The Rockefeller of the East

16 Jul

Cheong Fatt Tze blue mansion, Georgetown, Penang[tweetmeme source=”@mummy_t” only_single=false]This is one wing of the Georgetown mansion of Cheong Fatt Tze, the last great mandarin of China, known in New York, where he did business with the original John D., as the Rockefeller of the East, and in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, where various of his eight wives and concubines kept house and raised his many children, by more respectful names.

That’s Georgetown, Malaysia. The capital of the island of Penang, which feels, for all the Silicon Valley industry below its surface and the highrises over the harbour, like one of the last great outposts of the British Empire.

Penang was nigh-on uninhabited until the British naval captain Francis Light landed in 1786 and cut a deal with the sultan to make the island a British possession, a naval and trading base for the future.

Today it’s a hubbub of languages and cultures. Mosques sit side by side with Chinese temples. Buddhist monks stroll past the Eastern & Oriental, where doormen in safari suits and kepi hats show one in for tea. Chinese herbalists sit cheek by jowl with tattoo parlours.

There’s plenty of modernity here. The island is Malaysia’s great high-tech hub. Skyrises tower above Fort Cornwallis. Luxury condos tower above the coast road which extends around the island. But many of the beautiful old shophouses still crumble, awaiting restoration.
the brightly coloured second storey of the shop houses which were Cheong Fatt Tze's servants' quarters.
These particular shophouses were home to Cheong Fatt Tze’s servants. Across the way from the vast, Feng Shui’d mansion where his young and beautiful seventh “wife” (more precisely, concubine) awaited his needs, and raised their son, and waited for her meals on the first floor balcony, sealed off from public view.

Concerned that she and their son would have nowhere to live, and no security in the future, the old man willed the 38-room mansion to them in perpetuity. Before he died, in 1916, he specified that the mansion could not be sold until his son was dead.

Cheong Fatt Tze’s son, inheriting his father’s lifespan, lived on till 1989. But he could not, even, afford to live in the house where he was raised (though parts of Indochine were filmed here, in his absence).

By 1989, the mansion was gutted, used as a cheap lodging house. The courtyard where the wind and water forces which dominate feng shui were supposed to blend in perfect harmony flooded with each monsoon rain.

Today? It’s part hotel, part museum, beautifully restored. And the delicate, tiny cheong-sams the seventh “wife” wore, rescued from the ruins of the lodging house, sit eerily by press clippings, old photos, and the moulds that cast the dazzling plasterwork

The whole recalls a grandeur that is long, long past, and a Hakka boy who came from nowhere, aged sixteen, to find his son returning to that same obscurity, faster than the speed of light.

Thanks to Debbie at Delicious Baby for hosting Photo Friday.

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2 Responses to “The Rockefeller of the East”

  1. MATTHEW August 13, 2010 at 3:54 pm #

    So did you give up for the mountain or did you do it for me. I went running twice last week and each time I determined to stop the smoke cursing my existence, but you know after me pelting up and down Malaga sea front, like an extra from chariots of fire that I was, nothing, but the coffee and the toast which accompanied us seemed more right than a fag and me.

    Anyway, i buy into your inspirational setting and goal setting wavelength and hope you achieve this one. I’ve seen some inspirational clients recently whose lungs inspire me to try harder to quit, or is it the lack of a voice box…….?

    As always, come home soon, miss you very much.


  2. MummyT August 14, 2010 at 2:48 pm #

    I gave up for Z, really… Was supposed to do it when we left. Then figured that giving up on the mountain would be a dramatic setting. With not many an occasion to want a fag.

    Though, as per your chariots of fire moments — Malaga?! how come?! — my natural response to extreme, nay painful, physical exertion is to sit down with a cup of coffee and a fag.

    Anywise. I didn’t. Z is impressed. We’re not back for another year at the earliest. And I’m plotting on living in Spain. Cheap as chips so Z can be bilingual and we can travel lots…

    Miss you, sweetheart. Will email you for gossip.Hoping there is some xxx

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