In going back over the hundreds of posts I’ve made in this blog since I started it in 2009, which is coming onto eight years ago (yikes!), I suddenly realised that I’d never done one about one of my most-prized antiques. My teeny little vinaigrette box. So that’s what we’re covering today! Here it is:
This thing is really small. I mean really, really, really small! You could pack four or five of these into a standard matchbox without much trouble at all. That’s how tiny it is! The entire thing is solid sterling silver, and it is indeed, very old. It is the oldest piece of antique silver which I currently own, and almost certainly the smallest. So, what is it?
Vinaigrette-boxes, or simply just vinaigrettes were very popular during the 17-and-1800s, from the early Georgian era up through the end of the Victorian era. They were almost always little silver boxes, with gilt interiors, with pierced grilles and little sponges inside.
The sponges held a mixture of perfume or essential oils mixed with a drop or two of vinegar. This mixture created a sweet-smelling but also pungent aroma, designed to mask the stench of unwashed bodies, horse-manure, coal-smoke and other nasal assaults common during the 18th and 19th centuries. Since vinegar is acidic, vinaigrettes were always gilt (gold-lined or gold-plated) to prevent the acid from burning through the silver with which the boxes were made.
Vinaigrettes came in various sizes, from minuscule ones like this, to much larger ones about the size of a matchbox. They also came in a wide array of shapes, styles and designs. Those with strange, interesting, rare or novel designs are especially collectible.
This particular vinaigrette has the hallmarks of Thomas Spicer, for Birmingham, in 1823, and the duty mark of George IV, who reigned from 1820-1830. It also has its original sponge inside it! It’s a bit dry and crusty, but I didn’t want to throw it out.
Hallmarks on silverware change over time. Not just in style, size and shape, but also in the number of hallmarks. Knowing when different hallmarks were introduced and when they were discontinued is one way of dating a piece. This can be important when the item is particularly old, and the original set of hallmarks might have been polished out or unreadable. The duty mark for British silver was introduced in the 1700s and discontinued in 1890.
And here’s the vinaigrette fully-opened, with the sponge removed. You can see the full set of hallmarks here. Five in total: Maker’s mark of TS (Thomas Spicer), assay mark of an anchor (Birmingham), fineness mark of a Lion Passant (Sterling Silver), the date-letter (Z) for 1823, and finally – a duty mark of a monarch’s head (George IV). The TS maker’s mark has been repeated on both sides of the box.
The Fall of the Vinaigrette
Vinaigrettes died out in the Victorian era. When the soap-tax was repealed in the…1850s, I believe it was…it suddenly became much easier to wash onself, and one’s clothing. This moderate improvement in personal hygiene and laundry meant that for once, people didn’t stink so much. And if they did, cologne, scent of perfume was used to mask the smell. By the end of the century, the vinaigrette had pretty much become a museum piece.
I like antiques which are quirky, interesting, unusual and useful. Emphasis on useful. I don’t like buying anything – even an antique – if I don’t either like it, or can use it, in one way or another. And ever since I discovered that they existed, I decided that I couldn’t wait to have a beautiful antique toothpaste jar on my bathroom counter.
Getting to see such an exquisitely decorated little vessel, which was only put on this earth to serve us toothpaste!…makes the act of brushing one’s teeth twice a day just so much more pleasant – brightened by the fact that you get to scoop your toothpaste out of such a cute little container. And even when you’re not using it, that decorated little pot just looks just so decorative and pretty, sitting there on the shelf, and doing what it does. This is why I wanted one!
Well, that, and I’d been selling a lot of things online lately and I decided to treat myself a bit. I found this at the local flea-market, and thought it’d look good siting on my bathroom counter…
I’ve seen a few of these in my time. Square, round…even rectangular! But this was the first one I’ve ever seen with the gold paint on it…and it just jumped out at me, all shiny in the sunlight. It just looked like such a happy, cheerful little toothpaste pot! I had to have it. Once I got it home, I cleaned it, washed it out, and filled it with fresh toothpaste. Just getting to look at this charming, Victorian antique every morning would be all the motivation that I’d need to brush my teeth every day!
The toothpaste pots of Victorian England were undoubtedly, the most elegant and refined solution ever created, to the answer the age-old problem of how to package effective dental hygiene products to a public plagued by halitosis. In this posting, I’ll take a brief look at the history of dental hygiene, and how mankind arrived at the manufacture of these little toothpaste pots, and the contents they once held.
“Taking a Powder…”
These days, we’re so used to things coming in liquid form.
Liquid soap. Liquid toothpaste. Liquid medicines. Liquid deodorants…the list goes on, and on, and on.
And yet, this obsession with all kinds of liquid products is actually a pretty recent one. It wasn’t that long ago that most products that people bought for themselves for private consumption were not sold in liquid form. Medicines were not sold in pill-form or even in syrup-form. They were sold in powder-form, with each dose in folded paper sachets. To ‘take a powder’ was to take a dose of medicine – usually by tipping the powder into a glass of water and stirring it. The resultant diluted powder was gulped down and the dose taken. All kinds of medicines were administered this way, including painkillers or settlers for joint-pain, fever, headaches and upset stomachs.
Soap was sold in soap-powder form or in a hard, chunky block, which you either lathered as-was, or shaved or cut off with a knife. Deodorants were limited to whatever talcum-powder you could smack onto your body to absorb the perspiration from your skin.
And last, but not least – the subject of this posting: Toothpaste!
A Biting History of Dental Care
Throughout history, people have known that if you don’t look after your teeth, all kinds of nasty things can happen to them. They turn black, they crust over, they get infected, they fall out, you get abscesses, and if you get really unlucky like my brother did – you get a root-canal operation (yikes!).
I’ve always been pretty fortunate with my teeth. Like most kids I never took very good care of them (who can ever claim they did?) but after one particularly nasty visit to the dentist, as a teenager, got fed up with the whole debacle, and started methodically scrubbing my teeth twice a day. Since then (apart from one very unpleasant incident a few years ago which I still don’t understand how it happened…), I’ve had pretty good teeth. Not perfect (nobody will have perfect teeth without outside help from a dentist), but pretty good. No major damage or problems in years, apart from the odd hiccup.
Our ancestors were just as aware of the importance of, and the dangers of the neglect of – cleaning one’s teeth properly and regularly. And to combat this problem, they devised a truly staggering array of methods and materials to clean their teeth, from brushing it with ash or fireplace soot, to gargling their mouths with stale urine (delicious!). This last one was a favourite of the Ancient Romans. Urine contains ammonia, which bleaches things white. Basically – piss was the world’s first extra-whitening mouthwash! Also, piss was used to clean linens back in the old days, too – bedsheets and clothing were all soaked in stale piss to let the raw ammonia remove and lift the stains out.
Aren’t you glad we have washing-detergents now?
Anyway, by the Victorian times, mankind had moved on from brushing his teeth with soot and gargling it out with stale urine. The effects of dental neglect were by now very well known, and the effects of dental neglect were not improved by the sudden availability to the public at large, of a large and cheap quantity of sugar!
Previous to the 1800s, all sugar came from sugar-canes – these only grow in tropical regions, which meant that for centuries, sugar was a priceless luxury – indulged in only by the richest people, who could afford the prices of sugar which had been processed, packed and shipped from thousands and thousands of miles away.
When it became known that sugar could be extracted from sugar-beets, which grow in more temperate climates, the price of sugar collapsed, and suddenly what once cost a king’s ransom, the average, workaday man could go out and buy.
The rise in sugar, and an increasing access to more food meant that for the first time in history, people’s teeth were under serious attack. And Victorian dentists and pharmacists came to the rescue – with specially-invented cleaning products!
Victorian Tooth Powders
Despite the labels on the tins (or in this case – pots!) – tooth-paste as we would recognise it, did not actually exist in Victorian times. The technology and science of the era did not permit the consistent manufacture of a paste or gel-like substance which kept well enough and which could be produced to a high-enough quality to clean the teeth on a regular basis. So what happened?
Pharmacists, apothecaries and dentists fell back on their old standby – powders!
The first commercially-produced tooth-cleaners, of a sort, were not tooth-pastes, they were tooth-powders. Often, these concoctions were homemade, using whatever materials could be found. The pharmacist would be constantly mixing, changing and testing, until the right combination of ingredients was reached. The recipe was written down and then repeated whenever a new order for tooth-powder came in.
Common ingredients in Victorian tooth-powders included crushed soap-flakes (for the lathering effect), baking soda, powdered plant-extracts of various kinds (for disinfection), and usually at least one abrasive – brick dust or even powdered china (you know, from broken plates? These were used to scrub off tartar and teeth-stains). All these ingredients were all crushed up in a mortar and pestle, ground up until they were as fine as talcum-powder. A flavouring (for example – oil of peppermint) was then added and mixed in, to give it a pleasant flavour. Then, the finished product was packed up and sold to the public!
Such tooth-powders, or ‘dentifrices’ as they’re called (a ‘dentifrice’ is something that cleans the teeth – it’s not necessarily a powder), while originally made by pharmacists and doctors doing their own, homemade experiments – but once a winning recipe had been discovered, they might well go into fullscale production!
The thing is – how do you sell something like this to the teeth-conscious public? You couldn’t very well sell tooth-powder in paper sachets, and since ‘toothpaste’ wasn’t actually a paste, you couldn’t sell it in a tube, either! And even if it was – the ability to make cheap, throwaway squeeze-tubes (of the kind we buy today) was not possible in Victorian times. The first ones were made of lead!
Because of this, the Victorians instead sold their tooth powders in little ceramic pots…
Victorian Dentifrice Pots
Exactly WHEN people started selling toothpaste in cute little pots is unknown. The earliest dates I can find seem to be the 1870s and 1880s, although this isn’t based on any really solid evidence.
These pots were pretty small – about the size of a modern tin of shoe-polish. They were very simple, too. A base, the sides, the hollow inside to hold the powder, an indented lip, and a lid, which simply sat on top – and that was it! They didn’t screw, latch or lock down like modern toothpaste tubes, or even modern screw-top jars! The lid simply sat on top of the pot – if you tipped it the wrong way, the lid would be in danger of falling off!
Tooth powders were simply dumped into these pots until they were full, and then the full pots were sold to the customers. The pots were likely secured either in throwaway paper boxes, to stop them rattling around, or were just taped shut.
Either way, these pots would’ve graced the dressing-tables, wash-stands and bathroom counters of thousands of people in the late Victorian era, when cost-effective and easy dental-care came into the reach of the masses. And as ever, the claims on the packaging were always the same. Over a century later and nothing has changed! They promised to whiten teeth, remove tartar, and freshen the breath!
I got interested in Victorian toothpaste jars from the moment I realised what they were, mostly because of the sort of novelty aspect of them – they’re so different from how we get our toothpaste today! I mean yes, we get them in nice, brightly-coloured tubes – but there’s something just so satisfying about storing it in a decorated little ceramic pot on the shelf, which you buy once, but clean and refill countless times!
And they look SO much more elegant than those tubes of AIM, PEPSODENT, COLGATE and McCLEANS!
That said, for all their elegance of presentation, and reusability of packaging, brushing your teeth with a tooth-powder was a bit more involved than squirting something onto a brush and stuffing it in your mouth!
To get the powder to stick to the toothbrush, it was necessary to moisten it first. Either by sticking it in your mouth, or by dipping it in water. This allowed the powder to stick to the bristles of the toothbrush (which in Victorian times, were made of wood, and bristled with pig-hair!) so that it wouldn’t fall off and go absolutely everywhere, when you lifted the brush from the pot to your mouth. It was only after you mixed the powder with water that it really ecame ‘tooth-paste’.
Thereafter, the process of cleaning is exactly the same today – except that the Victorians didn’t have fancy-schmancy battery-powered electric toothbrushes like we do!
Victorian toothpaste pots are highly collectible. Numerous manufacturers produced all kinds of styles and patterns, pictures and lettering on the lids of their toothpaste pots. I’ve even seen one or two with words like “Patronised by the Queen” printed on them!
Almost all the decorations, maker’s names, company addresses and printed advertising material on the lids of these pots was applied through a process called transfer-printing. Ceramics with this type of decoration are known as ‘transfer-ware’.
Before the invention of transfer-printing – all the pretty pictures, the flowers, the idyllic scenes, the writing, the company-information…everything that went on every ceramic item ever sold – had to be laboriously painted onto it by hand, by some poor bastard sitting at a table with a brush in his hand! One mistake and the item would be rejected. And it took ages just to paint one tiny little cup, pot or bowl.
