How Penang’s 1% Lived

The buildings that Penang is best known for are Chinese-style shophouses—long, narrow rowhouses with stores in front, workshops behind, and living quarters above. Built in the 1800s and early 1900s, they housed much of Penang’s urban lower and middle classes. Wealthier residents had stand-alone houses, and the wealthiest of all had mansions.

We took a fun early-morning walk the other day along George Town’s “mansion row” (Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah) to look at the grand old houses. Some are still private residences, some are ruined shells, and some have been repurposed as schools, restaurants, or even auto-body shops.

The mansions mix Asian and European decorative styles in myriad ways. They offer a glimpse of how Penang’s richest residents—tin and rubber barons, bankers, top officials in the British colonial government—lived during the early decades of the 20th century (before the Japanese occupation of Malaysia in World War II turned life here upside down).

One of the oldest and best preserved grand houses of Penang is the “Blue Mansion” built in the 1880s by tycoon Cheong Fatt Tze. After falling into disrepair over the years, it was painstakingly restored in the 1990s and turned into a boutique hotel.

Indigo mixed with white lime wash gives the house its distinctive blue color

The mansion features traditional Chinese elements (dark wood furniture with mother-of-pearl inlay, brightly colored ceramic roof tiles, elaborately carved and gilded wooden screens)and modern European features of its time (floor tiles from England, iron pillars and spiral staircases from Scotland, Art Nouveau stained glass). The high ceilings, shuttered windows, and open interior courtyards with wide balconies are typical of fine houses in tropical climates in the days before air conditioning, when every bit of breeze and shade was cherished.

The largest of the mansion’s five interior courtyards, which provide fresh air and breezes


  1. Another “priceless” journey never to be forgotten! Your pictures and commentary are incredible! Is there a publisher for your memoirs?

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