Just because it’s what they do, doesn’t mean that they know it all! And if you’re patient, you can get your hands on a really nice, and interesting, piece of silver! That’s what happened to me yesterday!
Nobody at my local auction-house knew what this curious little…dish…plate…bowl…thingy…was. As a result, it sold for next to nothing, and I was able to nab it at a great price. I was extremely skeptical of the description of it in the catalogue, which simply said: “Sterling Silver Ash Tray“.
One look at this item told me that it was quite obviously not an ash tray. The shape was all wrong. And there were no grooves to rest cigarettes. I mean you could use it as an ash tray…and you could use a Gucci handbag to tip horse-manure onto the garden…but that doesn’t mean you should! This weird little piece of silver made me wonder exactly what it was and who made it and why.
Unusually, it was a modern piece of silver. It’s from 1997, according to the hallmarks, and it was assayed in Sheffield. Researching the company that made it eventually told me that it was something called an ‘Armada Plate’.
Yeah I’d never heard of it either, and despite a lot of research, all I could find out was that there were loads of these things for sale online in various sizes, some larger than mine, some smaller. But none of them told me what the hell an ‘Armada Plate’ was. So, I went to Wikipedia to find out…
The Amazing Armada Service
In the 1580s and 90s, a thirty-one piece sterling silver dinner service was amassed by Sir Christopher Harris, and his wife Mary. Among other things, Sir Christopher was an MP, and Vice-Admiral for the county of Devon, and was charged with the protection of Devon by attacks from the sea.
The service became known as the ‘Armada Service’ because it was made to commemorate the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The date-letters on the silver plates and platters range from the 1580s up to around 1601.
Either way, the famous, 31-piece service was a point of pride for the Harris family – Sir Christopher after all, was familiar with both Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, so he definitely moved in some pretty impressive circles!
What is known is that the service was passed down through the Harris family until 1645. At the time of the English Civil War, the service was buried to hide it from the Cromwellian puritans, who needed silver for their war-effort. It remained hidden for nearly two centuries, until it was rediscovered in 1827 by farm-laborers who, of all things, were digging a hole to store potatoes!
The service was returned to the Harris family, who took custody of it for over fifty years, until it was sold at auction in 1885…by which time it had dropped from 31 pieces to 26 pieces…exactly what happened to the other five is unknown.
Either way, the pieces were sold at auction in 1885, and again some decades later, in 1910. In 1992, the 26-piece service was acquired by (and remains with) the British Museum.
But what happened to the other pieces?
Funnily enough – some of them have been discovered!
Through means unknown, some of them had ended up in the States! This was only discovered in 2009! This means that there is now a 28-piece Armada service in the world. However, the last three pieces, to make it the complete 31 once more, are still missing…
The Little Silver Plate
Alright, that was really interesting…but what’s that got to do with a little silver plate?
Well actually, the Armada Service is so famous, not just for its size, age and the fact that part of it is still missing, but because it represented a high-point of late-Elizabethan silversmithing. Its simple style and beauty, and the fact that it’s survived this long largely intact, have made it an object of fascination, and therefore, highly desirable.
Modern copies of individual pieces from the Armada Service are actively manufactured today by British silversmiths, and you can buy them online relatively easily, in sizes anywhere from a couple of inches, all the way up to seven inches in diameter! My own little plate is 3.75 inches across. It may not be a piece of 400-year-old Elizabethan silver, but it’s fun to own something that pays homage to one of the most famous silver-collections in the world!
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.
These days, technologies such as sonar, radar and satellites warn us of dangerous weather and shipping hazards in our paths when we head out beyond sight of land. Helicopters, rigid-shell lifeboats with inbuilt motors, and clear and easy radio communications make rescue at sea easier and safer. But imagine what high seas rescue was like before these machines and technologies were invented. Imagine trying to affect a rescue in a roaring hurricane not with a helicopter, but with a wooden, oared lifeboat. Imagine life-or-death communications where you didn’t have radio or walkie-talkies – just the flashing pulses of a manually-operated Morse-lamp. No GPS. No satellite tracking – just maps, charts, maritime chronometers and a pair of compasses to find your way.
Imagine all these challenges and more, which were faced by the men who carried out one of the most famous ocean rescues of the early 20th century.
The S.S. Antinoe is completely forgotten today. If you stopped most people in the street and asked, they would have absolutely no idea what it is. And yet, this was an event which made international headlines when the news broke. It turned ordinary sailors into celebrities and heroes before they’d even set their feet back on dry land! A tale of endurance, bravery and sheer ballsiness not yet coming to a motion-picture theatre near you! Forget “The Perfect Storm”, the events surrounding the S.S. Antinoe are far more spectacular!
