Cheong Fatt Tze, Malaysia review: Energy of the Orient

Read our writer's views on this property below

Geoff Strong checks into a restored Chinese courtyard mansion with feng shui at work.

Sometimes even the mysteries of feng shui can't guarantee tranquility. They certainly could not drown out the muffled thumps from a noisy night market. But neither could the noise entirely destroy the peace of this old stone courtyard, hidden behind an elaborately carved wooden Chinese screen and cooled by the swoosh of ceiling fans and rain splat on pot plants.

Cheong Fatt Tze is an unusual hotel, particularly for Malaysia. It has 16 rooms, no swimming pool, restaurant or room service, yet it has a quality most modern buildings can't offer.

I first saw it 20 years ago, an almost derelict slum occupied by squatters near central Penang. Since then it has been restored to the splendour created by the Mandarin millionaire who gave the house its name and built it in 1880 to house the seventh, and favourite, of his nine wives. Cheong Fatt Tze, sometimes described as Asia's Rockefeller, rose from extreme poverty to extreme wealth with some assistance from railways, the opium trade and top-level influence in China.

The mansion contains 38 rooms, five courtyards, seven staircases and 220 windows. The restorers, being Chinese, also claim that during the restoration they were able to uncover its secrets involving numerology, spiritual emanations and feng shui.

The feng shui heart is said to lie in the middle of that central courtyard and even a sceptic like me is happy to concede its restfulness.

The restoration took nearly a decade, resurrecting what is claimed as the most authentic large house of its kind outside China. It has been used as a movie set, including for the French classic Indochine. Original decor is a mix of Oriental and Western with cast-iron spiral staircases, stained-glass windows and Chinese porcelain mosaics.

Across the street is the original quarters for servants, retainers and out-of-favour concubines. It is now a slab of restaurants, including the unfortunately named Passage thru' India.

It must have come as a shock to many Malaysians last year that two of their historic towns were classified as world heritage sites by the United Nations. Up until now the country has been obsessively proving itself modern by flattening its past. So when the UN decided parts of Malacca and Penang's old area, George Town, were world significant, people finally took stock of what they were in the process of losing.

Advertisement

When proclaimed, the towns went into three days of celebration but conservation-minded Malaysians face a culture that equates modern with success, as large parts of old Penang are left derelict by landlords who, prohibited from demolishing, refuse to restore.

In becoming aware of its heritage, Penang Government is sprucing up George Town. Traditional trades and food processes are being preserved and can be toured by bicycle-powered trishaw. The great thing about it is George Town still feels the real deal, not a tourist-oriented theme park.

Most people visiting Penang stay at the beach resorts such as Batu Ferringhi, one of the concrete and glass monsters nearer the centre, or the highly priced Somerset Maugham opulence of the Eastern and Oriental.

In keeping with George Town's renaissance, many old buildings are being restored, from mansions to shop houses. Some have become cafes, boutique shops, spas and offices but I believe Cheong Fatt Tze is the only one where a visitor can sample the ambience by staying in it.

And what of that night market? The hotel's ambience can be diluted by the dreadful racket and the hotel's manager, Madam Kim, told me diplomatic negotiations had been undertaken with market owners to tone down the noise. Diplomacy appeared to have failed when we visited, so guests are advised to demand a quiet room on the opposite side.

Rooms at Cheong Fatt Tze are $110 a night for a double. For those staying elsewhere, there are daily hotel tours at 11am and 3pm for $3.90. Book by emailing cftm@tm.net.my. See cheongfatttzemansion.com.