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Cheong Fatt Tze, The Blue Mansion REVIEW: a window into Penang’s past

Cheong Fatt Tze, The Blue Mansion REVIEW: a window into Penang’s past

As you walk around George Town’s World Heritage Site, with its carefully preserved historic buildings on display at every turn, it’s easy to assume the road to UNESCO status was a smooth one. The Cheong Fatt Tze House, commonly known as the Blue Mansion, is perhaps the most famous heritage building in the city and is emblematic of both the beauty of George Town, and the struggles people went through to preserve it for future generations.

Built by the affluent and influential Chinese industrialist Cheong Fatt Tze at the turn of the nineteenth century, the mansion is a revealing place to visit on a tour or (ideally) stay overnight in the boutique hotel.

It’s without doubt one of the top things to do in Penang, particularly if you are interested in the history of Penang and its architecture.

Brief history of the Blue Mansion

Cheong Fatt Tze was a Chinese politician, businessman and merchant who was, for a time, considered the richest man in Malaya. His various business operations brought him to Penang often and it was here that he built a residence which became the Blue Mansion we see today.

He married eight times during his life (apparently wife number seven was his favourite) and had a large number of children. After his death in 1916, the house was looked after by his remaining family but became an expensive and cumbersome building to maintain, with the various rooms divided and sub-let to help cover the maintenance costs.

A rule was established which stipulated that the house couldn’t be sold until the youngest son died, which didn’t happen until 1989. By this time, the house was almost unrecognisable from the one you see today, with numerous families squatting in the building and the house itself in a sad state of disrepair.

When the house came onto the market in the pre-UNESCO days of 1989, it was common for property developers to buy these old mansions, raze them to the ground, and turn them into twenty-storey apartment buildings, a fate which seemed likely to befall the Blue Mansion until local George Town residents came to the rescue and bought the building themselves.

Over the next seven years, the new owners undertook a painstaking process to rebuild and renovate the mansion in the exact same style it once was, right down to floor tiles from England and iron fittings from Glasgow. If you’ve read the brilliant The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng, you might notice similarities with the protagonist and his attempts to keep George Town’s heritage alive. Tan Twan Eng has visited the house and you’ll see his picture on the wall.

The renovation was completed in the mid-1990’s and the house was ready to be opened to the public, as part-museum and part-hotel.

Arriving to Blue Mansion

The Blue Mansion is located right in the centre of George Town’s heritage area on Leith Street. It’s close to many other sites in the city and is easy to reach by Grab or bus.

You’ll have probably seen the Blue Mansion many times in photographs, but the vibrant indigo coloured walls really do make you stop for a moment in wonder, especially if you’re visiting on a bright, clear day.

There are two entrance gates with the one on the western side best for arrivals. It’s here that you’ll find the ticket office. It’s highly recommended to book in advance as the tours (both guided and self-guided) are hugely popular and tend to sell out in advance. If you’ve booked online, your ticket QR code will be scanned to allow entry.

Try to arrive fifteen minutes early as there is usually a queue and the tours start on time. The courtyard is a pretty place to wait until your tour starts, several of the photo opportunities are amongst the most famous in Penang.

Entrance options, tour or self-guided?

There are two options of visiting the Blue Mansion, both of which have a cap on numbers per-day, so do try and book in advance using their website.

We’d really recommend doing the guided tour if possible, which runs twice daily at 11am and 2pm. If you’re lucky, you might find yourself on the once-weekly tour conducted by the current owner, Loh-Lim Lin Lee, whose passion and love for the building really shines through. You’ll also get to hear first-hand about some of the challenges they faced during the restoration process.

The guided tour costs RM25 for adults, RM12.50 for children, and lasts 45 minutes. You’ll be led through several areas of the building, including the reception hall, courtyard, and museum rooms on the upper level. The numbers for the guided tour are capped at 35 which can still feel slightly crowded at some points, but never too intrusively so.