This all changed when the labour-intensive, but relatively-speaking – much faster – transfer-printing process was invented in the 1750s. It took a while, but by the 1800s, transfer-printed ceramics was a way of life for many people.
Transfer-printing works pretty simply – You get a copper plate. You engrave the design of whatever it is you want, onto the plate. You warm up the plate and paint on a special mixture of ink. You then laid down a sheet of paper over the inked plate and ran it through a press. This printed the image engraved on the copper onto the sheet of paper. The paper was then trimmed and cut to gain access to the various parts of the design, and then the paper was pressed onto the ceramic object being decorated.
In this way, the print was transferred from the copper to the ceramic. Transfer-printing!
To make it last, the printed ceramic item was then fired in a kiln to set the colours and inks; this dried them permanently and stopped them fading or running. It was a fiddly process, but it was a lot faster than painting or drawing on each individual pot by hand, and then sitting around all day waiting for it to dry! On top of all this, the results were far more consistent – important, when a company’s reputation was at stake!
Yes, you had to engrave the plate, yes you had to print each cup or bowl or plate or saucer one at a time – but in the time it used to take to paint one plate or bowl, dozens of such items could be transfer-printed! It was a fast, cheap, effective way of decorating ceramics, and it made actual sets of ceramics, all featuring the same pattern – a possibility. It was this process which printed all the pretty details on antique pots, like the ones used to sell tooth-powders in. It finally died out in the 1910s and 20s, when faster decoration processes were invented, such as premade decals which could simply be pressed on and then made permanent by painting them in with a clear-coat glaze.
The End of Transfer-Printed Tooth-Powder Pots
Pots like these for all their beauty, did not last especially long. By the early 20th century, they were already dying out. The First World War really saw their end. It wasn’t practical to send thousands of little ceramic jars to the front lines for the troops, all filled with powder. Advances in medicine meant that proper toothpastes were now available, and these could be stored in thin, metal tubes which could be squeezed to release the paste onto a brush in a measured amount. And the tooth-powder pot was relegated to the bathroom of history…
Where Can I Buy a Dentifrice Pot?
Dentifrice pots are pretty common as far as antiques go. They’re usually dug out of old rubbish-tips and stuff. Complete pots with their lids and bases, without damage or loss of artwork on the lid can go for a pretty penny, especially if the pot is of an odd shape, size, or from a famous company, or if the artwork is particularly fantastic. Most bog-standard toothpaste pots are pretty cheap, though.
You can probably find them easily at most flea-markets and antiques shops (although they’ll cost more in antiques shops). But they are small, common, and pretty – and that does make them highly desirable as a collectible – some people even collect the lids on their own, without looking for the entire pot!
To most people around the world, the word ‘Peranakan‘ means absolutely nothing, and to some people around the world, it means little more than that. But to others, it conjours up images of elegance, grandeur, intricacy and integration – a way of life, as the movie put it: ‘…gone with the wind‘.
I admit to having a personal, if tenuous link to the Peranakan. My paternal grandmother, my grand-aunts, my grand-uncle, my great-grandmother, and my great-great grandmother, and probably going back even more generations than I care to think – were all Peranakan.
Sadly, this was something which was lost on me during the days when I knew my grandmother well. Despite being extremely close to her for many years, when she was still reasonably healthy I was too young to understand, and didn’t have the depth of interest and appreciation of history which I do now, to fully grasp what a unique and minuscule world and culture my grandmother had grown up in.
Had she been younger, or I older, and if our paths had crossed sooner than they had done, I might’ve learned more about her fascinating life. But they did not, and I didn’t. Therefore, almost everything I learned about her early life and the culture she lived in, I learned secondhand – after her death at the age of 97, in November of 2011.
My grandmother – Bertha Fu Kui Yok – was born in Singapore, the capital of the British Straits Settlements, on the 7th of May, 1914 – the first of five children – four girls and one boy. She died on the 28th of November, 2011, in Melbourne, Australia – at the age of 97.
And she was Peranakan.
In this posting, I’ll be looking at who the Peranakan were, what their lives were like, how they lived them, and what remains of the Peranakan people, their culture and their cultural identity in the modern era. Make yourself comfortable! This could be a long journey…
The Peranakan – A Name and a People
If you asked anybody outside of southeast Asia what the ‘Peranakan’ were, they’d probably no damn idea what you were talking about!…And I don’t blame them. In fact, even people within southeast Asia sometimes don’t know what you’re talking about! And that’s hardly surprising. The Peranakan, with a culture long in decline, are now gradually on the rise again in Southeast Asia, and this long-forgotten ethnic cultural group is slowly clawing its way back up to the prominence it once held in the days of the British Empire.
The Peranakan traditionally occupied a very small area of the world: Singapore, Malacca, Penang Island, and Indonesia. So it’s perhaps not surprising that most people have never heard of them, and yet their lives and the culture they created was as vibrant as any other in Asia, or even in Europe!
So, who were they?
Who and What Is ‘Peranakan’?
‘Peranakan‘ is an Indo-Malay word meaning ‘child of..’, ‘descendant’, ‘cross-breed’, or ‘native-born’, depending on what translation you take to heart. The word ‘Anak‘ literally means ‘child’ or ‘descendant’ in Indonesian.
So, who were the Peranakan, and when, and where did they come from?
To fully understand their roots, we must go back hundreds of years to the days of Imperial China, and acquaint ourselves with the traders, merchants and sailors who plied their trade between the southern provinces of the Chinese mainland, and the islands of the South Pacific.
These merchants came from the south of China – Hong Kong, Canton, etc. Their native languages were either Mandarin Chinese, Hokkien, or Canton Dialect (‘Cantonese’). They sailed down the Malay Peninsula, around Indonesia, and through the Strait of Malacca, and the Strait of Johore, skirting the coastlines of what are today – Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
In time, these traders established themselves on the Malay Penisula at Malacca and Penang, at the island of Singapore, and in Sumatra and Java on the Indonesian islands. In time, they married local women (these traders were almost invariably men), and started to raise families.
The descendants from these first marriages are the people now known as the Peranakan. They were not Chinese, not Malay, not Indonesian, and not Singaporean. They were a hodge-podge of races and cultures. They did not come from China, but spoke Chinese dialects. They spoke Malay, but were not Malaysian. They used chopsticks and ate rice, but also cooked dishes unknown on the Chinese mainland. Their language, dress, customs, culture, food, architecture, furniture and everything else about them was a mix of cultures, traditions and customs, and only ever found in Malaya, Singapore and Indonesia.
This is one of the reasons why the Peranakan are so intriguing, but also relatively unknown outside of southeast Asia. The relatively small areas in which they lived mean that people of Peranakan descent are not only rare, but rarely heard of!
The Peranakan – What’s in a Name?
In their long history, the Peranakan were called many things – the first was obviously – Peranakan. But they were also called the Baba-Nyonya, the Straits Chinese, the King’s Chinese, or even the Royal Chinese!
‘Straits Chinese‘ comes from the fact that the majority of Peranakan lived in Singapore, Penang and Malacca – near the Straits of Malacca and Johore (between Sumatra, and Singapore, respectively), and were therefore within the boundaries of the British Straits Settlements for much of the 19th century – the Straits Settlements being the collection of British colonies as part of the British Empire, to be found in Southeast Asia.
‘Royal‘ or ‘King’s Chinese‘ comes from the fact that by the 1800s, the land occupied by the Peranakan was colonised by the British. During this time, an increasing number of Peranakan, already detatched and disassociating themselves from China, began to see themselves as being British subjects – and became known as the ‘King’s Chinese’, referring to King George IV, William IV, Edward VII, George V and George VI. In time, many Peranakan learned English, and had English-style educations. Some even converted to Christianity and added typically Christian names to their more traditional Chinese ones.
Apart from these broader and more general titles, there were also other, more specific ones. For example, Peranakan men were called ‘Babas‘. Young Peranakan women were called ‘Nyonyas‘. Older Peranakan women (usually married) were called ‘Bibiks‘ – accidentally calling an older, married Peranakan woman ‘nyonya’ would’ve been extremely rude!
Because of these titles, the Peranakan – already known as the King’s Chinese, the Royal Chinese, and the Straits Chinese, also had yet another title to add to the list: the ‘Baba-Nyonya‘.
My grandmother, her sisters, her mother, and her grandmother were all nyonyas. In the case of my great-grandmother, she was also a bibik.
Peranakan Family Life and Structure
As with many cultures in the past, from China to Britain, Italy to Russia, Japan to Egypt, family life in a Peranakan household was immensely hierarchical. Every person in the household had a rank and a position, and they were expected to adhere to it.
At the top of the tree was the family patriarch – the father or ‘Baba’. He conducted business, earned money for the household and kept the family together.
Directly below him was his wife, the ‘Bibik’ – sometimes called a ‘tai-tai‘ (a Chinese and Cantonese term for the matriarch of a large household, or the leisured wife of a wealthy husband).
Bibiks had a surprising level of power. They organised and ordered around the household servants, handled household accounts and finances, and, similar to society women in Europe, were expected to entertain and socialise for the benefit of themselves and their husbands.
Below the bibik came her children – any sons, and unmarried daughters, along with any daughters-in-law – the wives of her married sons. Below them, if they could afford any – came household servants, usually in the shape of one or more ‘Majie‘, ‘amahs‘ or ‘ayahs’. ‘Majie’ is Chinese for ‘Mother-Sister’.
A ‘Majie’ was a housemaid or domestic servant who took on a vow of celibacy. Their usual uniform consisted of sandals, a white tunic or blouse, and a pair of black trousers. They did everything from cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, serving food and drinks, running errands and almost anything else that the family required of them. Majie either lived-in, or rented a room in a tenement-house in a poorer part of town.
A wealthy family would have had several majie. A poorer family might only have one, colloquially called a ‘yat kiok tek‘ – Cantonese for ‘one leg kicking’ – meaning that they were all on their own and had to do all the heavy household work.
With familial rankings came familial obligations and expectations:
Father worked, earned money, saw to the financial security of the household and saw to the advancement of the family. Mother stayed at home and ran the household – including organising the household servants, and managing household expenditures, taken out of the allowance given to her by her husband. The patriarch of the household always handled any serious transactions but usually gave his wife a regular allowance to keep the household ticking over.
Sons who were old enough might work, or join their father in the family firm, or else go to school. Daughters were expected to learn various Peranakan crafts – cooking, cleaning, spice-grinding, sewing, etc. Mastery of these skills was meant to show that a woman was patient, attentive, creative and intelligent – Perfect material for marriage!
Unmarried daughters tended to lead very solitary lives – they were not allowed to be seen in public except on very special occasions – until after marriage!
The majority of Peranakan households, although it had been several generations since they’d come from China – nonetheless held onto Chinese beliefs. This included ancestor-worship, Taoism, and Buddhism, various superstitions, and Confucian-style filial piety.
Daily preoccupations of the Peranakan household generally included gambling, socialising, sewing or beading (for the women), smoking (for the men), and the chewing of betel nuts (for the women). Betel nuts and leaves are actually poisonous – long-term chewing has many of the same effects as smoking – including heightened risks of cancer!
Decorative boxes were often used to house betel nuts and leaves, and spittoons were kept nearby for clean disposal of chewed nuts.
The Peranakan Home
In the heyday of the Peranakan, they lived largely in Malacca, Singapore, Penang, and the two main islands of the Dutch East Indies – Java, and Sumatra.
The physical size of islands such as Singapore and Penang, and the humid, tropical climate of Southeast Asia were two of the factors which dictated the size, style, and layout of the houses which the Peranakan (and other people in Singapore, etc), lived.
Due to the limited amount of good land for building, houses typically had small, compact frontages, but might be two or even three storeys in height, as a result.
The typical home of the Peranakan, from the early 1800s until the middle part of the 20th century was the shophouse – a design of residence dictated by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles himself. So, what was the shophouse?
The Shophouses of Southeast Asia
The classic shophouses of Southeast Asia, found all over Malaysia, Singapore and other countries in the region (for the style was popular, and widely copied) were made up of a mix of European and Asian design styles. The interior layout of the house and the ordering of the rooms was dictated by traditional Chinese house-plans, dating back to the days of the ‘siheyuan’ (four-sided courtyard-houses of ancient China).
