I always forget I’ve been to Malaysia because I haven’t been to Kuala Lumpur. But then I remember I’ve been to Penang and stayed at a historic hotel that isn’t easy to forget at all. The Blue Mansion Penang is an unusual boutique hotel with its own unique heritage and even Hollywood movie credits.
An expat friend in Bangkok needed to do a quickie visa run, which means you fly out for a day or two and then nip back in to get a new entry visa. Any hop across the border will do, so she decided to go to Penang since she’d never been there and asked if I wanted to join. I’d never been to Penang either and we both didn’t know anything about Penang, so when she came across the Blue Mansion on the internet I was immediately intrigued. An eccentric old historic hotel, a bit on the crumbly side – just what I like!
It’s only a one hour flight from Bangkok to Penang, so next thing you know we were arriving at a very big, very historic, and very blue mansion, circa. 1920’s colonial era Malaysia. The building loomed grandly in front of us as our cab entered the ornate front gate. It even had a rickshaw in front, though this was for more for decoration than for actual use.
The real name of the house is Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion and it had belonged to a wealthy Chinese merchant family, as most grand mansions from that period did.
The mansion was also the film location for the 1980’s movie Indochine, starring Catherine Deneuve who was one of the biggest stars of her day, about a long drawn out and convoluted tale of illicit love and colonial politics that nobody remembers anymore, because the storyline is so rambling that you can barely keep all the dots connected.
Our room was on the second floor up some dark stairs in the back of the building and down a long darkish corridor.
The hotel offers guided tours of the place so we did that in the afternoon.
The house is built in Chinese style, with rooms clustered around a central open air courtyard. The main building is flanked on both sides by atriums creating side wings along where guest rooms were located. The main front wing housed huge formal halls and sitting rooms with period Chinese furniture, preserved as a museum.
My favourite part was the wardrobe exhibition, which was filled with antique Chinese silk dresses and accessories that once belonged to the ladies of the family.
The tour guide explained that during the house renovation someone found old trunks filled with these antique clothes and asked if they should be thrown away, but thankfully one of the project managers recognized the historical value of the items and created a little museum exhibition out of them. It’s a lovely collection of rich ladies’ Peranakan Chinese fashion from the days before Asia adopted western culture. Along with beautiful silk cheong sam dresses, there were purses, delicate gloves and shawls which made you remember that real people once lived here, and they probably enjoyed a very elegant lifestyle.
We went out to explore the town and found a friendly rickshaw driver waiting outside the front gate who took us on a tour of historic Georgetown, filled with Chinese temples and quaint old shophouses. Later that evening we followed what turned out to be a terrible map and ended up wandered around a dark, deserted neighbourhood lost and clueless, and feeling very uneasy until we decided to turn back and stumbled into an Indian restaurant not far from the hotel.
The long day and the heat must have tired us out, because we woke up late the next morning and made it to the dining room about 10 minutes after the designated end of breakfast time to find the staff clearing up the last of the breakfast dishes. Unfortunately the hotel manager refused to give us even a cup of coffee, wielding the full might of his power on us (annoying pests) (how dare we!) by turning up his nose and firmly pronouncing that we were too late, the kitchen was closed.
He was only grudgingly helpful when we asked where else in the neighborhood we could get something to eat.
“Just go down that big road and you’ll find some places to eat there if you keep walking”, he sniffed, in a very odd, very fake English accent. So we wandered outside, not knowing where we were going or what we were looking, for until we found a local noodle shop several hot, sweaty blocks away.
I have to say the hotel manager here was unlike the charming and friendly hotel managers I was used to meeting in my travels. This one was dour and seemed annoyed that he actually had to deal with guests. He couldn’t bear it when guests talked to him, and became grumpier when annoying guests pests (like us) asked for anything (how dare we!). We never got his name since he never introduced himself, and it didn’t matter since we were only staying one night. He was a young Malaysian man whose main characteristic was a campy manner of speaking English with an affected tone and mannerisms, as if he was auditioning for a part in Downton Abbey Malaysia.
I didn’t think about it too much until we were checking out. While we sat in front of his desk paying our bill, he answered the phone and suddenly the English accent that he’d been using on us disappeared and was replaced by the harsh, sing-song, staccato pidgin English that is native to Singapore and Malaysia.
“Room all full now lah, cannot book you, you come ah fast fast, I busy now lah, people checking out, you call later lah” he jabbered into the phone.
Or something like that. I’m not sure what exactly he said as I was riveted by the mannerisms. When he resumed talking to us, the fake English accent had morphed into a Singaporean accent. The phone interruption seemed to have short-circuited his wiring and he couldn’t quite make the switch back to the fake English accent.
The wackiness only added to the character of the place, and kept us amused.
The Blue Mansion is a lovely old house, though some parts of the building had a forlorn, creepy feeling to it.
When we had returned to the hotel after dinner and made our way up the stairs to our room, the main lights were off and most of the building was dark, with deep shadows in the corners. There was a distinctly weird feeling around the dim back stairs and the hallways, and I was glad when we got into our room and were safely tucked inside.
I’m not complaining. In fact I like places with an edge to them, and a sense of place. It’s so much more interesting than generic, bland hotels with no identity, or worse … bad taste décor!
What a memorable place. I wouldn’t be surprised if there might be more to the old house than they had told us in the guided tour.
Have you been to the Blue Mansion Penang? How was your experience there?