In the 1880s, with a career in full ascent, diplomat and merchant Cheong Fatt Tze (aka “the Rockefeller of the East”) took a political appointment in Penang and built a home that continues to put all others in George Town to shame.
The “Blue Mansion,” as it’s known today, has 38 rooms, hundreds of windows, seven staircases (one imported from Scotland), five courtyards, porches lined with cast iron detailing so fine that it resembles lace, and gables inlaid with bright porcelain mosaics. Its architecture is most unique for the period, in that it bucked the trend of looking to the Anglo-Indian style, looking to the Southern Chinese courtyard homes of the Su Chow dynasty as touchstones instead.
Again, in choosing a color to diffuse Penang’s soporific heat, Cheong Fatt Tze picked his heritage over what was popular at the time; blue prevailed, as white is traditionally the color of death in Chinese culture.
Cheong Fatt Tze lived in the house when business kept him in Penang, though he was often called away. The Blue Mansion became more of a family property, and it was noted that his seventh wife was particularly fond of the home. Regardless, when Cheong passed away in 1916, his will specified that the home remain a family property, and a sum of money was set aside to maintain it in perpetuity. It took very little time before these funds were mismanaged. The building fell quickly into disrepair, leading to squatters taking up residencies in some of the mansion’s more remote, disused wings.
With the death of Cheong Fatt Tze’s last son in 1989, the crumbling property was put on the market. A group of well-intentioned locals beat out bigger development firms to secure its purchase and restoration on the building began shortly thereafter.
Today the mansion, restored to its former glory, has been reborn as a UNESCO-recognized hybrid museum-bed and breakfast. 16 rooms are available to stay in overnight, while historical tours of the manor are offered to guests and the general public alike three times daily, making a magnate’s opulence accessible to all.