However, the design and stylistic features were a mix of traditional Chinese, and European styles. Open windows with ‘jealousy shutters’, and brickwork were taken from building styles and methods used in England. However, the entrance-ways, window-coverings and decorations were typically Chinese in style or inspiration – such as decorative nameplates and calligraphy panels around the doors, fu-dogs outside the entrance to guard the home, and the symmetrical layout of the doors and windows facing the street.
Shophouses, with their narrow frontages and (usually) multiple storeys, were always designed as terraced housing – cheap, mass-produced identical (or near-identical) dwellings built in long rows, which stretched for whole city blocks. Usually, one row of shophouses backed onto another, with an alleyway down the middle where the nightsoil men could haul away the pans and buckets of human waste each evening, without disturbing the household within. A trapdoor in the outhouse wall allowed easy, unobtrusive access at all times.
Not all shophouses had this feature – which meant having the nightsoil man haul an entire bucket of excrement through the middle of the house into the street outside – in the tropic heat! And remember, please, that nightsoil collection was not regular – it could be as infrequently as every second, or even every third day! The stench was often unbearable!
Lavatorial facilities aside, the shophouse was extremely popular. They could be deceptively large, and if well-ventilated, pretty comfortable, despite their narrow facades.
A similar style of residence was the terraced townhouse. It was similar to the shophouse in basic design, but had a couple of key differences. One was that while the shophouse had the ground floor dedicated to business, and the upper floors dedicated to living-space – townhouses were constructed solely to serve as a residence.
Another feature which set shophouses apart from townhouses (apart from the fact that the front room on the ground floor was used for business), was the presence of the ‘five-foot way’. This was a design feature almost exclusive to shophouses. It was a covered walkway at street-level extending out the front of the house – it was created by the extension of the upper floors over the footprint of the ground floor. This created an overhang and space for a roofed pavement below.
The five-foot way was an idea of Thomas Raffles himself! The idea was that the five-foot way would protect pedestrians from the heat, sun, rain and filth on the streets, and provide then with a safe, sheltered and paved area in which to walk. Although they were called ‘five foot ways’, their width could vary anywhere from five to six to seven or eight feet across.
A common feature of shophouses and the five-foot way was that the front room on the first floor (which was built over the five-foot way in the street below), would have a removable floor-section about the size of a drinks-coaster. This peep-hole was so that you could see what was going on in the street below, see who might be knocking on your front door, or who might be coming into the shop – a primitive form of video-surveillance and communication!
My father, uncles and aunts, who grew up in shophouses like these, remember when they were children – if they were too lazy to go downstairs to unlock the front door – they’d chuck the keys down through the hole into the five-foot way, so that visitors could unlock the door themselves! Money for street-hawkers selling fast food or other merchandise might also be chucked down the hole, to pay for goods and services!
Other than that – Peranakan townhouses and shophouses were the essentially same in that they had narrow frontages, were built side by side in long rows, and were usually 2-3 storeys high. Houses of this style were the mainstay of housing in Singapore, Malacca, Penang and other cities and towns during the colonial era, from the 1820s to the 1950s. Today – rows, or entire blocks of shophouses and terraced townhouses are heritage-protected by the Singaporean and Malaysian governments, to preserve their architectural legacy. Entire streets of them may be found in the oldest quarters of Singapore, such as Chinatown.
Peranakan Shophouses and Townhouses
Peranakan families often inhabited shophouses or townhouses such as these – and it was almost always obvious when a Peranakan family had moved in!
A typically Peranakan terraced townhouse was often brightly coloured – painted yellow, blue, green, red, or white. The entrance halls, the front courtyard, five-foot way, and much of the interior of the house would be tiled in exquisite imported tiles which were painted bright colours and patterns. A family motto would be painted onto a plaque fixed to the lintel above the front door, and words from lucky or prosperous sayings would be fixed to scrolls or panels either side of the front door.
Immediately inside the front door was the front reception hall – this was where men did business, greeted guests and held functions, parties and meetings.
Beyond this would be a secondary room, which would serve as a sitting room. Close family friends, visiting relations, or good business-partners might be invited in here to relax and chat.
The next feature was often a ‘lightwell’ or ‘airwell’. This was an open courtyard in the middle of the house which went from the ground floor right up to the top of the house, and which was usually open to the sky. As shophouses were often long and narrow, with houses on either side, there were few (if any) side-windows.
The lightwell brought natural light into the rooms in the middle of the house, and allowed for ventilation, to cool the house down. Rainwater was usually collected in a pool or pond, or was used to water plants. Fish might be kept in the airwell pond, as pets.
Beyond this might be the dining room, and then the back parlour, where women (married or not) might socialise and hang out. These kinds of segregations were common in Peranakan society – as with many societies around the world at the time. Here, women would eat ‘nyonya kueh’ (Peranakan desserts), drink tea, and gossip among themselves. Games like mahjong, or the Peranakan card-game – ‘Checkee’, might be played here (both are similar to gin-rummy).
Bibiks and nyonyas often gambled while playing checkee or mahjong using real money or gold (usually taken from the household-expenses fund given to them by their husbands!). It wasn’t uncommon for some women to drive up impressive gambling debts, and they would either pawn, or sell their expensive Peranakan gold and silver jewelry to pay for their addictions.
To this day, checkee and mahjong are still heavily associated in Chinese culture with endemic gambling. As a friend of mine once said: “If you don’t gamble while playing mahjong, it’s bloody boring!”
Anyway – I digress! Back to houses…
As unmarried nyonyas were not traditionally allowed to be seen, or mingle with men without permission – there were often sliding doors and screens dividing each room. These screens and doors usually had decorative gilt carvings and piercings in them – ostensibly to allow air-flow and ventilation – but they also served a second purpose – to let young girls check out the visitors which their fathers might not allow them to meet!
Near the back of the house would be a room, or a shrine dedicated to the worshipping of one’s ancestors, with offerings of fruit, water and tea, and the burning of incense sticks, as well as possibly having candles or oil-lamps. Photographs or portraits of prominent ancestors might also be included.
At the very back of the house would be the kitchen, bathroom, and toilet. The stove was usually brick-built or made of clay, and fired with wood. Food was stored in wooden food-cabinets or pantries, either propped up off of the floor, or suspended from the rafters in the ceiling. This was to keep it away from insects like ants and roaches, and rats. Food cabinets on the floor were set off of the ground inside ceramic cups, usually filled with water to trap and kill any insects trying to access the food from below.
In larger houses, kitchens were divided into ‘wet’ and ‘dry’. ‘Wet’ was where washing of eating and cooking utensils, ingredients and ceramics would take place, as well as the drawing of water. ‘Dry’ was used for cooking, preparing and serving dishes.
The upper storeys of the house contained bedrooms, communicating corridors, staircases, storage spaces, and of course, the lightwell, with wooden, shuttered windows containing jealousy shutters, which could be opened to permit in air and sunlight, or closed to protect the interior of the house from monsoonal downpours.
Although shophouses were common as the homes of most people in the British Straits Settlements, where most Peranakan or ‘Straits Chinese’ lived, not everyone lived in such accommodations. Then, just as now – those with money wanted something different from what their neighbours had – and exceptionally wealthy Peranakans often built themselves grand townhouses and mansions, using a mixture of local, and imported materials, some coming from as far away as England!
Peranakan Arts and Crafts
The Peranakan or Straits Chinese are famous for many things – their food, their jewelry, their architecture, but possibly most famously – their various arts and crafts. From beading, shoemaking, cooking, silversmithing, carpentry, porcelain, and sewing, Peranakan arts and crafts are famous for their intricacy of design, and the bright colours used in their creation.
Peranakan beading is famous – but also impossibly finicky! Miniscule glass beads – smaller than rice-grains, are embroidered onto a sheet of thin cloth, stretched tightly across a beading-frame. The beads are like the pixels on your computer screen – it takes hundreds – thousands, even! – to make something as tiny as the embroidered upper for a traditional Peranakan slipper.
Beading was used, not only for Peranakan slippers, but also for handbags, tablecloths and wall-hangings. Thousands, even millions, of tiny, tiny glass beads were woven into the fabric with microscopically thin needles to create scenes of flowers, birds, trees, plants, fish and mythical Chinese creatures. In some cases, the beading even extended to the decorative tassles on the edges of tablecloths and wall-hangings. And every single bead was sewn in by hand!
Along with beading were other pursuits such as sewing and porcelain-making. The most common type of clothing worn by Peranakan women was the two-piece outfit known as a Sarong-Kebaya. These were usually embroidered, woven and sewn by hand at home. If a nyonya, or more likely – her husband – was wealthy enough – then they might own a sewing machine.
Sewing and beading was traditionally women’s work. The shaping, spinning, firing and glazing of intricate Peranakan porcelain was traditionally done by men. The item was moulded or hand-shaped, left to dry, and then painted. And then fired. And then painted again. And then fired a second time!
Peranakan porcelain, like almost everything else in the Peranakan world – was marked by their famous intricacy of design. Traditional Chinese-style spoons, bowls, plates, teapots, serving dishes, teacups, vases and the large, ceramic jars called ‘Kamcheng’, were all made this way.
Peranakan-style Kamcheng were made in various sizes. From enormous ones the size of pumpkins, to tiny ones the size of rice-bowls. Bigger ones were used for storing drinking-water, and smaller ones for storing food, spices, sauces, and the really tiny ones were for cosmetics like face-creams and powders.
Peranakan clothing for women usually consisted of a two-piece outfit known as a Sarong Kebaya – the sarong was a long, ankle-or-shin-length tubular, wrap-around skirt, and the Kebaya was a close-fitting jacket or blouse, usually worn over a camisole or other supporting undergarment. Traditionally, these were made by the women themselves. Men either wore traditional Malay or Chinese-inspired outfits, or else wore Western-style clothing.
Neither the kebaya nor the sarong came with any fixtures or fastenings – no buttons, clasps, straps or drawstrings. The sarong was kept together with a metal belt, traditionally made of either gold, or silver. The kebaya was held shut with a series of three brooches linked on a chain, variously spelled either as ‘Kerosang’ or ‘Kerongsang’ (the latter is the Malay spelling). Both are considered correct.
There is some speculation that the clothes were designed this way so that wealthy Peranakan husbands would have to buy their wives flashy jewelry to wear all the time!
On top of that, the sleeves of the kebaya were traditionally much shorter than sleeves worn today – they usually came to only halfway up the forearm, stopping before the wrist. If you look at the photograph of my aunt, you’ll see just how short the sleeves on the kebaya actually are. This again, was to show off any rings, bracelets or bangles which a husband could afford to buy his wife. Flaunting one’s wealth and affluence was very much part of Peranakan culture!
Although now thought of as being ‘traditional nyonya’ clothing, in truth, the Sarong-Kebaya combination only started taking over in the early 20th century, from around the 1910s/1920s, as women looked for a lighter, more comfortable daily outfit, made of thin, breathable materials in the humid atmosphere of Southeast Asia where they lived.
Peranakan Silver and Gold
Some Peranakan could be extremely wealthy, and it wasn’t uncommon for Peranakan men to buy jewelry for their wives or sweethearts. Traditional items were rings, bracelets or bangles, necklaces, sarong belts and Kerongsangs. Other items might include watches, earrings, handbags, and long hairpins called ‘cucuk sangul‘, used to secure women’s hair-buns, a popular style of the time.
All these things were made of gold or silver. As all the customers were different, all the various pieces of jewelry were custom-made by a Peranakan silversmith or goldsmith. Because of this, every single piece of Peranakan jewelry was a unique, one-off creation.
That’s not to say that silversmiths, goldsmiths and jewelers did not follow particular styles and designs, which changed and rose and fell with the times, but each piece was always an individual, as different from the next one as it was from the last one.
Peranakan furniture was almost always made of wood. Influenced by Chinese and local Malay styles, their furniture was typically made of hard, dark woods, usually inlaid with ivory, mother-of-pearl, or patternated with lighter woods on top, or else fitted with marble slabs. Marble was cooling to the touch, making it comfortable to sit on, as well as being attractive to look at. Peranakan furniture comprised of tables, chairs, foot-stools, cabinets, day-beds and couches.
One of the most unique pieces of Peranakan furniture is the pillow. Although this is not any pillow that you’re likely to have ever seen – Peranakan pillows were made of wood!
