Monday, January 19, 2009

January 17, 2009 - Penang, Malaysia

Cheong Fatt Tze (1840-1917) was once dubbed the "Rockefeller of the East" by the New York Times. His home in Penang, the big blue building in the heart of colonial Georgetown, with its gothic louvered windows, Chinse cut & paste porcelain mosaics, English floor tiles, Scottish cast iron, and Art Nouveau stained glass windows reminded me of nothing so much as one of the Newport "cottages" built by the tycoons of the Guilded Age.

The architecture is essentially Chinese and is based on principles of feng shui. For example, the entrance faces south east, which is very fortuitous, rather than sitting square to the road. There is an elaborate, circuitous drainage system built into the roof and walls to gather rain water, collect it in a pool in the house's central courtyard, and then slowly drain it out through a maze of pipes. As water represents money and prosperity, it would be very good feng shui to bring as much as possible into your house and then keep it trapped there. Unfortunately, good feng shui wasn't enough to counterbalance the wasteful spending of recent generations. In 1990 the family sold the dilapidated house to the current owners who set about restoring it to its original form. It is now a guest house. The blue mansion was used as a location for shooting scenes of the Academy Award winning movie Indochine (which, along with Out of Africa, has to be one of the two most romantic films of all time).
Our tour guide was incredibly entertaining. He had a passion for the house's history and architecture. But his favorite part of the tour was clearly when one of the visitors innocently asked what foot binding was. With a flare for the macabre, our guide announced that "The Chinese were, are, and always will be masters of torture." Then he kicked off his sandal, grabbed one foot while balancing on the other, and proceeded to curl his toes under, demonstrating how the feet were deformed as they were bound. "If the child was old enough to untie her bindings, they would be stitched to her feet, through the skin. And eventually the toes would fall off," he went on to explain. He went on to describe how this misogynistic practice hobbled women, and made them prisoners in their own homes. They couldn't go anywhere or do anything without the assistance of a servant or three. He capped off his expostulation on the topic by declaring that "for a Chinese man, there was nothing so stimulating as seeing your wife crawl across the floor to you." Footbinding wasn't practiced by the family that owned the house, but our guide wasn't going to let that stop him from talking about it at length, particularly once he realized how rapt we all were.

No comments: