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March 09, 2009

Penang's Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion: The Perfection of Imperfection

The restored mansion's cool
blue courtyard.


by Dinda Elliott

Why are the slightly ratty cane chairs in the sun-dappled outside courtyard so comforting? And the bulbous brown Bakelite plugs and clunky electrical boxes that look like they date from the 1940s? Even the fact that Daniel, the young Malay man in the front office, doesn't exactly jump to show me around or answer my questions for some reason makes me happy.

I am at the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in Penang, a magnificent restored courtyard house built at the end of the nineteeneth century, and--though Eric the manager is careful to remind me that it is not a "hotel" due to all sorts of Malaysian bureaucracies--this is probably the best place I have stayed in my 30-odd years of world travel.

The mansion, which was in a totally derelict state and occupied by 32 tenants when Laurence Loh bought it in 1990, has been lovingly restored. Woodwork and trompe l'oeil painting done by craftsmen brought in from China, Stoke-on-Trent floor tiles ordered from Staffordshire, England, and a final coat of bright blue chalky paint bring the building back to its former glory.

No doubt a large part of my thrill at being here is that I have a soft spot for traditional Chinese architecture and the history of the Chinese who spread across Southeast Asia. When I used to travel to Singapore to cover political stories for Newsweek in the 1980s, I inevitably found myself crawling around Emerald Hill to see the beautiful pastel shophouses, often knocking on doors and begging my way in to have a look round.

Eric the manager, a flamboyant young Chinese man who left home at 16 to head off to Europe with a boyfriend, adds to the joy of staying at the Cheong Fatt Tze. He tells me he has just put two of his Birkin bags on sale on eBay and expects them to go for more than $5,000 each. "It's time to move on!" For him, running the house is a passion. "You have to let the house speak to you and tell you what it needs," he says. Today, he had some ceiling fans installed. Tomorrow, he is starting an afternoon tea service--"Very strong puer tea and cucumber-and-egg sandwiches," he says. "No coffee."

But there is something more going on in the thrill I am experiencing at Cheong Fatt Tze. It has to do with authenticity, history, and the fact that it is not perfect. Asia, ever modernizing, changes so fast, and this place takes me back to an Asia that once was. With modernization, the region's cities have been scrubbed of much of their character. Only too late have local governments realized that the traditional architecture they knocked down for high-rises was the reason the foreigners came in the first place.

But even beyond a longing for an Asia that once was, there is something more profound that every traveler will understand. In the tourism industry, the drive for luxury and big-company profits has driven the soul out of hotels around the world. Cheong Fatt Tze is quirky as hell. My high-ceilinged, slightly damp room is extremely chic in its simplicity. There is no TV. I caused a minor flood with the hose in my sit-down bath/shower. But the thing Cheong Fatt Tze has is soul. You can practically feel the old man Master Cheong wandering its halls, calling out for his seventh wife.

Further reading:
* Penang, "The Little Island That Could" (July 2003, Conde Nast Traveler)
* Dinda's other notes from Malaysia: On sexual politics, on bargaining at markets, and on Obama-mania
* Dispatches: On the road


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