Peranakan pillows were rectangular or squarish in shape, with round, square, or rectangular ends – which, like almost everything else in the Peraakan world, was highly decorated. Often, pillow-ends were in the form of gold or silver plaques riveted or nailed into the ends of each pillow.
One could hardly talk about the Peranakan without mentioning their food! When I told my relations I was writing this article, it was something that many of my cousins, uncles and aunts were quick to point out, whether they were Peranakan or not!
So, Peranakan food. Where to begin?
Along with clothing, language, home-life, crafts and beliefs, the Peranakan also differed from mainland Chinese in terms of their cuisine. Like almost everything else about the Peranakan – their food was delicious, intricate, beautiful, and time-consuming to produce! While some dishes had clear links back to China, others would’ve been completely alien to the mainland Chinese.
Peranakan food is arguably the most famous aspect of Peranakan culture, and many Peranakan dishes remain famous to this day throughout southeast Asia. Intricate, spicy, beautifully cooked and presented, Peranakan food covers a whole range of tastes across the spectrum from sweet, spicy, cold, hot, tangy, warm, sour and salty.
Peranakan food is traditionally called ‘nyonya cuisine‘, since it was the nyonya (women) who usually did the cooking. The dessert snacks, cakes, buns and biscuits were called ‘nyonya kueh‘ (‘women’s cakes’), and the term is sometimes used as a catch-all phrase for all Peranakan sweet dessert cakes and buns.
So what are some of the more famous dishes associated with the Peranakan?
Rendang, a dry curry usually made of beef or chicken is a perennnial favourite. Although it was Indonesian in origin, it was extremely popular with the Peranakan, who did settle in Indonesia, after all.
A lot of Peranakan cooking is notoriously labour-intensive, and Rendang is no exception. The meat must be slow-cooked and simmered for hours to make it soft and tender, and also to cook the curry sauce that goes with it! These days, you can make rendang with special rendang curry pastes and sauces that you buy from the supermarket, but in the old days, the spices used in the sauces, and the sauces themselves, had to be laboriously ground, crushed and pounded by hand.
Much Peranakan cooking makes extensive use of spices – knowing how to crush, grind and mix them effectively was extremely important, as nyonyas were expected to be good cooks for their husbands. Mastery of the mortar and pestle was an essential part of the nyonya’s domestic education.
That said, the nyonyas were also famous, perhaps even more so, for their desserts!
Popular nyonya desserts include ‘ang ku kueh’, ‘Kueh Lapis’, and ‘ondeh ondeh’.
Probably the most famous is ‘ang ku kueh‘ – literally ‘red tortoise cake’ – so-called because of its small, oval shape, and the patterns pressed into the surface, making it look like a tortoise’s shell. They have a soft, sweet, chewy, gooey surface, and the interiors are usually stuffed with sweet mung-bean paste.
Like the rendang, and almost everything else about Peranakan cuisine, ang ku kueh are extremely labour-intensive to make. The filling has to be mixed and pounded into an extremely soft paste. The dough has to be mixed and kneaded until soft. The dough has to be pressed flat and the filling has to be rolled into balls.
The balls are then wrapped in dough and then pressed into intricately carved moulds to shape and decorate them. The moulds are dusted in flour before each pressing. They’re then slammed onto the table to release the freshly-pressed kueh onto banana-leaves which you pre-cut, and brushed with olive-oil earlier on!
…that’s the process to produce ONE ang ku kueh, about the size of a golf ball.
Imagine how long it takes to produce three or four dozen for a formal dinner party…without modern food-processors!
Another popular nyonya dessert is ‘ondeh ondeh’, sweet little dough-balls rolled in crushed coconut, and filled with an extremely sweet palm-sugar syrup. These things are about the size of large marbles and can be eaten warm or cool. Biting into one causes a flood of sweet warm or cold palm-sugar syrup to go all over the inside of your mouth – and it is amazing!…just don’t tell your dentist!
As delicious as they are, like the ang ku kueh before them, these are extremely labour-intensive and time-consuming to produce! Snacks like these were often served only during really special events, or when guests were present, just because of the effort required to make them.
‘Kueh lapis’, literallly ‘layered cake’, is another popular Peranakan dessert – comprised of thin layers of sweet pastes made from various fruit flavourings (pandan leaves, coconut, etc), they are poured one on top of the other, and steamed in a wok to cook them. The result is sweet, gooey, and multicoloured!
When the cake is sliced open, a rainbow cross-section of anywhere from two to three, to half a dozen or more colourful layers present themselves, each one a different flavour. The cakes are usually served in square, rectangular or diamond-shaped slices, each one bite-sized for convenience.
Although nyonya cuisine was very different from mainland Chinese cooking (you try finding rendang in Beijing…go on! I dare you!), as ever, the Peranakan still held onto some vestiges of ancient Chinese beliefs. One of these was the yearly offerings of ‘nian gao’ (‘year cake’, or new year’s cake) to Zao Jun – the Chinese Kitchen God. In traditional Chinese homes, and many Peranakan homes, there was usually an alcove, shelf or cabinet which served as a shrine to the Kitchen God, said to be the spirit of a Chinese peasant who committed suicide by climbing into a burning stove.
Giving offerings to the Kitchen God ensured that he would rise to Heaven each New Year giving a sweet and palatable report of a family’s activities, graces and sins to the Jade Emperor, encouraging the Emperor to bless the family with good fortunes for the year ahead. Religious and superstitious nyonyas would pray to Zao Jun for good health and nutrition from the food cooked in his presence.
Honey, or Nian gao was often given as an offering because it is extremely sweet and notoriously sticky! If you’ve ever eaten it, you’ll know how tricky it can be to actually chew it. It’s so incredibly sticky that you’ll spend ten minutes just trying to lever your mouth back open with a pair of chopsticks! Gluing Zao Jun’s jaws shut with cake was one way to ensure he wouldn’t be able to tell the all-powerful Jade Emperor about any misdeeds done by the family!
If, for any reason, a member of the family needed to transport food (lunch for school, a picnic, taking food home, or taking food to a friend’s house, for example), then they likely carried them in a tiffin carrier. Peranakan tiffin carriers were typically made of thin, pressed steel, and coated in brightly-coloured enamel paint, which was then fired on so that it set solid. Additional decorations of flowers, birds, and lettering of various auspicious sayings (usually in Malay) were added around the outside.
Tiffin carriers were usually of anywhere from two to five layers in height, although some extreme ones could be half a dozen or more!
In the racially-segregated and class-conscious society of the Straits Settlements, in many respects, the Peranakan stood out much more than some other social and ethnic groups. With backgrounds in fields as diverse as shipping, retail, import-export, banking, education, and real-estate and construction (those beautiful Peranakan homes didn’t build themselves!), the Peranakan were much better off than many other social and ethnic groups in colonial British Singapore and Malaya.
Because of their relative affluence, the Peranakan were able to afford things that other ethnic groups in the Straits Settlements could not – such as education in the English language – many Peranakan spoke either Cantonese, Hokkien, or Malay (usually at least two of those three), but those who could afford it also learned English as a second or third language – often becoming extremely fluent. My own grandmother spoke Malay, Cantonese, Chinese, Hokkien as well as being fluent in English! She spent her childhood being educated at a convent-school in Singapore, from 1921-1926.
Because of their command of the English language, Peranakan men (Babas) often had an advantage over other ethnic and cultural groups in the Straits Settlements. Because they spoke fluent English, but were also fluent in many local languages, they were able to translate and interpret orders and information with minimal mistakes. This fluency in languages as well as their own familiarity with local customs meant that the British often appointed babas to important government and civic positions.
The Peranakan ran the civil service, they ran Peranakan societies, they operated schools, and were often captains of industry, finance, government, commerce and high society! Some Peranakan men even became ‘Capitan Cina‘ – Chinese Captains. This was the title given to civic and community leaders in the Chinese community. The titles, and the jobs which came with them, varied depending on time and place.
In some instances, the title was more or less honourary – but in others, capitans held significant legal and political authority! Wealthy capitans who represented and worked for their communities often tried to give back to their fellow Peranakan by establishing benevolent funds, welfare projects, and funding public works projects for the improvement of their communities.
The Peranakan and the Sinkeh
By the mid-1800s, the Peranakan were well-established in the prewar British colonial society that existed in the Straits Settlements. A significant number held positions of wealth, authority and power, running, or funding civic institutions and helping to operate the local governments and communities, working and trading with the British colonial administrators.
The Peranakan had been living in what became the Straits Settlements for centuries! In some cases, two, three, or even four hundred years! Generations of them had grown up and died in this world. The Straits Settlements was their home! They were Peranakan and in their mind – the Peranakan lived in the Straits Settlements – working with, and protected by, the British colonial government, and the might of the Royal Navy and the British Empire. They were not going anywhere, thank you very much!
…And then came the arrival of the ‘sinkeh‘…
‘Sinkeh’ (pronounced ‘sin-kay’) was a term used to refer to the thousands of Chinese peasants, migrants and indentured labourers who fled China between the 1800s-1950s, trying to find new homes in Southeast Asia. They were fleeing things like the Taiping Rebellion, the Boxer Rebellion, the Chinese Civil War, famine, disease and natural disasters. Many sold everything they had for a ticket on a junk which would sail from China to the Dutch East Indies, or the British Straits Settlements to the south.
The word ‘sinkeh’ is a corruption of the Chinese words ‘Xin Ke‘ (‘New Guest’), a reference to the fact that these people arrived in Singapore, Malacca, Penang and other colonial bastions within the last few decades, whereas the Straits Chinese had been living there for dozens of generations! And despite the name given to them – they were hardly treated as guests!
Quite often, sinkeh were looked down upon by the well-entrenched Peranakan. The Straits Settlements was THEIR HOME! They’d lived here for countless generations – in some cases, dating all the way back to the 15th century! They were slow, if ever, to fully accept, or even embrace the presence of the sinkeh.
The sinkeh often carried out menial tasks and occupied themselves with what was called ‘ku li‘ – Bitter Labour – which became the English word – ‘Coolie’. Sinkeh were often night-soil men, street-hawkers, shoemakers, construction-workers, and general unskilled labourers. Perhaps their most famous jobs were as longshoremen – unloading cargo-ships and depositing their wares into warehouses, or as rickshaw pullers.
Both these jobs were backbreaking, exhausting and dangerous, and they earned little more than a pittance. The wages earned by migrant rickshaw pullers between 1880-1930 hardly changed in fifty years. Many sinkeh fell to the vices of prostitution, gambling, and most famously of all – Opium.
By comparison with the Sinkeh, the Peranakan were tailors, shopkeepers, teachers, government officials, social and community leaders, artisans, silversmiths, craftsmen, businessmen, the owners of rubber-estates…the list was almost endless! My own grandmother was a dressmaker for almost half her life! Her brother was a pharmacist who operated an apothecary out of the ground-floor of the family shophouse…where my uncle still lives.
Given the massive differences between the Sinkeh and the Peranakan, you can understand the latter’s reluctance to be mistaken by the British (or anyone else!) as having absolutely ANYTHING in common with these ‘new guests’ from China! Many sinkeh often encountered open hostility and discrimination from the Peranakan, who were in most cases, completely unwilling to have anything at all to do with them!
The Fall of the Peranakan
The world in which the Peranakan lived was a world on borrowed time. For hundreds of years, the Peranakan had lived on the Malay Peninsula and Singapore with the Malays, Indonesians and Indians who also cohabited the long, narrow strip of land, and tiny island on its southern tip.
In the 1800s and 1900s, they took on a modified identity as the ‘Straits Chinese’, living alongside the Strait of Malacca, the Strait of Johore, and within the protection of the British Straits Settlements, under the governance of the British Empire.
For the most part, they co-existed peacefully with everyone else, and were among the most prominent ethnic groups in the Settlements. However, as the 20th century dawned, the Peranakan world started coming under attack from outside forces. By the 1930s, the traditional Peranakan home-life, and the arts, crafts and industries which they had kept alive for generations were starting to disappear.
The reasons for this were numerous. Outside influences from the West (movies and radio, for example), exposure to other cultures (some Peranakan traveled to Europe on massive, eight-week steamship voyages to study in British schools and universities), and exposure to new ways of living all affected how the Peranakan lived and worked.
The Peranakan, both nyonyas and babas prided themselves on their various traditional crafts. These were beautiful, but also time-consuming, labour-intensive, and difficult to learn. And more often than not, there is no automation process. Peranakan handicrafts cannot be mass-produced by machines.