In addition to providing access to the mansion, the best parts of the guided tour are the little nuggets of information you receive which you’d otherwise miss, like the Feng Shui of the building (note how the building sits are an angle to Leith Street) and histories of the former residents.

The self-guided tour costs the same as the guided tour, and gives you a one-hour timeslot to wander around the house at your own pace. You’ll need to download an app to access the audio tour and bring your own headphones. You’ll still learn about the building but perhaps miss out on some finer detail (plus no opportunity to ask questions) that you get on the guided tour.

However, if you prefer taking these things in your own pace, it’s a good option, especially if the guided tour has sold out. Numbers for the self-guided tour are capped at 12 per time slot.

Both tours are excellent value and are more about the atmosphere of the building and its history; there’s not a vast amount of rooms to look around, but that almost adds to the charm. Also keep in mind that some of the building is inaccessible and reserved solely for hotel guests.

Tips for visiting The Blue Mansion

  • arrive fifteen minutes early, the tour starts promptly and the courtyard is a good place to wait in any case
  • free water is available at the beginning in the reception hall
  • eat at Indigo restaurant afterwards (see below)
  • after the guided tour ends at the gift shop, you can hang back for a few minutes and wander around again without the crowd
  • if you’re flexible with visiting times, plan to take the guided tour when the owner is on duty

Eating at The Blue Mansion

There are two eating options at the Blue Mansion and, if your budget allows, it’s a real highlight of the visit to eat at Indigo restaurant.

Temptingly hidden behind large ornate doors on the first floor, Indigo restaurant provides an opportunity to sample fine-dining at very reasonable prices, surrounded by the beauty and elegance which makes the Blue Mansion so special. It’s a great way to end your tour.

A three-course meal costs RM95 plus service charge and taxes (giving a total of around RM115), with a choice of several starters, mains, desserts, and tea/coffee. The staff are friendly and exceedingly professional, making for a lovely meal.

A glass of wine makes a perfect accompaniment and you’re in luck here because, amongst his other claims to fame, Cheong Fatt Tze was the first person to introduce vineyards to China. The result was Changyu, which is now China’s largest winery. There are a couple of Changyu wines on offer, the Riesling is particularly good and makes for good value at RM99 per bottle.

If you’re looking for something slightly more relaxed, there’s a café on the ground floor called Café Mangaa, serving cakes, tea/coffee and light snacks.

Staying the night at The Blue Mansion

Alongside being one of George Town’s top tourist attractions, the Blue Mansion is also one of the most desirable places to sleep in the UNESCO Heritage Area. With eighteen separate rooms cordoned off from the tour areas, it’s a chance to fully immerse yourself in the building, especially when the doors are closed in the evening to the general public. It probably comes as no surprise that we’ve included The Blue Mansion in our recommended best hotels in Penang.

There are five category of rooms on-site, all decorated in Chinese heritage style, with enough luxurious touches to make your stay special. This really is a heritage, boutique hotel at the top of its game, click here to make a booking.

After your visit

You’re right in the heart of George Town and after your visit to Cheong Fatt Tze Blue Mansion, you’ll likely have a deeper understanding and appreciation of why the area is so special. A walk around the streets might take on a new significance now you have more of an idea of how close they came to being lost.

Check out our guide to some of the other best things to do in Penang.

Final thoughts on The Blue Mansion

The beauty and history of George Town is reflected in its inclusion in the much-coveted UNESCO World Heritage list, and it’d be tempting to just view the Blue Mansion through that lens; as a picture-perfect example of Chinese heritage buildings in Penang.

And whilst you’ll get all that from your visit; there’s no question it’s a beautiful building, it’s the fascinating history of Chinese influence, Penang’s decline and eventual rebirth (with the attendant challenges and obstacles), which makes a visit so rewarding.

It’s heart-warming to soak in the atmosphere, look around at all the fine details, and feel grateful that, back in 1989, there were people around to rescue and lovingly restore the Blue Mansion into the George Town institution it is today.