There are a few unsent ‘postcards’ from Penang this past year. Having co-authored a book about its pioneers, both past and present, there is much to write. I could relate the fascinating history of Francis Light, who claimed the island for the East India Company in 1786, or the myriad settlers from near and far, especially the resourceful Chinese and the stalwart Southern Indians. There are Penang’s iconic shophouses, godowns and clan temples. Its diverse culture and heritage trades, the legendary food and the engaging street art. That and more will be revealed when the book is published. But for now, a few snippets from the Penang I’ve come to know and love…
The Blue Mansion…
A photo of her hangs in the mansion’s dining room, her dress and hairstyle unusually simple for a person of her status. Tan Tay Po was 20 when she married the 70 year-old Cheong Fatt Tze. She would become his favourite wife – there were eight of them – and the Blue Mansion was Tan Tay’s splendid home.
Known as the ‘Rockefeller of the East’, Cheong Fatt Tze had homes (and wives) scattered throughout S.E. Asia, but the indigo-blue mansion in Penang was his preferred. Where he’d find his beloved wife number 7.
I had been to the mansion earlier in the year, gathering information for the book project. Along with writers from the region, I had the good fortune to be invited to a candle-lit dinner in Indigo, the mansion’s elegant restaurant. Serendipity saw my place-card positioned across from Laurence Loh, the man who brought the mansion back to life; rescuing it from its dilapidated state and likely from demolition.
Laurence Loh is one of Malaysia’s esteemed architects and I followed many who have spoken to him over the years, BBC, CNN, Architectural publications and others. Laurence is understated yet passionate about his role as a conservation architect.
“Why take on such a daunting project?” I asked. “What motivated you to dedicate years to the restoration of a mansion? ” In fact a home now considered to be one of the finest restored mansions in the world.
Laurence admitted that he had not given the property much thought as he passed it daily as a youth on his way to school. Years later having returned home to Penang after time abroad, Laurence felt a strong pull towards the temple-like building. Along with partners, he and his wife Lin Lee would buy the property on Leith Street and transform the Chinese court-yard home to the enchanting splendour of its past – it would take 11 years of meticulous restoration.
That evening as we had dined, Laurence explained that developers had hovered in anticipation for the prized site when it came on the market. Conservation in 1989 was almost non-existent with no guidelines and little vision. The mansion lay in a state of decay and disregard with more than thirty tenant families inhabiting it. Motorbikes zoomed through the house and washing lines hung from gilded panels. Animal bones, droppings, feathers and rubbish littered the rooms.
Laurence told me modestly, “It just needed to be cleaned up and restored. There was an epiphany that this would take hold of our lives.” And he hinted that it was meant to be…that perhaps Cheong Fatt Tze had already chosen him as the rescuer.
I was curious if it was the love story of wife number 7, ‘the one he loved above all others,’ as Laurence had put it. Or perhaps it was the unique sense of scale, proportion and space with which the mansion had been designed. I sensed that it is a little of both. Laurence admitted that a keen sense of preserving the legacies of Penang’s forefathers, especially those of the Chinese settlers, had motivated him. “I’m very proud of my Chinese roots,” he explained, “it’s essential they’re preserved.”
The residence was originally completed in 1904 by Cheong Fatt Tze. Having arrived from China to Batavia in 1856 as a penniless 16 year-old, Cheong would come to epitomize South East Asia’s determined Chinese entrepreneurs – of which there were many. Cheong transcended from a carrier of river water to a one-man multinational conglomerate. Initially there was help from his merchant father-in-law, that of wife number 1, yet Cheong would go on to successfully deal in the commodities of the day: pepper, tin, rubber, tea and coffee, rice and opium. He would invest in banks, glassworks, textiles, cattle and a vineyard. He would start his own shipping line when refused first-class service on another. He was an extraordinary entrepreneur.
On a recent visit to Penang, I decide to spend an evening at the Mansion in one of its 18 restored guest rooms. I’d be untruthful if I didn’t confess that its history and spirt is felt within its storied walls. It’s not an uneasiness, but more of a tacit acknowledgement that you are just passing through…the home will always be Cheong Fatt Tze’s.