The only way to keep them going is to pass down the skills from generation to generation. Silversmithing, pottery, carpentry, cabinetmaking, beading, sewing, embroidery, cooking, shoemaking, etc. From father to son, mother to daughter, grandfather and grandmother to grandson and granddaughter.
As the culture and lives of the Peranakan are steadily affected by outside influences and the Great Depression, in which many once-wealthy Peranakan families lose their fortunes, when the bottom falls out of the rubber market, it only takes one more sharp blow to finish many of them off.
The Japanese Invasion
That blow came on the 7th of December, 1941. The day which lived in infamy. The day on which Imperial Japan attacked Hong Kong, Malaya, the Philippine Islands, Pearl Harbor, Guam, Wake Island, the International Settlement of Shanghai in China, and quite literally overnight – started a war.
Between December of 1941 until February of 1942, troops of the Imperial Japanese Army swept down the Malay Peninsula, occupying the various settlements, states and cities along the way, outmanouvering or overpowering British and colonial troops as they try to fight back the enemy.
Singapore falls in a matter of days. Despite a numerical inferiority, the Japanese were able to move fast and strike effectively. They achieved mobility and speed on bicycles and tanks, neither of which were used by the British, which put them at a distinct disadvantage. In a few short weeks, all of British-held Malaya and Singapore is in the hands of the Japanese.
As the Japanese pass through Peranakan enclaves heading down the peninsula, civilians take whatever they can pack, carry and push, and flee for Singapore. The British dynamite every bridge they can find in an attempt to slow down the Japanese. They even blast the causeway bridge between Johor and Singapore to buy them more time.
By now, anybody who can find an ocean-liner, yacht, tramp-steamer or any other form of water-transport hurriedly evacuates from Singapore City as fast as they can. Official evacuations organised by the British are only for British expatriates and other foreign nationals. The Peranakan have to fend for themselves or arrange their own escape as Singapore collapses around them. Anyone left behind after the last boats leave will have to contend with three and a half years of Japanese occupation.
The effect of the Japanese occupation was crippling. Between air-raids, fighting, chronic food-shortages, rationing and other deprivations, the Perankan were unable to continue the lives that they had built up over the preceding decades and centuries.
When the war ended in 1945, a long period of rebuilding began, but the old ways were lost forever. Their lives had changed so much by everything, and so many people had died, or been killed in the occupation that the ways of life and the structures which the Peranakan were familiar with were fast disappearing.
Coupled with wider outside cultural influences, overseas immigration, travel and the desire to break away from the lives shattered by the Japanese, the Peranakan started to fragment and spread. In the chaos of war, many arts and crafts which the Peranakan prided themselves on had been lost. The very skills on how to carry on these crafts were wiped out in the war.
Intricate beading, embroidery, how to create certain architectural decorations and details, lantern-making, porcelain manufacture…one by one these skills and crafts, for centuries prided by the Peranakan…were dying out. People no longer had the time, the money, the patience, or the interest to take up trades and crafts which took a lifetime to learn, and which was appreciated by an ever-dwindling pool of people. Many elements of Peranakan culture did not survive the war, and today, fewer and fewer people take up the crafts and occupations of their forefathers.
The Peranakan Today
The hell of the Japanese occupation forced the Peranakan to spread out around the world. The inadequacies of the British defenses in Malaya and Singapore had shown the ‘native populations’ that they could not rely on Europeans for their survival and protection. The Peranakan families which stayed in the Malay states or Singapore gradually melted back into mainstream society, away from the heightened perch which they had enjoyed under the British as ‘the king’s Chinese’.
That said – there is an increasing interest in the Peranakan in the 21st century. More women are interested in Sarong-Kebaya outfits, old townhouses and shophouse are being restored, or turned into Peranakan museums. Collecting Peranakan jewelry, porcelain, beaded goods and other handicrafts is slowly increasing.
The sheer rarity of the Peranakan culture, and the people who made it possible, is what is driving up interest in this once prominent ethnic group. The fact that people can’t find out as much about the Peranakan as they’d like to, is part of the reason why so may people are interested – it’s the mystery of the unknown.
Today, many people with Peranakan roots are trying to revive their lost culture. All over the world, from Singapore, to Malaysia, to Australia, to even further afield – even the United States!…there are Peranakan or Straits Chinese associations, clubs and societies, where people with Peranakan heritage can meet and exchange information.
There’s also been a resurgence in interest in Peranakan crafts such as beadwork and porcelain, and some jewelry firms have started making traditional Peranakan jewelry (such as the Kerongsang) for commercial sale. Peranakan antiques are rising significantly in value as people learn to appreciate their cultural and historical significance.
That said – the one thing about Peranakan culture that has never really gone away is traditional nyonya cuisine – Peranakan food! Restaurants serving traditional Peranakan food have popped up all over Singapore, Malaysia, and Australia in the past few years…there used to be one down the road from my house!
In finishing, I would like to dedicate this article to the memory of my grandmother – Bertha Fu Kui Yok (1914-2011), her mother, my great-grandmother, Leong Ah-Hiong (ca. 1885-1984), and to their family, whose lives inspired the creation of this article.
Where can I Find out about the Peranakan?
Due to the small geographic area which they lived in, the Peranakan can be tricky to find information about. However, excellent museums and restored historic houses do exist in Malacca, Penang and Singapore. Peranakan associations and clubs exist wherever large numbers of Peranakan tend to congregate – especially in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.
Thanks to the various members of my extended family for their assistance with this article! Thanks to…
…Cousin Joyce, for her help with betel nuts!
…Uncle Charles, and other relatives, for the family photographs!
…Aunty Sylvia, for providing information on the Peranakan, and signed copies of her books on Peranakan paintings!
…Cousin Carolyn, for her help with nyonya cuisine!
Thanks also, to the wonderful volunteers at the Peranakan Museum, on Armenian Street, Singapore, and to the incredible Peranakan Mansion, in George Town, Penang. Without these two incredible institutions, it would’ve been impossible for me to photograph so many Peranakan items in one place!
On the last day of my trip through Malaysia, Singapore and Tokyo, Japan I decided to make the most of the last few hours that I had before making the customary mad dash for the airport at the eleventh hour.
To make this a reality, I as usual, headed out bargain-hunting! I wasn’t expecting to find anything – antiques in Malaysia are usually pretty pricey and outrageous as far as value for money goes. But with nothing else with which to occupy my time, I went hunting anyway.
I’d spent about an hour or so at the Amcorp Mall flea-market (the only such market really worth visiting in KL), and was beginning to give up hope until I took a detour into a shop called “Teh Collectible” – big red sign with swirly, yellow letters on it.
The shop was jammed with all kinds of antiques, from suitcases to typewriters, sewing machines to cameras, tiffin-carriers, furniture and all kinds of dusty, kitchy junk. The display-cabinets were full of all kinds of miscellaneous bric-a-brac, from watches to porcelain and novelty drinkware.
In amongst all this detritus, I stumbled across a pair of nondescript yellow-metal items. I freely admitted that my heart skipped a beat – I knew what these things were – but I also knew that they were rare, and therefore, likel to be expensive. Like I said, most antiques in Malaysia are heavily overpriced.
Anyway, I tried my luck and after a lot of haggling, I was able to chip down a third off of the price, and came away with these:
Never seen them before? No idea what they are? Curious? Interested? Intrigued?
I’m sure you are! After all, these haven’t been made in about 100 years! But what are they? Earrings? Brooches? Hairclips?
Not even close!
What we’ve got here is a pair of Straits Chinese or ‘Peranakan’ keyholders! I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of, or seen them before – most people haven’t. Even those of us who are into antiques! So how do they work? What do you do with them? Why do they even exist??
Peranakan Keyholders – What are they?
Keyholders like these were made by Peranakan ‘baba’ silversmiths and goldsmiths for the Peranakan communities of southeast Asia – specifically those living in Singapore, Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. The Peranakan were famous for their desire to decorate and ornament everything that they owned – even their keyrings!
Keyholders like these are made up of a repousse frontpiece, a flat backpiece, a free-hanging keyring, and a long, flat fastening hook or clasp on the back, used to attach the keyholder to one’s clothing.
How do they work?
Keys were fitted onto the ring at the bottom of the holder. The long metal clip on the back of the holder was slipped onto a person’s belt, or the hem of their trousers, if they were men, or skirts – usually a sarong – if they were women. Here, the keyholder would remain until it was needed. Obviously holders like these could only hold a few keys at a time, but as with most things Peranakan – form tended to come before function. How pretty an item appeared was just as, or even more important, than what it actually did!
How old are they?
Keyholders like these became redundant with the increasing embracement by the Peranakan, of European-style clothing. Trousers and shorts with pockets, and different styles of dressing made such accessories and trinkets as decorative keyholders unnecessary, and by the second quarter of the 20th century, only Peranakan men or women who still retained more traditional dress-styles would’ve been able to wear such keyholders with their outfits.
This being the case, Peranakan keyholders like these would’ve dated from the late 19th century up to around 1910 or 1920. Hallmarked silver Peranakan keyholders which I’ve seen online have been dated back to the 1890s. Keyholders were unlikely to have been made beyond the start of the 1930s – the Great Depression hit many Peranakan fortunes hard, and it would’ve been hard to justify spending so much money on a keyholder!
What are they made of?
These specific keyholders are made of copper or brass, but Peranakan keyholders were also made of silver – sometimes gilt (plated in gold) to make them more attractive. Many keyholders included intricate repousse designs to their fronts, and elaborate decorations to the fasteners or hooks behind them. Holders made of silver would’ve been manufactured in the Peranakan enclaves of Singapore, Penang and Malacca. They usually had Chinese-style hallmarks stamped onto the clasps at the back, generally composed of the fineness mark denoting purity of silver, and the silversmith’s maker’s mark in Chinese characters.
Although you could buy, or have commissioned just one keyholder, they also seemed to have been sold in sets. The ones I have are a matched pair. That said, most of the others which I’ve seen online appear to be singles, each one of a unique and individual design, made of either gold, silver or copper. The sheer variety of styles in which something as simple as a key-hook could come in just shows the incredible levels of artistry to which Peranakan silversmiths and jewelers could reach.
Anyway. There we have it! Peranakan keyholders! So, are these things rare? Special? Unique? Why am I writing about them?
I’m writing about them because my grandmother and her family were all Peranakan, and their culture has fascinated me ever since I was made aware of this fact. Peranakan antiques are getting incredibly rare these days, and I really wanted to try and collect and preserve all that I can find.
Peranakan porcelain, silverware, clothing and jewelry are all pretty rare, but even if they are rare, some items are still better-known than others. Slippers, kebaya, sarong, belts, kerongsang (sets of three brooches on a chain) and tiffin-carriers are pretty well-known Peranakan antiques – keyholders on the other hand?? Not so much! That’s why I felt that they were deserving of their own post! I hope you enjoyed this and that you’ll return again soon! I’m always looking for new things to write about and post.
“Cap’n! Presents off the larboard bow!” “I see ’em! Ready the launch! You there – come about into the wind! We’ll not let them escape us now! Bring up the harpoons!”
The greatest thing about collecting antiques is that you always find the best birthday presents for yourself, if you search hard enough! I picked up this stunning beauty for my birthday! Yes, I’m officially…29. Oh, the horror, shame, and disgrace of it all…!
Up Close and Personal!
What we have here is an old-fashioned nautical telescope, as was used on the sailing-ships of old. And boy is it ever a monster! It’s 11in. closed, extends to 39in drawn out, and weighs a substantial 1lb 10oz (approx 750g)! A lightweight, it ain’t!
Features of Construction
This stunning antique features entirely brass construction, with the exception of the wooden sleeve around the barrel, and of course, the glass in the lenses. It is possessed of four, brass draw-tubes, as you can see in the photograph below:
All Drawn Out…
A four-tube telescope means that it has four tubular extensions which collapse into each other, and which then all slide into the main barrel at the front of the telescope.
I’m not sure how old this telescope is, to be honest. It’s of a style that was widely manufactured from the 1700s right up to the 1900s, but the fellow I got it from believed it to be from around 1850 or 1860. For something roughly 150 years old — after extensive cleaning — it does work pretty well! The threaded brass coupling-rings hold well (or they do, after a minor adjustment), and the tubes slide in and out smoothly, if a bit more firmly than I’m used to!
