20 years ago, I spent a week in Georgetown, Penang, staying at the Raffles of Malaysia: the prestigious E&O Hotel at Lebuh Farquhar. It was magical following the hand rails up the hotel stairs and to be able to sleep in rooms associating with the Eastern-Oriental Express, listening to the water hitting the rock and stone sea-fronting esplanade paving the palmed garden. The old style guestrooms were luxuriously large with high breezy ceilings and very spacious and bohemian bathrooms. The colour scheme followed nuances of Bordeaux red and the interior was old fashion colonial, setting the frame of mind to a passed glorious era.
At the E&O, the Italian Marmi Formigare Marbles sponsored an alumni Architectural Association Asia (AAA) event on design in the region. The Penang born architect Dr Kenneth Yeang of Kuala Lumpur invited me to this design jamboree on the broad theme of “the unfinished city” for invited architects, all having studied at the AA in London. Every day, we had seminars in the north wing, having to cross the beautiful Victorian tiled floors, and meals we enjoyed in a space towards the terrace, enclosed by French windows. We all queued up for breakfast and lunch, an excellent way of networking and getting to know experienced architects from all over the continent while waiting for one’s turn. The exchange between India to Taiwan and Australia to Hong Kong was very vivid and representatives from architectural offices around Asia introducing themselves, their position and ideas as professionals in the architectural debate, telling anecdotes and showing their work. Town planning, reclaimed land, tropical skyscrapers, wooden houses, heritage trust fond, poetry, sentimentality, landscape, space, religion, etc. were topics represented. The workshop contained discussions on South East Asian countries, their culture and where the development was heading. The participants suggested rethinking of the architect’s position. The evenings had no programs and for dinner, we were usually free to explore the array of local delicacies around downtown Georgetown in smaller groups. One evening Ken Yeang invited me to the Eden for seafood together with Peter Cook and Ronald Puun among others.
On the last evening the host, architect Laurence Loh of Penang, invited all the participants to a carnival at the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. I was absolutely thrilled! This was a building I discovered first time in October 1983, staying at the neighbouring New China Hotel (sharing my bed with cockroaches), and later back-packing through South East Asia in 1986. Since then I had always dreamed of being able to enter the home of former Cheong Fatt Tze, to experience which mystery world was hiding behind the huge street walls. As the Chinese business tycoon was both eastern and western in his approach on architectural features, his home had an extraordinary mix of interior details available at the end of the 19th century. The carnival was lovely and guests were relaxing over personal conversations in smaller groups, found during the cause of the days. It was held in the central court yard, but we were also shown up the wrought ironed stairs to view the original stained glass in the windows overlooking the garden from a gallery balcony. The house was empty and the old dust adding to the magical feeling. A Nyonya buffet was served in the grand hall, bringing us to the glorious times of the colonial era. The atmosphere was good, the guests dressed up and very jolly. There was music and we were dancing and eating, having a whale of a time. Late night as we returned to the hotel, a couple of us decided to share a taxi to Batu Ferringhi. The Malaysian song star Sheila Majid was giving a concert at the Rasa Sayang beach resort and we popped in for a while. Before returning back to Georgetown to get a couple of hours sleep before Laurence Loh took us for a guided tour to his architectural sites; Cascadia and Corringway, we also had a spontaneous late night dip into the Malacca Strait sea.
I (a Danish architect) returned to Georgetown, as I did to Melaka and Singapore, several times thereafter to search for live material for my research studies on Peranakan Architecture and I found interesting articles in the “Pulau Pinang – A guide to the local way of life & culture of Penang”. In the striking sun, I walked the streets up and down the old city, dressed with a sarong as a turban to save my scull from burning. Five years later, we moved our little family of four including one toddler and one new born from Kuala Lumpur to Penang. We managed to find an apartment facing the sea through the shading trees along Persiaran Gurney. I was very happy to live at the address where the rickshaw boys took me for sightseeing a dozen years earlier. Those days, staying at Leigh Street next door to Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion; I was daily walking past this fascinating key to curiosity with some Canadian or American traveller to have dinner at one of the many food stalls along Gurney Drive.
Sharing a professional field as well as a personal interest in the CFTM, we occasionally met up with Laurence and Lin Lee, who then had teenagers at home. By this time, the Mansion had been partly restored and the Loh’s took us for a marvellous guided heritage visit to the inside of my dream site. Now a boutique hotel, the spaces had been opened to special guests and we walked through the main building’s intimate courtyards and individual bedrooms. When one walks from one room to the other, one is followed by a secret light and openings bringing a dialogue between the spaces. It is an exciting discovery tour through time and space. The building had come alive and everywhere one looked there were filigree decorative and structural details to be found. It was comforting to see the caring hand the Mansion had been restored to and open to the public to enjoy the materials, surfaces and colour scheme. The exquisite woodwork at intricate partitioning walls and window frames, the elaborate wrought iron staircases and railings, the distinct external and internal blue brings you back to long gone times. At the end of the 90’s, I also remember meeting up with the KL architect Jimmy C S Lim at the restaurant “Passage thru India” across the road from the Mansion, admiring the successful conservation works being done in his childhood town.
This autumn, my husband (of Malaysian origin and himself an architect by training) and I celebrated knowing-each-other-for-twenty-years, laughing about the “al Capone” dessert that made him make the final decision to ask me to marry him. But nothing else brings a stronger memory than seeing each other for the first time at the exotic evening at the Blue Mansion … those few days in the Pearl of the Orient have come to change our lives for ever.
Vanja Hellborg & Azlan Morad (2011)
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Guided Heritage Tour
11am / 1.30pm / 3pm
Admission fee RM 12.00 per person.
14 Leith Street,
10200 Penang, Malaysia
Tel : +604 262 0006
Fax: +604 262 5289
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