Feature

Peranakan culture: History
modern Singapore

Stepping through time: In the residential area of Katong, Singapore, a private two-story house, called Katong Antique House, has become a treasure trove of all things peranakan.

 Amid 2010’s hype about the new ship-like structure atop three hotel towers, I visited Singapore and discovered another side of the city-state.

In the upper-middle-class residential area of Katong, a private two-story house has become a treasure trove of all things peranakan. Peranakan culture is a rich mix of Chinese with local Malay straits culture and a twist of British as well as Dutch colonial influence.

Peter Wee, the head of the Peranakan Association of Singapore, opened the house and dubbed it the Katong Antique House.

Antique teak and mahogany cabinets filled with old porcelain were lined up along the walls of a small room. Photos of nyonyas in baju panjang or kebaya and sarongs hung on the wall. A large wooden altar with three Chinese house gods took center stage in the front room of the house. And 65-year-old Wee greeted visitors as well as explained the story behind all the treasures.  

The Katong Antique House is one of many spots in the city-state that display Singapore’s peranakan culture. Beyond the shopping area of Orchard Road, the Esplanade Theater’s performances and the casinos of Marina Bay, the orderly, modern city also has places that show its rich heritage.

Proud of his roots: Peter Wee, the head of the Peranakan Association of Singapore, holds up a picture of a lady donned in typical peranakan clothing in his Katong Antique House, Singapore.
“To understand the present and face the future, one should know the past,” Wee said recently.

The younger generation of Singaporeans has slowly forgotten its peranakan heritage, discarding the family’s old antique furniture that no longer fits in small Housing Development Board (HDB) flats, Wee said.

As Singapore became more and more modern, English was used as the language of instruction in schools and the government promoted the use of Mandarin. This eclipsed Hokkien, causing the younger generation to loose their ability to speak in the traditional mix of Malay and Hokkien. The Katong Antique House is Wee’s way of preserving and keeping the culture alive.

His vision to inspire a greater appreciation for peranakan culture is slowly becoming more than a pipe dream. According to Peranakan Association board member Philip Chia, a peranakan cuisine specialist, a revival and increased interest in peranakan culture has emerged in the past couple of years.

Chia cited the beginning as the airing of the television drama series The Little Nyonya, and the former and current prime ministers, Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong, proclaiming their peranakan descent.

After that, people became more interested in learning about the history of peranakan in Singapore, he said.

In Singapore, there are three main types of peranakan heritage: the Chinese peranakan, the Chitty peranakan and the Jawi peranakan. The Chinese peranakan emerged from marriages between local Malay women and Chinese merchants, the Chitty emerged from marriages of local women with Hindu South Indians and the Jawi peranakan from marriages with Muslim South Indians.

Chia said people began to remember the clothes their great aunts wore in old photos — the traditional Malay-influenced baju panjang and kebaya, and realized they were the sons and daughters of peranakan people as well.

The Peranakan Association does not have statistics on people with peranakan heritage, Wee said. The association has 1,900 peranakan members and more than 1,000 non-peranakan. Chia said the late Indonesian designer Iwan Tirta was a close friend of the association.

The Singapore government, through the National Heritage Board and working closely with the Peranakan Association, transformed one of Singapore’s Asian culture museums into the Peranakan Museum in 2008, making Singapore the first and only country — among those that have peranakan — with a public museum dedicated to the culture.

One of the international hotel chains in Singapore features peranakan culture in their program for guests. The InterContinental Hotel in Singapore on Bugis Street, an area that was once brimming with peranakan shophouses, offers a selection of activities for guests to experience peranakan culture.

One of them is an excursion dubbed the peranakan trail, which I joined upon the hotel’s invitation. The trail takes visitors to places such as the Peranakan Museum and Peter Wee’s Antique house.  

The trail begins at Singapore’s spice garden, because peranakan cuisine is a big part of the culture.

Peranakan women are very good at cooking, Wee said.

“The women had zero rights back then. They were not allowed to go to school, so from a very young age they learned how to cook, sow, and bead. That was the only way to prove their worthiness,” he said.

The spice garden, the first Botanical Garden under Raffles-ruled Singapore, now has clove trees, candlenut trees, various ginger plants and lemongrass. When I visited the garden, a group of aspiring chefs were studying the plants.  

The next stop was the Peranakan Museum. The museum’s architecture has a classical tropical British colonial feel, with tall ceilings and horizontal window shutters showcasing gorgeous jewelry for peranakan weddings, antique furniture and porcelain.

Wee’s Katong Antique House was next on the itinerary. The Katong area is close to Joo Chiat, also a preservation area. The Joo Chiat area was named after Chew Joo Chiat, Wee’s great grandfather, a businessman who owned most of the land there.

Visits to the Antique House are by appointment only.

Food revival: Chef Philip Chia, a Peranakan Association board member, explains the basics about peranakan-inspired food at the InterContinental Hotel in Singapore on Bugis Street.
 After securing an appointment, Wee gladly showed visitors around the house and shared some stories. He said he had become interested in collecting peranakan cultural antiques after his grandfather died and when his old belongings were being thrown out.

The young Wee, who loved porcelain dolls, was sad to part with the memorabilia. As he grew older, he developed a fondness for collecting antiques.

At one point during the tour, he asked his guests to select a color. When red was the answer he showed us a beautiful antique red batik sarong with drawings of phoenixes. Colorful batik sarongs with Chinese-style paintings are a good example of the mixing of cultures in peranakan design. The batik was produced in Pekalongan, Central Java, designed by a Chinese peranakan, he said.

The last stop on the peranakan trail was Kim Choo’s restaurant and shop. The place is run by young Singaporean Raymond Wong, who is continuing his grandmother’s business that began as a dumpling shop. When we arrived, he was teaching Japanese tourists how to do beadwork, a skill that was compulsory for peranakan women.

Wong explained how to make rice dumplings, demonstrated how to make potpourri from pandan and jasmine and showed us how to wear a sarong and kebaya. As he skillfully wrapped a sarong around one of the visitors and pinned the kebaya, it was clear there is hope for the preservation of peranakan culture in Singapore.


— Photos by JP/Prodita Sabarini

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