Officially, The Blue Mansion in Penang was owned by Cheong Fatt Tze, one of the most important Chinese businessmen and politicians of the 20th century. Unofficially, and more accurately, The Blue Mansion and all who resided within her walls, belonged to his seventh, and favourite, wife.
One of those places that just gets more fascinating the more you learn about it, the Mansion of Cheong Fatt Tze was by far my favourite place in Penang. With the help of a guide, who you knew just lived and breathed the place, we spent around two hours in the mansion that has been in my thoughts ever since.
Built in the late 19th century by Chinese immigrant and rags-to-riches original Cheong Fatt Tze, the mansion was built as a home for his extended family and a head office of sorts for him. Designed in the chinese style with an open courtyard in the middle and wings to either side, the mansion had plenty of space to house Cheong’s seven wifes and various offspring and other relations. All the space also meant that he could enjoy playing musical beds with his family, those in favour at the centre, those out of favour banished to the wings.
Always living in the centre with her new, quite elderly husband, wife number seven is my new fascination. Imagine it. All six previous wives in the house with their offspring, wife number seven comes in. Beautiful, young, so far, childless. The man is old and very, very, rich. As far as I can see noone has yet written a biography or even fictional account of the man and, specifically, his seventh wife. An ailing patriarch, a new vivacious wife, lust, jealousy, deceit, power – this novel would write itself!
As if this set up wasn’t intriguing enough, what actually happened after Cheong Fatt Tze’s death is quite bizarre. The youngest son (of the seventh wife) inherited the mansion with the small print that it couldn’t be sold until after he died. He had enough of the whole Cheong Fatt Tze dynasty by the time he was an adult and legged it to Australia leaving the mansion in the hands of a relative. With little means to finance the upkeep of the mansion the relative began letting out rooms. Over the years squatters moved in and by the time the youngest son died in the 1990s, the place was a ruin.
A success story follows of course. A group of conservators from Penang beat out the developers to buy the property and painstakingly restore it’s former glory. Apparently many of the original features, such as the Stoke on Trent tiles and ornate gilted wooden screens, were still in almost mint condition thanks to the fact that the tenants/squatters never cleaned them. All the filth kept them nice and safe until the conservators in their white gloves arrived to make the whole mansion the beautifully ornate and atmospheric beauty it is today.
A large part of the mansion is now a boutique hotel and one of my only regrets of this trip so far is that we didn’t blow the budget and stay there for a night. I bet it’s fabulously haunted too.