Wednesday, 20th of January, 1926 – The Roosevelt Departs
The year is 1926. American ocean liner, the S.S. President Roosevelt, is steaming out of New York Harbor. In charge of this vessel is Captain George Fried. The Roosevelt’s ultimate destination is the port of Bremerhaven, Germany, but it will make various stop-offs along the south coast of England along the way.
The voyage to Europe will be long. A week at sea at least. The weather was bad before the ship had even left American waters, but it couldn’t stop just because it was wet and cloudy – the Roosevelt had 200 passengers on board who had paid for safe passage, along with several thousand bags of U.S. Mail.
Before the days of satellite weather-tracking, the main way for ships to attain accurate weather forecasts was in the form of the telegraph. Ships out at sea sent Morse Code radio-messages between each other, warning of things as storms, icebergs, and other ships in distress. The President Roosevelt didn’t know it yet, but it was sailing into a storm of unimaginable ferocity.
The Roosevelt was not just steaming into a storm. It was steaming into one of the fiercest hurricanes ever witnessed in the north Atlantic. Over the coming days, the situation on board ship deteriorated significantly and a number of measures had to be taken to ensure the safety of the passengers and of the ship. Roosevelt passengers were kept below-deck, forbidden from going outside, for their own safety. Lifelines were thrown up outside and inside the ship, to catch people who stumbled or fell when the ship rolled.
When it was safe to cook, stewards would soak table-cloths in water and wring them out before laying the tables. The wet fabric would prevent place-settings and dishes from sliding off the tables in the dining saloon when the ship rolled or plunged through another wave. And things only got worse as the voyage continued. By the third day, Capt. Fried ordered the ship’s engines to be run at reduced speed. It would be pointless to operate them at full-tilt and burn precious coal in a futile attempt to get anywhere in this storm. And so the Roosevelt laboured onwards.
Sunday, 24th of January, 1926 – The Antinoe Calls for Help
Despite the raging storm, Capt. Fried of the Roosevelt was determined that nothing more than the most essential precautions be taken, to prevent causing a panic among the passengers. As a result, regular crew-shifts went on as normal. There were no double watches or any other abnormal crew activity. Everyone was just expected to do their regular duties. If the situation got significantly worse, then extra measures would be taken.
With this mindset, the crew went about their duties. At four o’clock on Sunday morning, wireless-operator Kenneth Upton relieved his colleague and took up his position in the radio-room. He slipped on his headphones, sat down at the desk, and prepared himself for a long, boring shift of a whole lot of nothing. Considering the storm, there was probably nothing going on out there! How wrong he was!
Not two hours later, at 5:40am, a barely discernible message gurgled through the air. Because of the hurricane, radio reception was appallingly bad, and Mr. Upton could barely hear the frantically hammered-out Morse Code.
The cry for help came from the Antinoe, a British freighter-vessel which was fighting for life. It was severely damaged by the storm, unable to move, developing a heavy starboard list and had lost all her lifeboats, which had been ripped off her decks or smashed to pieces by the storm. She had no way of giving her position with great accuracy as the hurricane made it impossible for the crew to take a reading of their position by the sun or the stars.
Realising the gravity of the situation, Upton immediately informed Capt. Fried.
Using the Antinoe’s feeble radio-transmitter as a reference-point, Capt. Fried was able to determine through triangulation (using two known positions to find a third) the Antinoe’s location. Unfortunately, he also determined that it would take six hours just to get there!
The Tale of the Antinoe
The Antinoe was captained by Harry Tose. It had departed its port of embarkation on the 14th of January and had sailed without incident until the 23rd when it ran into the same hurricane battering the S.S. President Roosevelt. Heavy seas had damaged the ship severely. In all the heaving, rocking and rolling, an ice-chest had been knocked loose when the ship rolled from a wave. The heavy ice-chest had fallen and smashed against the ship’s steering-mechanism, rendering the vessel impossible to steer.
Despite throwing the damaged ice-chest and other broken parts overboard and trying to fix the broken steering mechanism, the ship was in sufficient enough danger that Capt. Tose ordered an S.O.S. signal to be sent out. Two ships responded: One was the S.S. President Roosevelt. The other was the famous Cunard ocean-liner, the R.M.S. Aquitania. In the end, it was the Roosevelt which dared to stay alongside the stricken Antinoe and attempt a rescue-mission in the midst of an Atlantic hurricane.
