China / Hot Issues

Chinese aspects of a new year trip abroad

By Andrew Moody (China Daily) Updated: 2016-02-16 08:02

Like many, I was one of those who headed for the sun during the Chinese New Year holiday.

Sometimes it is good to escape the festival altogether, and last year I attempted to do just that.

I thought a 17-hour flight to Mauritius would give me the relative safety required, forgetting that the Indian Ocean island republic has a sizeable Chinese minority population.

So this year it was back to Southeast Asia to take potluck with hotels and beaches at full capacity struggling to cope with the mass Chinese exodus.

Spring Festival in Penang, which was to be my destination, is actually quite a cosmopolitan affair.

Although the capital George Town boasts one of the most interesting Chinatowns in Asia and that ethnic Chinese make up nearly half of the population, both Malays and Indians seem to embrace the festivities too.

It was an interesting experience as a tourist also to experience the various dragon processions, the fireworks and the noisy partying.

It made me also feel slightly ashamed to have previously considered myself something of a refugee from the festival and I made a mental note to be less of a curmudgeon and Spring-Festival-denier in the future.

When the celebrations had died down, it was good to take in the East-West fusion in which Penang's history is steeped. That it was colonized by the British in the 18th century (effectively possessed by the East India Company) and renamed Prince of Wales Island for a time, is still in evidence today.

One of the best places to have English tea in silver teapots in the world must be on the terrace of the Eastern and Oriental Hotel overlooking the Andaman Sea.

Anywhere that has a cricket ground like the Penang Cricket Club on the Esplanade, where the first game was played in 1907, also can't be too divorced from civilization either.

One of the most impressive figures in Penang's history happens, however, not to be British but Chinese.

Cheong Fatt Tze, who was originally from Guangdong province, is a largely forgotten figure now but was one of China's greatest towkays (rich merchants) with an international reputation that led to him being dubbed "the Rockefeller of the East".

He made money out of rubber, coffee and tea and had this great house built in the center of George Town called The Blue Mansion, which has now been painstakingly restored to its former glory and was in receipt of a UNESCO conservation award. The tycoon had eight wives (but was only really in love with his seventh, apparently) and when he died in 1916 flags were flown at half mast in all British and Dutch colonies, despite the distraction of World War I.

Apart from the mansion, one of his lasting legacies was establishing Changyu wine in Yantai, Shandong province, importing cutting from the US and Europe.

He was not only described as one of China's last Mandarins but its first genuine capitalist, even though he died more than 60 years before Deng Xiaoping's reform and opening-up.

As the new year begins in earnest, he might be a useful role model for China's current generation of entrepreneurs to rediscover if they have global ambitions of their own.

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