The telescope has a two-piece achromatic lens at the front, a two-lens relay system inside the smallest draw-tube, and an eyepiece lens at the far end – so four (or five, depending on how you count it), lenses in all!
Here it is, next to my solid brass, pocket telescope from the 1890s. As you can see, there’s a huge size difference!
As one would probably expect from something like this, it’s got a GREAT range, and surprisingly clear optics for a piece that’s obviously seen quite a hard life. There’s one small blemish on an interior lens which, try as I might, I couldn’t remove, but other than that – the clarity is impressive.
Using the Telescope
Since it is 150 years old, I expected the telescope to be dirty. I didn’t expect it to be THIS dirty! It required EXTENSIVE cleaning to get it to function even halfway decent! And I’m still cleaning it! But despite that, it’s beginning to show signs of the smoothness of function it once had.
To draw the telescope, I’ve found it’s best to hold it at the near end of the barrel (away from the lens) and to pull firmly, but smoothly, to get the draw tubes out, and to hold the barrel in the middle, when snapping the tubes shut again.
As I said, this telescope is quite chunky, so using it can be a bit of a challenge. I generally hold the largest, or second-largest draw-tube in order to balance this beast, and then adjust the focus by sliding the smallest draw-tube in and out, until clarity is achieved.
The good thing is that this is done relatively easily. The bad thing is that it’s surprisingly tiring on the arms! A telescope that weighs about a pound and a half doesn’t sound like much to carry around (and it isn’t), but when you’ve held it up in one hand for any length of time while trying to look through it, the weight does start to pull on your shoulders a bit! One wonders how the sailors of old ever managed to use this thing on the rocking, rolling deck of a sailing ship!
Cleaning the Telescope
The one saving grace about this telescope – and most telescopes of this design – is that they’re extraordinarily easy to clean. All the draw-tubes, lenses and coupling-rings screw together. All you need is a box of tissues, some oil, and a firm grip to screw and unscrew, and you can pull apart the entire telescope to clean it. There aren’t that many parts, and there’s no way you can confuse one part for another, so they’re very easy to put back together again.
You don’t need any special tools or equipment – just a few basic cleaning supplies and a spare afternoon. I think it’s amazing how something which is so easily assembled is at the same time, so incredibly powerful, and yet, so simply constructed. Even a child could do this. I love the thoughtfulness of the design in that the manufacturer imagined that the owner might want to disassemble his own telescope for cleaning and maintenance. I don’t know many consumer products today which are this user-friendly!
Repairing the Telescope
As much fun as this telescope is to use and to clean and polish, when I bought it, the telescope also had one significant flaw – It wouldn’t stay together.
As I said above, the telescope’s components quite literally just screw, one-into-the-other, in a set sequence of construction. Easily followed and impossible to screw up. A few good twists would be all that’d be needed to pull the thing apart, clean it, and reassemble it. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case with this telescope.
Probably due to overzealous cleaning in the past, or possibly a manufacturing fault, or simply just 150-years’ worth of wear and tear, the thread that held in the largest draw-tube (the one which connects to the barrel) was not gripping properly. It simply refused to hold. After screwing it in as hard as possible, it’d simply pop right out again after one good pull! Hardly ideal!
I pulled the telescope apart and cleaned the threads, and then to fix this problem, I wrapped ordinary paper masking-tape around the threads on the coupling-ring. Just once.
Group Shot! My big telescope, my small telescope, and my field glasses all together. All brass, all antique. What a pretty trio they make.
I trimmed off the excess tape with a pocket-knife, and then screwed the two components back together. No oil, no graphite powder, nothing. Just a simple layer of sticky tape. It cost me literally nothing! and yet…the repair worked!
Just one layer of tape was all I needed to build up the necessary thickness, friction and ‘bite’ necessary for the threads to screw in smoothly, and for the connection to hold! it took me less than five minutes to repair. Don’t be daunted by broken antiques – sometimes all it takes is a bit of creativity to return them to full functionality.
Last but not least, here’s a short video I made about the telescope:
For hundreds of years, noisemakers of all kinds have been used for all kinds of purposes. In this posting, I’m looking at the history and the impact of antique whistles, specifically those made from the 1700s and 1800s, up to the mid-1900s.
Whistles have been made out of innumerable materials for hundreds of years. Bone, ivory, wood, silver, steel, brass, and plastic, but it wasn’t until the 1700s that the first industrially-produced whistles started being manufactured.
For much of history, whistles had been made by hand – usually out of natural materials like wood, bone, or ivory. Except for in a few specialised industries and professions, whistles were generally regarded as toys or musical instruments, their practicality as a noisemaker unrealised, or at least unappreciated, for much of history.
One of the first industries to see a practical use for whistles beyond being playthings was the navy. Long, thin pipes with spherical bowls or balls at the end were carried by boatswains (or ‘bosuns’), and these were used by the boatswain and his assistants (boatswain’s mates) to pass orders on the crowded, noisy decks of early sailing ships. As it was impossible to hear shouted commands from one end of a ship to the other, and over the noise of the wind, waves and creaking timbers, boatswain’s pipes were used instead.
The extremely high-pitched sound of the pipes could easily be heard over even the most intense of storms, and over time, short tunes and series of pitches were used to signal various commands such as All Hands on Deck – Weigh Anchor – Boats Away, and so-on. Boatswain’s pipes are still used in the navy today, although they’re more for ceremonial use, rather than for passing orders.
Organised, official, state-run police-forces started becoming a reality in the early 1800s, starting in Scotland, then spreading to London, then the rest of Britain, and eventually around the world.
Early police constables and patrolmen manned their beats and called for help using heavy, wooden rattles. Rattles were easily broken, were uncomfortable to use, were heavy, and could be taken from the officer and used as a weapon. They were also not very loud, and in a busy street, a rattle was indistinguishable from the clatter of horseshoes – rendering it virtually useless.
Metropolitan Police Whistle from the 1930s. Made by J. Hudson & Co.
Whistles had been used on and off throughout the history of policing, but it wasn’t until the 1870s and 1880s that rattles were finally phased out entirely, and replaced with whistles. Whistles were louder, smaller, lighter and easier to use. They started replacing rattles on the London Metropolitan Police force (Scotland Yard) in 1883-1884, where they were famously supplied by Joseph Hudson & Co.
Joseph Hudson made his fortune when his dual-chamber pipe whistle was presented to Scotland Yard. He won the coveted contract to supply whistles to the London police force and his company, J. Hudson & Co (today, the Acme Whistle Company) grew by leaps and bounds, to become one of the largest, and most famous whistle-companies in the world!
What Were Whistles Used For?
Once it was found out how to manufacture large amounts of whistles, people suddenly realised that they needed whistles for a lot of different reasons! Joseph Hudson & Co alone, sold whistles to the police, to the army, to the fire-department, to sporting referees, to train guards, to naval officers and sailors, to railway conductors, cyclists, the boy scouts, the girl guides, and to the general public, as well!
The Acme BOY SCOUT whistle, from about 1920.
Over time, specific shapes and styles of whistles were used for different organisations, and today, whistles with markings on them which link them to specific institutions or organisations, such as hospitals, prisons, specific police-forces, fire-departments or army units are highly collectible.
Whistles on a whole, started dying out as a practical form of communication in the last quarter of the 20th century. Walkie-talkies, portable radios and mobile-phones meant that it was no longer necessary for so many people to carry whistles anymore. Organisations that had once carried whistles for decades, such as the police, fire services, the army and the navy started giving them up.
J. Hudson & Co. General-Service Whistle issued to the British Army during WWI. Dated to 1915.
Today, whistles are still used for sporting matches, or for safety and survival, but beyond this market, their use has dropped significantly. Some people still buy them for personal safety, for training dogs, for cycling and for emergency situations, but apart from exceptional circumstances, most other organisations or people don’t use them.
My Whistles Video
To close off this posting, here’s a video I uploaded a few days ago, displaying my own whistle collection:
Yeah I haven’t either. But apparently he was quite a guy.
Born in 1855 and dying in 1912, he was in every possible sense – a born and bred, true-blue Aussie inventor. I don’t mean that he, like so many countless millions of others, was born in England and then migrated to Australia. I mean that he was literally born in Australia – in the rural gold-rush town of Ballarat – which is one of the most Australian places you could possibly grow up in: Goldfields, native wildlife, scorching heat, freezing cold, venomous snakes, dusty earth, flies, mosquitoes, and poisonous spiders.
What could possibly be more Australian than that?
Among his many achievements, Sutton invented variations of (or made improvements on) such devices as telephones (which came to Melbourne in the 1880s), the television, early radio transmitters and receivers, batteries and dynamos, and he even had a hand in developing front-wheel drive for cars…Impressive, considering he died in 1912, when most people had hardly heard of cars, let alone owned one!
The Sutton family owned a series of musical instrument shops in Victoria, Australia at the time. No doubt being in contact with musical instruments, and all their finely-fitting mechanical parts from a young age would have shaped Henry’s mind and life, and turned him towards being the inventor that he would soon become.
It’s been my great pleasure to meet, and become friends with two of Henry Sutton’s direct descendants – His great-granddaughter, Lorayne Branch, and her cousin, the wonderful Kelly Sargent. In fact, it was from Kelly that I first heard about Henry Sutton.
When I met Lorayne last year, she told me how she bemoaned the fact that nobody had written…anything of note, really…about her illustrious ancestor…and she felt that an opportunity was being missed.
To this end, she decided to do it herself, go it alone, and write the first official biography of what is one of Australia’s most famous, but probably least-known sons. Henry Sutton. She’s even set up a GofundMe page. If you want to find out more, then visit the link and learn more about the history of this fascinating man, and donate, if you feel so-inclined 🙂
Used most commonly in the Victorian era, the Aide Memoire (French for ‘Memory Aid’) is one of the quirkiest antiques that you could find today. Most people who come across them have no idea what they are, and frankly I’m not surprised. So, here we go…
Aide memoires were riveted booklets made of very thin slices of ivory, usually numbering between five to eight pages in length, and usually having the days of the week on the pages (usually Monday through to Saturday, and sometimes Sunday).
More elaborate versions had covers of pierced silver, mother-of-pearl, or tortoise-shell as decoration, while others had simple ivory covers, sometimes with silver edgings or cartouches riveted on.
Aide memoires were popular during the 1700s and 1800s, slowly dying out in the early 20th century, and their existence is directly linked to the evolution of writing instruments during this period.
The Function of an Aide Memoire
In an age when the dip-pen ruled supreme, and the only portable writing instrument was the propelling pencil made of sterling silver, or the humble, wood-cased pencil which more often than not, was sharpened with the blade of a pocket-knife, writing notes on the move was a tricky and messy process. Paper was expensive, ink was prone to leaks, and small, pocket notepads had not yet been conceived. So how did you keep reminders of what you needed to do that week?
You bought an aide memoire.
On an aide memoire, you wrote in pencil the things you needed to remember for that week. The dates of doctor’s appointments, nights at the theatre, dinner with friends, shopping that had to be done, and so on. At the end of each week, the ivory sheets were wiped clean with a damp cloth, and the details for the next week’s engagements were written down.
Like an iPad or personal organiser today, the original expenditure on an aide memoire was likely to be fairly high, but the money saved in paper was probably considered to be worth the expense.
Aide memoires varied in size and intricacy, from tiny little ones not much larger than matchboxes, to significantly larger ones almost the size of a modern iPhone (which is about as big as they get).
They usually resided in a gentleman’s coat pocket, on a watch-chain, in a lady’s handbag, or else hung from a chain on her chatelaine. Aide memoires designed for chatelaines and pocketwatch chains came with a ring, swing-toggle or hook on the end so that they could be clipped on safely without fear of loss or breakage.
Due to their extremely thin sheets of ivory, aide memoires are pretty fragile. They need to be handled with care, and cleaned gently. Any old marks or stains can generally be polished off with warm water. If there are heavier stains, then a microscopic amount of Brasso metal-polish will also do the trick; a drop will suffice.
Aide memoires did exist in other formats; versions of them were included in higher-quality writing boxes, and these ranged from cheap waxed cardboard, to ivory, to the new wonder-material of the 1800s: Celluloid. Portable, pocket aide memoires were also made of celluloid, but ivory was always the preferred material.
