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Posted by Sarah Brown on 23 Jan '13

An unexpected tale


{img_title} Over Christmas and New Year we were away in South East Asia and we saw many inspirational and fascinating sights.


One stood out, in Penang we went to the Blue Mansion built by Cheong Fatt Tze. Beautiful in design with Rennie Mackintosh stained glass, pillars made in Glasgow, stunning mosaics and shutters designed to show  Yin and Yang.  It was a story about the owner which hit home. Initially it seemed likely it would just be about a rich man and his home. However he started life poor, got a job as a water carrier and then became a shopkeeper in Jakarta.  After his marriage, he established a trading company with the help of his father-in-law. Gradually, he began to accumulate his wealth through hard work and perseverance. His business was based on agricultural products such as rubber, coffee and tea but he branched out to the financial sector by acquiring a bank. This move made him a wealthy man. A great example of succeeding from a poor beginning.


But the really inspirational story the guide told was about wine. Apparently Cheong tasted grape wine for the first time in his mid-life, (previously he had had only rice wine) liked it and decided he wanted to be the first man to grow vines in China. A challenging goal. He imported 3 loads of vines from Europe, they didn’t do well,  until finally some grew successfully but it took him 30 years from his first taste to him drinking wine produced from his own vines. Inspirational enough in terms of determination, but the story doesn’t finish there.


He learned there was going to be a wine festival in San Francisco and decided he’d like to go with a German friend and two Chinese friends so he contacted a cruise line to buy four first class tickets. They replied that he could have one for his German friend but that Chinese were not allowed to travel First class! He was dismayed and sent his agent to Europe to buy the cruise company but they would not sell. So then he placed a full page ad in the newspaper announcing that he was launching a new cruise ship which would allow Chinese in first class at discounted rates.


The cruise company panicked at the threat of competition and immediately offered him four free first class tickets. He hesitated since he didn’t like the company not surprisingly but his friends were keen to go so he told the cruise line he would accept the tickets provided that they made all their future cruises in first class open to anyone whatever their race. A great tale of fighting discrimination and racism and when did this happen? In about 1914.
Cheong Fatt Tze was undoubtedly the prototype of the land-hopping 'jet-setter', maintained mansions in Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong and China, besides the one in Penang but he also cared about others and at a time when racism was rife was willing to fight to change things not just for himself and the Chinese but for all races.