The next day, I’m invited to join a tour. The private rooms are roped off to the public and there’s a secret delight in having been in the inner sanctum of the mansion. Along with tourists from different countries, I learn that nothing was left to chance when the grand home was built. With its 5 inner courtyards, the centre wing was where business was conducted and were family was housed, perhaps one or all of the 3 wives and various concubines. This was often the norm for a man of Cheong’s social standing.
“Wives 3, 6 and 7 lived here. But if you were out of favour you could easily find yourself in the side wings or across the street in the servants quarters”, our guide reveals motioning to separate buildings across the street. Yet we’re told of Cheong’s great philanthropist tendencies, of his ease with both Asian traditions and of the Western World. We hear of his discerning sense of fashion from Mandarin outfits of fine silk, to top hats and tails.
Indeed the photos and other manifestations capture the essence of time, place and wealth. We see intricate Scottish ironworks (a must-have to affirm one’s wealth in the British empire), gilded decoration, priceless porcelain and Art Nouveau stained glass windows. But its the chien nien that intrigues me most.
Chien nien translates to cut-and-paste shard works, a laborious process whereby specially produced rice bowls are cut with pliers to provide shards of coloured porcelain. Lime putty is then used to form the shards into intricate patterns of men, women, animals and scenes depicting Chinese mythology and various Gods. Some 10,000 bowls, imported from China, were needed to restore the mansion’s chien nien – believed the most prolific on any private building outside of China.
As we gather in the central courtyard, we’re asked a question that I had heard previously from Laurence. “Do you feel the chi, the spirt?”
It is reference to the elaborate feng shui that Cheong Fatt Tze implemented in his home .
“This is the heart, here in the middle, where the greatest chi energy radiates,” our guide says motioning to a spot between two stone columns. “This precise point would have been selected by a feng shui master, the house grew from there.”
It seems very little was left to chance. Granite steps were added as ideally one must always step up when entering a Chinese home…it denotes promotion. The granite implies strength and stability. Golden coins were buried in auspicious corners to ensure continued wealth. The side wings of the home contain six rooms on each floor. The number six as it rhymes with ‘lok lok tai soon‘…smoothness for every dealing.
The Chinese believe that rain water brings wealth (farming, crops) and that nature’s wealth should be drawn inwards. Hence the mansion’s elaborate pipes and gutters to collect rainwater, emptying into the courtyards, backing up in loops, cooling both the floors and ceiling spaces. “The water can come in quickly but should flow out slowly, just like the Chinese ethos towards money.” This is conveyed to us with a chuckle, yet it is clearly to be taken seriously.
When we encounter a photo of the beloved wife number 7, we learn that Tan Tay was the daughter of a Penang goldsmith and the only wife mentioned in the tycoon’s will. When Cheong died in 1916, flags were lowered to half-mast throughout Asia by both British and Dutch authorities. His coffin was toured to Penang, Singapore and Hong Kong for farewells, before burial in his native China.
And of the mansion? Cheong’s will stated that it was not to be sold until the death of he and Tan Tay’s son, only 2 at the time of his father’s death. When he died in 1989, the last daughter-in-law would fall short of money and resort to leasing the mansion’s once grand rooms, contributing to the dilapidated state Laurence Loh would find the mansion.
As the tour finishes, I recall something Laurence had shared that with me. “Cheong Fatt Tze had wanted nine generations to live in this home. He wanted it to be enjoyed by many.”
Thanks to the vision of a passionate architect, that is happily the case…
*The Blue Mansion is properly known as the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion
A connection with Jimmy Choo…
I find myself on ‘hallowed’ ground…that is, if one is both a lover of shoes and familiar with Jimmy Choo. His story began in Penang, a local boy who shared his roots with the very man I’m speaking with, Mr. Wong Heng Mun.
I’m at Hong Kong Shoes on Kimberley Street and have decided to have a pair of shoes made by Mr. Wong and his team of cobblers.
There are three skilled artisans busy today in the long, narrow shophouse. One shoemaker is stitching and another cutting strips of leather with scissors as large as a size- 13 shoe. Mr. Wong minds the front of the shop. He not only knows a thing or two about shoes, he apprenticed alongside Penang’s runaway success story…Jimmy Choo. Like Mr. Wong, Mr. Choo also came from a family of shoemakers.