In 1862, French writer, Victor Hugo, published one of his most famous novels. Along with “The Hunchback of Notre Dame“, the world-famous “Les Miserables” remains one of the most famous books ever written. It has been made into at least half a dozen films or TV series, a world-famous, globally successful musical theater production, and a musical film, released last year.
The novel’s title, (pronounced “Le’ Miser’abe“), translates into English as “The Miserable“. The book chronicles the seventeen-year struggle of French convict, Jean Valjean, jailed for stealing bread to feed his dying nephew. His original sentence is five years, but his sentence is extended over and over due to repeated attempts to escape, until he eventually spends nineteen years in chains, finally gaining his freedom, of a sorts, in 1815, the year that Napoleon is defeated at Waterloo.
“Les Miserables” was written over a century and a half ago, and many of the cultural references are lost to history. This posting will look at the various historical events and persons mentioned in the novel, the films, and the play, so that the overall story of the book can be better understood.
The Bagne of Toulon
The story opens in 1815. Jean Valjean, convict #24601, has been imprisoned at Toulon, in France, since his arrest for theft in 1796. But what is Toulon, and where is it?
‘Toulon’ itself, is a city, located in southeastern France, on the Mediterranean coastline. The ‘Toulon’ of the story is actually the Bagne of Toulon.
The Bagne of Toulon (1748-1873) was an enormous, and infamous French prison.
Previously, Frenchmen who had been convicted of crimes had been drafted into the French navy. They were used as rowers to power the enormous French naval galleys. When galleys became obsolete, to be replaced by wind-powered sailing-ships, all the prisoners who were once sent to sea were instead sent to the Bagne of Toulon, where they were sentenced to years of hard labour.
Toulon was also a naval base and harbour during this time. The prisoners sent to the Bagne of Toulon were made to serve their sentences doing hard labour, carrying out tasks such as digging foundations for buildings, splitting stones, building fortifications and other structures, and to operate the machinery and treadmills and wheels which ran the rope-making factory nearby. Prisoners were branded with letters that showed the extent of their imprisonment at Toulon. They were either branded as having to serve hard labour (for a specific number of years), or were branded as having to serve hard labour for life, which of course meant that they would most likely die in prison.
The Yellow Passport
When he’s granted parole, Jean Valjean is forced to carry around his parole-documents, comprised of identification information and a passport, printed on yellow paper. The paper is colour-coded so that anyone who looks at it knows at once that he is a convict on parole, and a dangerous man (even though all he did was steal a loaf of bread for his nephew). The paper makes it impossible for Valjean to find work, food, or even a bed for the night, as he tries to make his way to his parole-officer where his papers are to be checked.
The yellow French passport shouldn’t be confused with the yellow card mentioned in the book “Crime and Punishment”, which serves a different purpose. During the time of imperial Russia, to prove that they had the right to practice their profession, prostitutes had to carry around a yellow I.D. card, to show that they were prostituting themselves legally, and had a license that allowed this.
The Bishop of Digne
Although the good Bishop Myriel is a fictional character, the town of Digne (“Deen”) is not. In the early 21st century, the town enjoys a population of some 17,000-odd people. In the 1820s at the time of ‘Les Miserables‘, its population was a much smaller 3,500 people.
Fantine Sells Her Hair and Teeth
After being kicked out of Valjean’s factory by the foreman, the young woman named Fantine is forced to sell her hair, and even her teeth, to survive, and to send money to the innkeeper who houses her daughter, Cosette.
Selling hair was a common practice among the people who were down on their luck during the 19th century. Hair was used in wigmaking, hair-jewellery (where it would be braided into ropes and bracelets), and even in dollmaking. Hair was laboriously inserted into the heads of dolls using needles and tweezers, a few strands a a time. Excess hair was used to stuff the insides of dolls and fill out their forms!
Although hair might grow back, and its loss would only be temporary, Fantine goes so far as to even sell her teeth! And yes, you could sell your teeth…if you were really desperate.
Dentistry during this time was crude, and people often had their rotten teeth yanked out by the dentist, the barber, the doctor, or even the village blacksmith with a pair of his smithing-tongs!
To replace missing teeth, it was necessary to manufacture replacements. Dentures and such other dental add-ons were variously made of everything from metal (if there was just one or two teeth missing, you might get them replaced with gold!), wood, bone, and ivory! Sometimes, animal teeth were used to manufacture replacement dentures.
During the time of Les Miserables, replacement teeth were even taken from dead bodies! Especially, during those years, from the bodies of dead soldiers! “Waterloo Teeth”, literally from the bodies of dead soldiers killed during the final battle of Waterloo, were especially common. After all…lots of dead, healthy young men with nice, white teeth…and lots of people living, who want them. Why waste them? Surgeons, barbers and anyone else out to make a quick franc, went through the battlefield with a jar and a pair of pliers, yanking teeth out of corpses to sell them to denture-manufacturers!
But apart from all these avenues of dental delivery, you could still sell your own teeth, if you were brave enough to have them ripped out of your mouth without anesthetics! But you would have to really need the money, and be really desperate to do this!
By the 1830s, Jean Valjean has fled the town where he held a factory and the office of mayor. He has become Cosette’s guardian and father-figure, and he lives as a wealthy gentleman of means, but with a private life which he does his best to keep from his adopted daughter.
Although Valjean is fictional, the author, Victor Hugo, almost certainly based him on the real-life convict Eugene Francois Vidocq. Vidocq (1775-1857) is one of the most famous figures in the history, both of crime, and of criminal investigation.
Vidocq’s childhood was spent during the crumbling days of the French monarchy. As a boy, he was wild and untamed. To get money, he stole the family silverware and sold it. He was arrested and thrown in prison. The arrest was orchestrated by Vidocq’s own father, who had hoped that this spell behind bars might scare his son straight.
As a young man, Vidocq enlisted in the army and fought during the French revolutionary war. Between 1795-1800, Vidocq spent his life in and out of various French prisons, disguising, escaping, running, and being recaptured over and over again. Eventually, he was sent to the infamous Bagne of Toulon, just like his fictional counterpart, Valjean.
In 1800, Vidocq escaped from Toulon and went on the run. He hid at his mother’s house, but before long, the authorities caught up with him once again, and he was arrested…again. And he escaped…again.
Sick of running around, Vidocq attempted to create a new life for himself as a merchant, but his extensive criminal past made this impossible, with everyone knowing who he was, what he had done and his enemies around him everywhere. In 1809, he was arrested…AGAIN.
Finally fed up, Vidocq approached French criminal authorities and offered them a deal. His freedom in exchange for information on other criminals. The police liked the idea, but not enough to let him just run wild. He would be imprisoned again, but this time, he would have more freedom within the prison to spy on inmates and report their goings-on to the guards and police-officials. He proved to be a capable spy, and eventually, Jean Henry, the chief of the Paris Police, agreed to Vidocq’s formal release from prison.
So that it didn’t look like Vidocq was being given favourable treatment, which might tip off other inmates about his spying activities, Henry arranged for the release to look like another one of Vidocq’s famous escapes. Now outside of prison for the last time, Vidocq became a secret agent for the Paris police-force.
Originally, Vidocq was part of the newly-formed “Security Brigade”, of the Paris police-force in 1811. This organisation of detectives and secret-agents was originally just an experiment. Nobody knew if it would really work. But Vidocq’s long life as a criminal meant that he was able to get into minds of the criminal classes and solve crimes in ways that other police officers could not. The brigade was so successful that in 1813, the brigade was formed into its own formal organisation, the French “Surete Nationale“. ‘Surete’ means ‘Surety’, as in ‘assurance’, or ‘security’. Literally, the National Security Force, or in more plain language, the French State Police.
The agents of the Surete Nationale were small in number; even by 1824, the agency had only 28 members. But each agent was trained by Vidocq in criminal detection. How to disguise oneself, how to think ‘outside the box’, and see things from a criminal perspective. The agency also kept a roll of spies and informants who would infiltrate French criminal organisations.
Through the turbulent changes of French history during this time, Vidocq’s roles and his influence on French government officials wavered constantly. Once more, Vidocq spent his life in and out of prison, mostly because he was branded as an enemy of the state for various reasons. But by now, Vidocq’s new position and fame meant that he had powerful friends. Thanks to a little string-pulling, Vidocq never spent more than a few months in prison at any one time.
In 1843, Vidocq was once again thrown in prison. Even though his prominent friends managed to get retrials and shorter sentences for him, when Vidocq was released from prison a year later, his reputation had been destroyed.
Vidocq became something of a recluse, and in 1849, was imprisoned yet again, for eleven months. When he was released, he lived the rest of his life in general seclusion. His career as a detective was not what it once was, although he did occasionally take on cases, to earn himself extra money.
Vidocq died in 1857, at the age of 82, after surviving a bout of cholera.
Despite his shaky life, Vidocq is famous today as being the father of modern criminology. He was the first person to use techniques such as undercover agents, plaster-casts and moulds, and even very early ballistics, to solve crimes. He even developed the science of criminology, and early crime-scene investigation to aid in the solving of crimes and the gathering of clues and evidence, techniques that most police-forces wouldn’t use until the late 1800s.
Since 1990, the Vidocq Society, named after him, has been solving cases presented to them by various police forces. The Society is an elite club of criminologists who assist police in solving ‘cold case’ homicides which regular police-forces are unable to solve.
Based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the U.S.A., the Vidocq Society is comprised of experts ranging from criminologists, FBI agents, scientists, coroners, psychologists and homicide detectives.
Members can be currently-serving professionals, or former, and retired professionals, but membership of this exclusive crime-solving club is strictly by invitation only, and membership is limited to only 82 members (the number of years in Vidocq’s life) at any one time.
The Society does not go out looking for work. It only solves cases which police-forces bring to them for review, and even then, they’ll only work on the hardest and most challenging of cases which meet a strict set of criteria.
It’s been suggested by articles on the internet that Eugene Vidocq was Hugo’s inspiration, not only of the character of Jean Valjean, but also of Inspector Javert. Vidocq’s troubled youth and repentance is represented by Valjean’s character, whereas Javert represents Vidocq’s later life as a relentless law-enforcement officer who will go to any lengths to see that justice is done.
During the second half of the play, the members of the student rebellion mention ‘General LaMarque’ as the last living champion of the oppressed and poor people of Paris.
LaMarque was a real person, and his death in 1832, really did spark a rebellion in the streets!
‘General LaMarque’ is Jean Maximillien LaMarque, (1770-1832). A famous revolutionary war army officer, LaMarque was famous for his republican views. He opposed the French monarchy and complained that the royalist government did not see to the needs and wants of ordinary French citizens. It trampled human rights, and did not support political liberty of the people.
LaMarque became ill in 1832, contracting cholera. He died on the 1st of June, 1832. Within a week, riots had erupted in the streets of Paris. The champion of the people was dead!
The June Rebellion, 1832
There really was a June Rebellion in 1832 Paris, although it did not involve an organisation called the Friends of the A.B.C. (which was a fictional group created by Hugo for the story). The Friends of the A.B.C., (in French, “Les Amis de l’ABC“) is actually a pun. In French, ‘A.B.C.’ is a homophone for the French word “Abaisse” (“The Oppressed”), so literally, “The Friends of the Oppressed”.
It’s a joke about the fact that the rebellion was sparked mostly by students and schoolboys, youngsters still learning how to read and write their A.B.C.s, and the fact that they were trying to win rights for the downtrodden citizens of Paris, the abaisse, or ‘oppressed’.
The Rebellion was short-lived. It lasted only three days! It started on the 5th of June, 1832, during the funeral procession for the late, great General LaMarque.
Spurred on by the waving of red and black flags (such as those mentioned in the musical), students began rioting and chanting.
The famous Marquis de Lafayette, the famous French aristocratic army-officer who had helped the Americans win their Revolutionary War back in the 1780s, attempted to calm the riot. He was one of General LaMarque’s many supporters and fans, but even the marquis’ presence and calls for calm did not help. The marquis was an old man by then (over seventy!) and close to death himself, but that didn’t stop him from trying to quell the violence.
Government soldiers moved into Paris, attempting to crush the rebellion, and the students and their supporters fell back to their barricaded strongholds.
The rebellion lasted from the 5th of June, the date of General LaMarque’s funeral, to the 7th of June. During that time, fierce gun-battles raged across Paris, and at several intersections and streets, government soldiers opened fire on the rebels, and the rebels only fired back!
