patterns adorned the cast iron railings, pillars and spiral staircases – the latter shipped in from Scotland. As for its walls, white was the most commonly available colour at the time, but because it is associated with death in Chinese culture, Cheong Fatt Tze had them painted a vivid shade of indigo blue. This house was reserved for his most beloved seventh wife, and today it is still said to be one of only two five-courtyard Chinese mansions outside of China (The other is in Medan, Indonesia, built by relative and business partner Tjong A Fie).
For all its stylistic additions from the West, the house adhered to the principles of Feng Shui, the ancient philosophy of ‘wind and water’. Rain falling into the central courtyard would flow into coin-shaped inlets on either side, but only a little water would leave the house; the rest circulated in a system of pipes running beneath the floor. This embodied the Chinese obsession of accumulating wealth, while spending only a small fraction of the income. “What is the point of earning money if it slips through your fingers?” Our guide raises a finger and repeats her mantra several times: “You must spend it slowly, carefully and wisely.”
Sadly, Cheong Fatt Tze’s business acumen was not passed down to the next generation. His vast trading empire unravelled upon his death in 1916, and his six sons sold off the portions they each inherited. Only one of Cheong’s former companies kept its original name intact: the venerable Changyu, China’s largest and oldest winery, founded in 1892.
And what of the house he built for his favourite wife? To safeguard her future, and that of his final son she bore when Cheong was 74, he wrote in his will that the mansion could not be sold until his son’s death. And so, in 1989, the 100-year-old house came on the market. By that time The Blue Mansion had lost its lustre. The once-glorious millionaire’s home was badly damaged, and sheltered not only the Cheong descendants but also a number of squatter families.
The new owners had the foresight to rescue both the mansion and the memory of Cheong Fatt Tze. With the help of craftsmen brought in from China’s Fujian province, the house was painstakingly restored to its former glory. Soon the revived mansion became the setting for movies, starting with the 1993 Oscar-winning French film Indochine – a role which gave the house its popular moniker La Maison Bleu (The Blue Mansion).
While the central portion is open three times a day for guided tours, the two wings have been converted into Penang’s first true heritage hotel, with only 18 rooms in total. “18, not 118,” our guide repeats. “It’s not a beehive or an anthill.” Like the man who built it, the restoration and reuse of Cheong Fatt Tze’s mansion was ahead of its time. One only has to look upwards, at the soulless monoliths next door, to see the fate that might have befallen this grand old dame in indigo blue. ◊