“Jimmy was about 15 or so, a little older than me when we apprenticed. It was my father that taught us.” Mr. Wong’s father, Wong Sam Chai, was Penang’s esteemed master cobbler for some 60 years.
This is not the original location of the shop but still, it’s become a bit of a mecca for shoe lovers visiting Penang. The shop is certainly not as salubrious as a Jimmy Choo. This is more of an ‘organized chaos’ with shoe mouldings, scraps of leather and shoe samples crammed onto shelves and arrayed on the floor. Proudly displayed magazine and newspaper clippings of the Choo connection decorate the walls. The workshop is stuffed with tools of the trade: threads on bobbins, glue for soles of leather, hammers and heels, and a ‘museum piece’ Singer – timeless and trusty.
Mr. Wong is kind enough to lead me up the worn treads of narrow stairs to the second floor. Shoe moulds as far as the eye can see. Wooden and plastic – shades of greens, hues of blues and wood polished smooth by expert hands, sizes and shapes for all.
Mr. Wong tells me that more than 200 pairs of shoes are handcrafted every month for clients. “Some locals but many foreigners.”
Back in the workshop, I notice the nonya shoe that is in the works. Its delicate glass beads have been painstakingly stitched into a pattern onto fabric, and is now being crafted into a sandal or perhaps a slipper.
Traditionally this was a pastime expertised by Malay ladies. Beaded slippers complimented their colourful sarongs and lavish kebayas, their tight fitting embroidered blouses.
I’m told that the craft of stitching the coloured glass beads was even a skill coveted for marriage. It seems that presenting a pair of hand-stitched men’s slippers was effective for impressing a future husband. Wonderful examples of nonya slippers and all else pertaining to their refined and opulent culture can be enjoyed at the Pinang Peranakan Mansion.
Today, pieces of the beaded designs are still created and sold to Hong Kong Shoes, both for personal orders or otherwise. “Many foreigners also like these,” Mr. Wong assures me as we admire the intricate samples. In somewhat of a paradox he shows off a massive shoe mould, though I don’t catch the name of who it was a match for – surely it was an extremely tall basketball player.
I’m just a normal size 6.5 and I tell Mr. Wong that I’d like my sandals copied please, “though just a little more tight fitting.” I dig my worn footwear from my bag. They’ve traipsed over the cobblestones of Rome, through the narrow lanes of Cintra and the back streets of Miri…and many others in between. I surprise myself by choosing roughly the same colours of leather…actually I think I’m just a little overwhelmed with the vast array of samples.
Mr. Wong opens a notebook, asks me to take off my shoes and instructs me to stand on the blank paper. He traces my feet, jots down some notes and confirms my order on a small notebook…order 8565. I pay, then he bundles up the note paper, my beloved sandals and plunks them in a plastic bag. Gosh, I hope I see those again, I can’t help but fret.
“How long Sir, until they’re ready?
“About two, three months,” he tells me with a confident smile.
“Lovely, my friend will pick them up for me,” I say, giving a knowing glance to a good friend who spends much of her time here. I already envision my next visit, my shiny pair of sandals awaiting me.
“No worry,” Mr Wong assures me,” we make many, many shoes.”
I can’t resist asking, “Who is the most famous client you’ve had?”
“Oh, Hollywood famous,”he says matter-of-factly. He’s most definitely not revealing any secrets.
And may I share a few of my ‘preferred’ in Penang…
Hotel…Campbell House on Lebuh Campbell
Restaurants…Seven Terraces, Il Bacaro, China House
Museums…Pinang Peranakan Mansion, the house of Sun Yat Sen (father of modern China), Penang State Museum, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion
Things to do…Enjoy street food, especially Char Kuey Teow. Trishaw to discover the many Street Art installations. Take in the view at the peak of Penang Hill and visit The Habitat, Penang Hill. Wander along Beach Street, Armenian Street, Love Street and all in between. Venture out to the Spice Gardens. Have tea at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel. Take in live music at China House. Visit the many temples and mosques. Stroll the clan jetties. Don’t miss Occupy Beach Street early Sunday mornings. Arrange your visit to coincide with the brilliant George Town Festival…