Known to locals as Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, this stunning courtyard house in Georgetown is one of my favorite places to visit in Penang. While the idea of indoor-outdoor living seems to be a modern concept, this residence, designed around strict rules of Feng Shui in the 1880s embraced those ideals.
Commissioned by Cheong Fatt Tze, also known as "Rockefeller of the East", the mansion was built by a team of artisans who came with tools in hand from Southern China. The mansion underwent a detailed restoration effort in the 1990s by a small group of Heritage preservationists led by Laurence Loh. He has since converted this once-derelict mansion into a 16 room boutique hotel.
All of the original handiwork such as the stained glass, timber carvings, the imported tile roof, decorative paintings, and ironwork, can be admired on a guided tour through the space. (Depending on the day, the tour is offered 3 times a day and takes about an hour. I'm not usually one for guided tours but we found our tour guide, a gregarious older Chinese lady, quite informative and very entertaining).
There are so many details to admire and take in that I found myself torn between wanting to hear the storied history of the mansion and wanting to deviate and explore the flow of the space, which has been declared "feng shui perfection" by many Chinese masters, so we were told. I was fascinated with all the details - the classic symmetry, the building materials that represented different earthly elements, and all of it coming together in such a unified way.
Cheong Fatt Tze was a "voracious globetrotter" a shipping magnate whose many successful ventures brought him back and forth between the Eastern and Western worlds. While he had many other mansions in key locations dotted around Southeast Asia - Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and of course, China- this is the most lavish, holding many works of rare art and embedded frescos, and antique furniture.
One of my favorite aspects of travel is observing the collision of different cultures and the artistic impact of disparate influences. While the house has many distinguishing Chinese characteristics, it also feels modern and western in many ways, imbued by all of Tze's worldy travels and sources of inspiration. The large proportion of the rooms were European, while the cast-iron balusters derived from Scottish design, and the stained glass windows were rooted in English Art Nouveau traditions.
While the house has won many awards and accolades for the restoration, including UNESCO’s Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2000, I loved visiting to imagine life for a brief moment in a bygone era. Located in the heart of Georgetown, this is just one stop of many to explore and admire.