Who goes to Penang and fails to visit the Blue Mansion owned by Cheong Fatt Tze and the Green Peranakan Mansion? We enjoyed our guided tours of these two mansions in Georgetown and appreciated how the Penang elite used to live in those days. The official name is Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, after the man who rose from rags to riches in this corner of the world. Tagged by NY Times as the “Rockefeller of the East”, Cheong was born to a poor family from Guangdong, China but his industry and business savvy earned him prominence, wealth and errrrr….8 wives. The house’s architecture is an impressive fusion of Oriental and European architecture, an impressive display of British and Chinese artisanship. Truly, a masterpiece deserving of the “Most Excellent Project” awarded by the UNESCO Heritage Conservation Awards in 2000. The owners of this late 19th century house certainly did not scrimp building it. Peranakan tiles alone are some of the best and loveliest, and it was crazy walking over these original tiles in the Mansion. No wonder the hit movie “Crazy Rich Asians” used this Mansion in that poignant mahjong scene. And crazy rich may well describe how this heritage house was built. And subsequently restored.

Regarded as one of 10 greatest mansions of the world, the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion has 38 rooms, 7 staircases, 5 courtyards and 220 beautiful windows. The lucky number 8 pervaded around this eclectic masterpiece — in the number of pillars, number of steps in a staircase, etc. As one very prominent migrant known for his philanthropy and business acumen, his charms and fortune extended to his many wives and children. The Mansion claimed “Feng Shui” perfection but such good aura and chi must have worked only while the old man was around. His trading empire expanded around Southeast Asia but he made Penang his base, and this house essentially his favorite 7th wife’s. Tan Tay Poh was 20 when a 70 year old Cheong took her as his 7th. Imagine that gap – 50 years! She bore him one son but she died early at age 42, leaving the house to a son who allegedly squandered away his inheritance. The Mansion suffered disrepair and was in fact heavily dilapidated, with as many as 34 illegal squatter families living in it. Then a group of conservators bought the Blue Mansion to make sure this heritage house is lovingly restored and preserved. Hallelujah!

Mercifully, the restoration followed best-practice standards for the benefit of both locals and tourists who can now be reminded of the flamboyant lifestyles of Penang’s old rich. The indigo blue facade and walls invite attention and it is truly very fortunate that the conservators who purchased this Mansion from the descendants of Cheong Fatt Tze in 1989 turned it into the heritage home and boutique hotel it is now. Its fine dining resto called “Indigo” holds promise judging by its opulent decor and elegant style. We noticed too that its serving staff seem to know every diner like they’re regulars. Looks very exclusive, if you ask me. I’d love to dine there, but not keen about booking a room in the 18-room boutique hotel even for a single night. I bet it’s haunted.

📸 Weng S

On the other hand, the Peranakan Mansion is another Penang gem. Likewise owned by another Chinese tycoon by the name of Chung Keng Quee, this green Mansion showcases Penang’s Peranakan heritage. Penarakan is a culture unique to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Chinese migrants who settled in Southeast Asia and married locals gave birth to this new culture and heritage fondly called Baba Nyonya. Expressed in its architecture, cuisine and traditions, these Baba Nyonyas assumed an altogether unique culture. And you bet this green-hued residence and museum was also quite a popular and favorite movie set for international movies and TV shows like “The Little Nyonya” and “The Amazing Race”.

On display are paraphernalia and memorabilia of the Straits Chinese. Apparently, the Chinese penchant for anything gold, beady and ornate is adequately expressed in the costumes, ornamental decor, even Nyonya slippers to be found here. The hand-crafted jewelries and hand-embroidered wardrobe and footwear must have given rise to local businesses which flourished then. I am particularly impressed with one item where feathers from a kingfisher bird were actually used to adorn an outfit.

Not turquoise beads, but kingfisher feathers!

A trip to Penang should include visits to these 2 mansions. It’s very educational and both these Mansions tell an awesome story! The guide in the Blue Mansion did an impressive job. So did the guide (Ricky) in the Peranakan Museum except that he had a very heavy accent and we had to strain to listen to him. Just the same, we left learning so much more about the Baba Nyonya culture. Chinese migrants, Peranakan Chinese, Straits-Born Chinese. They’re called all these. Peranakan is a Malay word that translates to “local born” . It is not s separate race, but rather a sub-culture within the Chinese community. Peranakan cuisine blends Chinese cooking with Malay traditions. Think LAKSA. 😊