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!
Sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes, you don’t.
This time, I got lucky!
It’s the most charming and adorable little silver bowl that I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s made of sterling silver, and has the most amazing respousse patterning on the sides.
It’s late Victorian in manufacture, dating to 1895, just two years before the queen’s diamond jubilee. The detail on this thing just blew me away when I saw it – it’s got clovers and acorns all around the sides, and little flowers all around the rim. Floral motifs were popular in Victorian times, so this definitely fits the period! The sort of curvy-swervy patterning on the bottom looks like a nod to the then-rising movement of Art Nouveau as well.
This bowl was being sold in a local auction-house, and it was one of about half a dozen pieces that I wanted to try and buy. I got viciously outbid on some of the other pieces, and I had my reservations about buying this one. But when the price dropped…and dropped…and dropped…and nobody put up a bid, I decided to pounce, and managed to get a great bargain!
Small silver bowls, plates and cups like this were very common in Victorian times, and I’ve seen many of them in antiques shops, online, in flea-markets and in auction-houses.
Exactly what function they served is debatable, if indeed they did serve one at all! The Victorians were notorious for manufacturing all kinds of silver nicknacks for activities, events, items and niceties that we don’t even think about these days! Things like stamp-holders, card-trays, and even asparagus tongs and pickle forks!
The bowl is not gilt or lined inside in any way, so that suggests that whatever it held, it wasn’t corrosive – so therefore, it wouldn’t have been mustard or salt or something along those lines. Salt and mustard (which has vinegar in it) are both highly corrosive to silver – any silver vessel holding these condiments usually has a blue glass liner, or is gilt (gold-plated) to stop the silver from crusting over and turning black and flaky.
I think the bowl was likely used to hold chocolates or nibbles. Perhaps unsalted nuts or bonbons or something of that sort.
Whoever it was made for, and whatever use they intended for it, one aspect of this bowl really caught my eye – this:
No, your eyes are not deceiving you – that is a coin set into the base of the bowl. Exactly WHY there’s a coin there is anybody’s guess, but there it is.
That said, silver bowls and plates like this with coins set into them aren’t that uncommon, either! I’ve seen several of these over the years, and it seems to have been a perfectly acceptable practice. Some coins were used because they marked significant years, and some, just for decoration, like we see here. Another possible explanation is that the coins were out of circulation anyway – and it was an easy way to use free silver to make something!
The coin is a George III sterling silver shilling, from 1787.
It’s pretty worn, but you can still read the date, as well as the words: “GEORGIVS III DEI GRATIA” (George III, by the Grace of God).
The silversmith’s mark on this piece is for Charles Stuart Harris. He seems to have done a pretty good job of fitting the coin in – both sides are visible, both inside, and outside the bowl.
All in all, it’s a beautiful piece of silver. Well-made and with stunning attention to detail. Its decoration just screams Victorian, and I love the coin – even if it’s almost impossible to read!
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.