Opulent mansions, elaborate clothing, succulent dishes, and a culture wholly unique to Penang. If you don’t experience the Peranakan culture in George Town, you haven’t totally experienced Penang.
Who are the Penang Peranakans?
The Peranakans are Straits-born, Chinese descendants who live in Penang, Malacca, and Singapore. Their ancestors moved to the Malay Peninsula back between the 15th and the 17th centuries.
Over time, the Peranakans lapped up various aspects of the cultures they mingled with: Malay, Thai, Burmese, British, Indian…
They developed their own distinct fashions, cooking, architectural style, superstitions … you get the drift. And for those in George Town, they developed a culture unique to Penang that’s worth devoting a day or two to exploring.
Also known as the Baba-Nyonyas, the Peranakans were usually wealthy folks who lived decadent lifestyles and enjoyed great respect in Penang. Their legacy deserves attention when you head to Penang. And you’ll find some of the best examples of it at these two award-winning George Town attractions…
Pinang Peranakan Mansion
Trip Advisor lists the Pinang Peranakan Mansion as the #1 tourist attraction in George Town (although I personally wouldn’t place it at the top).
This heritage mansion represents a classic home of a rich Baba from the 19th century. It was the residence of one Kapitan Cina Chung Keng Kwee. Did you have fun pronouncing that one?
OK, so he wasn’t actually Peranakan. But he sure as hell lived like one. Big, airy courtyard mansion. Check. It even had a fancy name: the “Hai Kee Chan”, or Sea Remembrance Store.
Intricately carved Chinese wood panels. Check. English floor tiles. Oh yeah. Scottish ironworks. Of course. Everything dusted in a fine layer of gold.
It’s astonishing to think that such a building was ever allowed to fall into a state of disrepair and decay. Yet it did. It has only recently been restored and put up as a museum where you can now view more than 1,000 pieces of antiques and collectibles from the era.
Rooms are decked out with showy mother-of-pearl inlaid wooden furniture and china sets. There are collections of rose porcelain and gold jewellery. You could marvel at kebaya blouses with their delicate embroidery and kerongsang brooches that held the blouses together. There’s even a room devoted to the traditional Peranakan kasut manek (beaded shoes).
But it’s the charming architecture that your attention keeps returning to. The mansion is laid out just right with central courtyards and open air wells to keep the house breezy and cool in a time pre-air-con.
An external annexe houses a rustic kitchen which sells famous Nyonya cuisine, while a secret passageway leads to the family’s temple, built for ancestral worship. This temple boasts elaborate scenes from Chinese legends carved in wood and embellished, of course, with gold leaf.
It’s all an impressive sight. But there’s something missing; a kind of look-but-don’t touch feel to the place that doesn’t help you get into the head of the Peranakans. For that, you need someone who can regale you with the lives and stories of the people themselves. And you can get that at the Blue Mansion…
Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion
The Pinang Peranakan Mansion is charming, but my personal preference swings towards the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, more endearingly called the Blue Mansion.
If you’re in the neighbourhood, you can’t miss the Blue Mansion. Literally, you can’t miss it. It’s bright blue. Or indigo blue, rather; a striking colour from the indigo flower.
This house is an example of perfection itself. You can’t go in without being a part of a tour, but that’s OK because you learn so much you’ll really appreciate what you’re looking at. It helps that the tour guides inject a lot of contagious passion and enthusiasm into their tours.
Cheong Fatt Tze is the dude who built this house. His is a typical rags-to-riches story. He left home in China at 16, penniless. But thanks to his entrepreneurial skills, he soon became the “Rockefeller of the East”. He built the Blue Mansion for his favourite wife, wife #7 of 8.
But this guy, Mr Fatt Tze, he didn’t just build a house. He built it to the highest quality you could possibly imagine. He adhered to strict feng shui principles and even whacked a terrace house opposite the house to ensure the Blue Mansion would never be situated at the end of a T-junction.
All the energy is focused on the marvellous central courtyard, where the tour group gathers for much of the tour. The house collects rainwater from the roof and channels it under the house for cooling. Pretty ingenious.
When it was built, the house contained the best of the best: Scottish cast ironwork around the pillars and stairs, Cantonese woodwork, German art nouveau stained-glass windows, original Chinese calligraphy, cut-and-paste porcelain mosaics…
It took 7 years for master craftsmen to complete. And yet, despite all that effort, the house fell into a ruinous state. At one point, illegal squatters were living there, along with a poultry merchant and a perm parlour.
Mercifully, it was bought out, with the devoted new owners labouring for 6 and a half years to bring the house back to its former glory, using all the traditional materials and techniques.
Their hard effort paid off because they’ve since won a good number of awards (including being listed as one of the world’s 10 great mansions by the Lonely Planet) and started in plenty of movies and documentaries.
In fact, you can now even stay here for a coupla nights if you really want to live the Peranakan life. And if these 2 mansions are anything to go by, it looks like it could be a cushy life to me.