Penang’s capital, George Town, is dotted with reminders of its multicultural past and present. Our writer finds the most befitting symbols of this character in the city’s architecture, specifically in two gloriously restored mansions. By Reem Khokhar
The multicultural fabric of Penang’s capital, George Town, is visible at every turn. Quirky street art displays the area’s history, with steel caricatures of everything from designer Jimmy Choo’s origins in Penang as an apprentice, to the British explorer Francis Light, who established George Town as a trading hub in 1786. Biryani drummed out of bamboo cylinders and crispy samosas share culinary pride alongside hawker stalls doling out the popular char kway teow (stir-fried flat noodles), and tangy asam laksa (fish-based rice noodle soup). The streets are sprinkled with grand colonial buildings, glitzy skyscrapers, ornate temples, domed mosques, and quaint Chinese shophouses—this varied architecture is arguably George Town’s most striking feature.
As I walk around, two buildings draw my attention in the speckled cityscape. One is mint green, the other a vibrant indigo. Both are erstwhile homes of wealthy and influential Chinese men. Both fell into neglect. Both are now restored to their former glory, open to the public as museums and a hotel. The Pinang Peranakan Mansion is a green manor built in the style of Chinese courtyard houses, the main quad framed by a decadent spread of public and private rooms. Representing the Peranakan (a distinct Chinese community who came to the Straits Settlements—Singapore, Malacca, and Penang) culture and lifestyle, specifically a wealthy baba (Peranakan man) home from a century ago, the mansion is packed to the gills with antiques and collectibles. It incorporates feng shui with an eclectic mix of materials and decor, like Chinese wood panels, English floor tiles, and Scottish ironwork. The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, popularly called the Blue Mansion, is a gorgeous indigo blue structure, part of which is a boutique hotel. Here too is a blend of styles and material—Scottish ironwork, Cantonese latticework, English stained glass, Hokkien porcelain, and Chinese calligraphy.
THE KAPITAN AND THE LAST MANDARIN
The men who built these houses were ambitious and influential in their time. The Pinang Peranakan Mansion was commissioned in the 1890s as an office-cum-residence by Chinese tycoon Chung Keng Quee, one of the richest men in Penang at the time. Born in China and having migrated to Penang, Chung worked his way up the Hai San, a Chinese secret society that controlled mining manpower in the state of Perak. He built the house and adjoining family temple when he was appointed Kapitan Cina, the superintendent of the Chinese in Penang. Even though he was not a Peranakan, he built the house in the style of the wealthy Peranakans, calling it ‘Hai Kee Chan’ or Sea Remembrance Store.
Similarly, the Blue Mansion was designed as an office and residence for Cheong Fatt Tze. His achievements as a businessman, diplomat, politician, and philanthropist earned him several nicknames like ‘Rockefeller of the East’, ‘J P Morgan of China’, and ‘Last Mandarin and First Capitalist of China’. Rising from his humble Hakka origins, he went to Southeast Asia for better opportunities, developing an acumen for business and building a sprawling empire. Like Chung, he gave back generously to his country of origin, helping with the establishment of banks and funds for railroads and educational institutions, his efforts earning him the title of Mandarin of the Highest Order. His death in 1916 was marked by an extraordinary gesture by the British and Dutch authorities, flags being lowered to half-mast, symbolising the deep respect he commanded beyond the Asian community.
THE FALL AND RISE OF MANSIONS
The Pinang Peranakan Mansion was inherited by Chung Keng Quee’s family when he died in 1901, but fell into disrepair over time. The mansion acquired its distinctive green hue after it was bought in the 1990s by Penang architect Peter Soon. A native Peranakan, Soon restored the mansion, repainting it and converting it into a museum, filled with his personal collection of over 1,000 antiques to showcase the lifestyle of the wealthy Peranakans during the Kapitan’s time. The Blue Mansion was also neglected after Cheong Fatt Tze’s death in 1916, rented out for some time at cheap rates to Chinese families. In 1989, a group of local conservationists bought the property, their UNESCO award-winning restoration project bringing it back to life as a heritage hotel and museum.
WHAT LIES INSIDE
The Pinang Peranakan Mansion can be visually overwhelming in its proud display. Furniture polished to a gleaming finish, sharp gilding shining from every corner, dazzling collections of glassware, jewellery, ceramics—each room is packed with treasures. The Blue Mansion’s restoration is more subtle. Its vivid exterior is vibrant, though many of its interior features like the railings and the floor have a faded grandeur, a more delicate allusion to the building’s wealthy history.
Reflecting the residential and official purpose of both buildings, the rooms were designed accordingly. The grand dining room of the Peranakan Mansion has a long dining table, elaborately set with bone china crockery and crystal glassware, flanked by tall mirrors on either side to have allowed Chung to observe people entering the house using the inner stairs. Rooms on either side of the dining hall are reflecting the residential and official
purpose of both buildings, the rooms were designed accordingly. The grand dining room of the Peranakan Mansion has a long dining table, elaborately set with bone china crockery and crystal glassware, flanked by tall mirrors on either side to have allowed Chung to observe people entering the house using the inner stairs. Rooms on either side of the dining hall are done in different styles, reflecting Chung’s varied business contacts. One is European in decor with white porcelain sculptures, floral upholstered chairs, and Victorian cabinets. The more traditional Chinese-style meeting room is filled with blue vases and mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture. Each nook demands attention, an antique typewriter catching my eye in one—a magnificent array of ceramics and Murano glass in another, and ornate traditional tiffin carriers popping up all over. The family rooms upstairs are luxurious spaces filled with antique mirrors, beds, traditional costumes, an old television, and even a vintage set of golf clubs. A glittering display of jewellery and a traditional Chinese family temple complete the sprawling Peranakan Mansion.
The Blue Mansion elegantly blends British and Chinese styles. Feng shui design features include open-air courtyards with a network of pipes bringing water, it beneath before releasing it outside. Preferred family members supposedly got the central and upper floor rooms, while the less favoured were relegated to the wings! A wander upstairs through an exhibition provides insight into the fashion of the time; Cheong’s love of wine, which resulted in the establishment of the Chang Yu Winery in China, now one of the 10 largest in the world; and his seventh and favourite wife. The tour includes the reception, the main
courtyard, and the exhibition, but for those who want to get the full experience, a stay
in the hotel rooms filled with antiques and 19th-century furniture provides a taste of
the mansion’s glorious past. The interiors are beautiful but the rich indigo exterior—a
colour chosen for its exclusivity, signifying Cheong’s status—is what attracts most of
the shutterbugs. It is no surprise that these two mansions are often used as filming
locations, the Blue Mansion featuring in movies like Indochine and Crazy Rich Asians,
while the Peranakan Mansion being used in The Amazing Race and popular Singaporean
drama, The Little Nyonya.
There are several similarities between the two mansions and their owners. But each has a unique spirit and sensibility, leaving visitors with distinct experiences of George Town’s fascinating heritage.
The Eastern & Oriental Hotel is a five-star, luxurious colonial property established in 1884. Doubles from INR 9,625.
Cheong Fatt Tze – The Blue Mansion is a boutique luxury property showcasing Penang’s glorious history with rooms furnished with heirlooms and authentic furniture of the 19th century Doubles from INR 8,638.
Pinang Peranakan Mansion: Visitors allowed all week from 9.30 am to 5 pm. Complimentary tours are available with prior arrangements for a group of five persons
and above. INR 352.
Cheong Fatt Tze – The Blue Mansion: Two tours a day at 11 am and 2 pm. Pre-bookings are
encouraged as each tour takes a maximum of 12 people, to minimise contact and adhere to social distancing rules. INR 440.