But the rebels were never going to win. Outnumbered literally 10-to-1, before long, they were forced to put down their arms and surrender.
Victor Hugo himself was involved in the rebellion. To be precise, he was caught in the crossfire between government troops and rebellious Parisian citizens, and had to take cover in the street.
I thought France was a Republic?
France has gone through many revolutions and rebellions, and the June Rebellion of 1832 was just one of many, many, MANY such events in French history.
From the 1400s until the 1780s, France was a kingdom. In 1789, the French Revolution (the famous one that everyone knows, with the guillotine and the storming of the Bastille and all that) took place.
In 1791, the monarchy was restored as a constitutional monarchy.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this monarchy was not popular. It only lasted a couple of years.
From 1792 until 1804, France was a republic. For a decade between 1805-1815, France entered the period of the “First Empire”, which centered around the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte. It ended with Napoleon’s defeat and exile in the 1810s.
With the defeat of Napoleon, the House of Bourbon, which had ruled France up until the 1780s, returned to power in the Bourbon Restoration. This lasts from 1815 until 1830.
In 1830, yet another revolution changes everything, and we have the July Monarchy (so-called because it was established in July of 1830), a constitutional monarchy, much like the one of the 1790s. The king on the throne of France is Louis-Philippe I, cousin to the abdicated King Charles X.
It is Louis-Philippe who is the king of France in the 1832, when the June Rebellion mentioned in Les Miserables takes place. But even this monarchy wouldn’t last. It would be overthrown in 1848, to be replaced by the Second Republic, which would be replaced by the Second Empire, which would be replaced by the THIRD Republic, which would last until the Fall of France during the Second World War.
Right now, France is on Republic #5.
And there you have it. A little glimpse at just some of the historical realities behind one of the most famous novels, plays, musicals and films in the history of western literature.
Today, people with severe vision-loss are able to read the texts of popular novels, famous classics, fascinating educational books and great songs, purely by running their fingers over sheets of paper filled with lines of embossed dots or bumps.
This system, called ‘Braille’, has existed for nearly two hundred years. Although it’s taken for granted today, the story of its creation is one of perseverance ingenuity, skill and bravery against incredible odds. Its story is the story of its creator, the young boy who helped the blind to read: Louis Braille.
This posting will examine how Braille created his system of writing for the blind, and all the struggles that he encountered along the way.
The World Before Braille
Losing one’s eyesight, or to be born without it, is one of mankind’s greatest fears. So much of our world relies on vision. In the world before Braille existed, blind people were ostricised by their communities. It was very difficult finding work for blind people.
They could only do things with their hands, and even then, only limited things. Making shoes, making baskets, weaving and brush-making, all, admittedly, rather low-paying jobs. And because blind people could not read or write, they could not communicate as effectively with other people. These restrictions made life for the blind extremely difficult. To say nothing about the lack of support-services. Charity was little, and specialist institutions nonexistent. The blind were left literally groping around in the dark with nobody to guide them.
Who Was Louis Braille?
The tragedy and innovation, the skill and determination of Louis Braille is one of the most famous and touching stories in the history of the world. It involved battling against incredible odds and the acceptance of limitations. This is the story of Louis Braille and his writing-system.
Louis Braille was born in the small village of Coupvrey (pronounced “Koop-vrey”), a few miles east of Paris, France, on the 4th of January, 1809. He was the youngest of four children born to Simon-Rene, and Monique Braille. His three older siblings included two sisters (Monique Catherine, and Marie Celine, born 1793 and 1797 respectively), and one older brother, Louis-Simon, born 1795. Young Louis was his father’s favourite child.
Louis Braille’s family was not particularly rich, but they weren’t poor, either. Monsieur Braille made a living as a saddler, a manufacturer of leathergoods for horses (specifically saddles, belts and harnesses). He made a tidy living and provided comfortably for his family.
Louis Braille had the habit of following his father into his workshop. Leather-working was dangerous stuff. Sharp knives and needles were required to cut, sew and puncture leather to make it into the products which Louis’s father sold around town. In a classic case of workplace negligence, Mr. Braille left his son working on a belt. Now all belts need belt-holes for the buckle to slip through. Young Louis picked up an awl (a long, sharp spike) to punch a hole into the leather strap of the belt. The spike slipped across the smooth surface of the belt, piercing Louis’s right eye.
The local physician was called for at once, and the wound was bandaged, but the infection could not be treated. Within weeks, Louis had become infected in both eyes, and by the age of five, had become completely blind, despite his parents taking him to every doctor, surgeon and specialist that they could think of!
Despite his disability, Louis’s parents raised their blind son no differently than any of their other children, although they did have to make a few changes. Mr. Braille carved out staffs and canes for Louis to use, so that he could tap his way around town, much like how a modern white cane is used. The boy was found to be singularly intelligent, and many of the village elders believed that despite his blindness, young Louis showed promise of being a scholar.
Louis’s parents were unsure about how to fulfill these wishes. The village schoolmasters and priests had told them that their son could flourish under proper tutelage, which they, unfortunately, could not provide. But there was hope, in the shape of a new institution in operation in Paris.
The National Institute for Blind Youth was established in Paris just a few decades before, in 1784. To be honest, it wasn’t much of an institute. There wasn’t much money, and the facilities were rather basic, but it was, nonetheless, a specialist school for the blind – the first ever to exist in the history of the world. And for a humble family such as the Brailles, most importantly…it was free!
The National Institute for Blind Youth
By the age of 10, it was decided that Louis could no longer remain in his hometown of Coupvrey. The educational facilities there simply weren’t suited to a child who couldn’t see to read, or write, or to do much else. So Louis’s parents arranged for him to attend the institute in Paris.
The Institute was operated by a man named Valentin Hauy. Hauy came from a prominent French family. He was a philanthropist, and his brother was a pioneering mineralogist, that is, a geologist who devotes his time to the study of minerals.
Hauy himself was not blind, but he felt moved to set up the institute to provide assistance to the blind. Here, blind students could mix and mingle with their own kind, they could feel safe, supported and loved. Most people didn’t know how to handle things like this, and so mostly, blind people were left to fend for themselves. But Hauy was determined to try. He even developed a method for blind people to read!
The Hauy Method of blind reading involved embossing letters from the alphabet onto thick paper, so that blind students could run their fingers across them and feel out the letters, and read the words printed in front of them. This was revolutionary, but extremely ineffective.
To begin with, you needed very thick paper, so that the copper wires doing the embossing wouldn’t rip it to pieces.
Secondly, the letters had to be supersized, so that the students could feel them with their hands. This made the books extremely large, and heavy.
And thirdly, the method used to make these books and documents was tricky. And they couldn’t be manufactured easily. In fact, they were so difficult to produce that when the school opened in 1784, there were only THREE books in the entire institute!
Apart from the lack of books, and despite the teachers’ best efforts, there were few other ways for the students to learn. Going outside into the streets of Paris for excursions was done only occasionally, with the schoolboys all holding onto a length of rope held by one of the schoolmasters. They became known as the “rope gang” because of it.
Despite all of Hauy’s good intentions, several of his students disliked the books. They were difficult to buy, difficult to read, difficult to carry around and there just weren’t enough of them! Louis Braille was one of the students who complained about their significant and several drawbacks, and pointed out that the books were designed to let blind students read the text of the sighted. What Louis decided they needed was blind text, written by blind people, which blind people could understand!
The Development of the Braille System
At the age of just 12, Braille was already forming his new method of blind writing. The story goes that he was inspired by a story in a newspaper which was read to him by a friend.
The story focused on an invention created by French army-captain, Charles Barbier le Sarre. Realising the importance for codes in transporting vital, but secret information, Barbier created a system of communications that didn’t rely on letters at all, but rather, on embossed dots and dashes, arranged on a sheet of paper. Because this type of code could be felt by the fingers and read perfectly easily, even in the dark, he called his invention “Night Writing”.
Realising the potential for his invention to help the blind, Barbier arranged a visit to the Institute for Blind Youth to tell them about his idea.
Braille was fascinated by this development, but the only problem was that Barbier’s system of writing was far too complicated! It would take ages to reproduce and just wasn’t practical. To begin with, it worked on phonetics, not on the alphabet. The bumps and ridges didn’t represent letters, they represented sounds! This made it difficult for students to read the texts, because it took so many more bumps to create a sound than it did to create a single letter.
Young Louie Braille was sure that this system of “night writing” could be of use to the blind, but it had to be improved and simplified before it could work!
By cutting out all the unnecessary bumps, ridges and dots in Barbier’s system, Braille was able to produce a “prototype” alphabet as early as 1824, when he was just fifteen! Using the same, thick paper that Barbier used, Braille punched out the dots in the paper using a leather-worker’s awl, the very same tool which had blinded him over a decade before!
Barbier, an aristocratic army-officer, was insulted that a mere child should think that his MARVELLOUS INVENTION!!…Should require “improvement” or “simplification”! And from a blind person, too! He was so outraged that he left the school!
But the seeds for Braille’s new system of writing were sown, and he began to work on his own form of embossed writing.
While some of the schoolmasters and directors were impressed by young Braille’s ingenuity and creativity, other teachers, like Barbier, felt insulted. Not because a child had dared to challenge the skills of an adult, but because a system of writing accessible only to the blind would mean that sighted people couldn’t read it. And if they couldn’t read it, then they wouldn’t understand it! It was many years before Braille’s system of writing would be adopted in the school, and not after a LOT of protest from both the teachers, and the students.
The beauty of the Braille system, vs. the Barbier system was that Braille’s was so much simpler. With just six dots instead of up to twelve dots, a blind person could feel everything under the tip of one finger, instead of having to stroke the page constantly, to make sure that they hadn’t left anything out. The six-dot layout of the Braille system meant that there was a total of up to 64 dot-combinations. More than enough combinations to represent the 26 letters of the alphabet, and all necessary punctuation-marks. Simple, and effective.
Braille was not only academically intelligent, he was also very fond of music. Since music is largely tactile in nature, there’s no need to see the instrument you’re playing, you just need to know where your fingers are, and where they have to go to produce the correct notes.
However, it still meant that blind people were incapable of reading sheet-music. To fix this, Braille also developed an entire musical system for blind musicians, based on his system of raised dots.
Adoption of the Braille System
Adoption of this new system of writing was slow. Even when Braille became a teacher at the National Institute for the Blind in Paris, the school still relied on older, less effective methods of communication.
The teachers at the Institute were unwilling to uproot everything that they had done, and change it for an entirely new system. In fact, when the institute’s history-teacher reproduced a history textbook all in Braille (using a newly-invented Braille typewriter), he was fired from his position!
Braille himself became increasingly ill and by his 40s, he was compelled to resign from the school due to increasingly poor health. It was strongly suspected that he was beginning to suffer from consumption (more commonly known today as tuberculosis).
Braille died in Paris in 1852, just two days after his 43rd birthday.
The Spread of Braille
Braille spread slowly at first. The first hurdle to fall was the National Institute for Blind Youth. Fed up with the teachers’ banning of Braille’s new system, the students insisted that they would stop attending school if the more effective Braille system did not replace the older and less effective Hauy systems. Eventually the schoolmasters had to back down and Braille’s system was finally introduced in 1854, two years after Braille died.
And yet, the school which had fostered the system’s creation was actually not the first to use it! Embarrassingly, it was actually the second! The Institute for the Blind in the Netherlands started using Braille’s system as early as 1846!
Throughout the 19th century, Braille became more and more widespread. By the 1870s, it was being recognised as being superior to other methods of blind communications. By the 1880s, it was being used in almost all respected schools for the blind. By the 1910s, it was being used in all blind schools in America. And by the 1930s, a universal Braille Code for the English language was developed and adopted, worldwide.
In Braille’s day, he wrote out his texts using a stylus, a wooden frame, and a special line-guide to produce his dot-writing. Today, the blind use something a bit more advanced than that. Although today there are even braille laptops and computers, for many, the mainstay of writing braille is by using this machine:
Developed in the 1950s, the Perkins Brailler has been used to type out braille for over fifty years. Essentially, it’s a braille typewriter. It has a carrying-handle, carriage return-lever, even a bell that rings at the end of each line. Along with the Perkins Brailler, there is also the more modern “Mountbatten” Brailler, named after Lord Louis Mountbatten, who left a bequest in his will, for the development of a braille typing-machine. The Mountbatten Brailler came out in 1991.