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Saturday, April 14, 2007

Penang: The Blue Mansion

The first time I came to Penang, in 1989, I stayed at the Cathay Hotel, on Lebuh Leith. Across the street was the most derelict old building, obviously once a mansion, obviously once painted blue. Laundry hung from the upstairs balcony, and several people seemed to have made part of the balcony their home.

Friday I toured the house, which has been beautifully restored. I learned why it had become a derelict, from a woman who was part of the restoration team.

The house had been the primary home of a man known around the world as the Rockefeller of Asia. His favorite wife lived there, and there he fathered a child only two years before his death at 76. This is important to the story, because the birth of that child extended the effects of his will long past what was probably intended.

Cheong put the house in a trust, specifying that it could not be sold until his last living child died. He provided $250 per year to properly maintain the house. This would have been adequate had he a normal family, with his youngest child perhaps 40 years old at his death in 1916.

However, his youngest son was only two, and didn't die until 1989. The daughter-in-law managed the house, and desperate for funds, she rented rooms and floor space. With no indoor plumbing, and no remodeling, people carried buckets of water to their allocated floor space, set up charcoal stoves, perched their woks on top, and cooked. They strung laundry through the filigree and draped it over banister rails.

When the house finally came free of the trust, a group of people used their savings, borrowed money, and went to work on the house. They personally cleaned it out, finding old clothes that the guide remembers pulling from a pile of trash using tongs, and while wearing a surgical mask to protect her from mold and other possible health problems.

They sent samples off for analysis, ordered special colored washes from America, and imported a poisonous wood stain to treat and stain the new wood that was being added. They found people with skills that had nearly been lost, .employed old men who worked very, very slowly as they plied their trade.

The restoration is totally true to the period in the main house. They did install modern plumbing in the wings, and converted both of them into a bed and breakfast. The income from the B&B, the tours, and book and souvenir sales is enough to maintain the building, no more than that.

It is safe now, because Georgetown has passed very strict laws protecting their old buildings, but in 1989, the laws were weak, and that original group of people, with their passion for the house, saved it from the wrecking ball.

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