The Arrival of the S.S. President Roosevelt
Around midday, the two vessels found each other. Capt. Tose of the Antinoe wanted his ship taken in-tow and hauled back to safety…wherever that was! Capt. Fried agreed, but had no idea HOW to do it! Three attempts at bringing the Antinoe under tow failed. The weather was too rough and either the towline never caught on, or it would snap once it had been fastened to the Antinoe.
By that evening, the situation was spinning further and further out of control. The nonstop pounding of the waves had smashed in the Antinoe’s decks. This flooded the engine-room, killing the generators and depriving the ship of all electrical power. Now, she had no lights, no heating and no radio! And to cap it off…it started snowing in the middle of the ocean! Capt. Fried knew that he if abandoned the Antinoe now, her crew were almost certainly going to die.
The raging storm was wreaking havoc on both ships. The wind, the crashing waves, the pitch blackness and the white-out blizzard conditions made keeping visual contact between both ships almost impossible! For a period of several hours on Sunday night, it was impossible for the Roosevelt to see the Antinoe – the blinding snow rendered the Roosevelt’s powerful searchlights impotent, and Capt. Fried feared the very real possibility of a single wave slamming both ships together and sending them to the bottom of the sea!
The Antinoe had no lifeboats of her own, so to try and carry out a rescue-mission, Capt. Fried ordered his officers to use their own lifeboats to row across to the Antinoe and bring back survivors. The Chief Officer, Mr. Miller called for volunteers. Positioning the ship to launch the lifeboat, Miller and eight men got into the boat and it was lowered away into the raging sea. It was a complete disaster! The ship rocked unexpectedly, slamming the lifeboat against the hull! Two men were thrown out and were drowned at once. The other seven were quickly hauled back on-deck. The lifeboat was considered a total loss.
Monday 25th of January, 1926 – Lifeboats Lost to the Sea
By the next day, things were getting desperate. In numerous failed attempts to maintain contact with the Antinoe, the Roosevelt lost another four of her own wooden lifeboats and was running out of patience and time…especially time! Because, gallant as Capt. Fried’s actions and intentions were, he could not stay alongside the struggling Antinoe indefinitely. His supplies of fuel and food were finite. On top of that, he had passengers who he was supposed to take to Europe. He had mail on board which he was supposed to deliver to Germany!
So what? That was the attitude that Fried took. And he told anyone who asked him, just so! He was not about to leave until the job was done. And that was final! And that was what he told his bosses, too! In fact, Fried sent telegrams back to his company offices in New York, informing his superiors of the situation, and stating quite firmly that come Hell or High Water, he would stay alongside the Antinoe until the ship either sank, until an effective rescue had been completed, or until he could no-longer render assistance.
These words of defiance which were flashed across the ocean went on to have an incredible effect which few, least of all, the people at the centre of this drama, could possibly have foreseen. Trapped at sea, nobody on either the S.S. President Roosevelt, or the Antinoe could possibly know that Capt. Fried’s telegrams back to New York were at that very moment making the rescue of the Antinoe an internationally-observed incident!
Tuesday, 26th of January, 1926 – Rescue At Last!
The next day, the weather finally started to let up. The Roosevelt was able to re-establish contact via searchlight with the Antinoe and rescue-attempts began anew. A lifeboat was successfully launched and rowed over to the Antinoe.
Upon sighting the boat, Capt. Tose insisted that all married men, with the exception of himself, should go first. As a result, the first dozen men to abandon the Antinoe were the ones with wives and families waiting at home. Rowing back and forth between both ships for several hours, the crew and captain of the Antinoe were successfully evacuated to the decks of the Roosevelt. The lifeboat, badly worn out by the rough seas, was cast adrift.
One last attempt was made on the 27th to rescue the badly-damaged Antinoe but when once again the towline snapped, all aboard agreed that to keep trying was a waste of time. They left the ship to founder, and then sailed for Plymouth, England.
Back on Dry Land!
The toll had been heavy. The Antinoe was lost. Two crew from the Roosevelt had drowned at sea and six of her lifeboats had been destroyed by the hurricane during a rescue that had lasted three and a half days! But all twenty-five members of the crew on board the Antinoe had been saved!
When the Roosevelt and her crew arrived in Plymouth, England at the end of the month, they were greeted like heroes! Wild applause followed them, and reporters jostled for interviews! Newsreel cameras rolled, flash-bulbs popped! Mrs. Tose ran up on board the Roosevelt to be with her husband. Later, she publicly thanked Captain George Fried in front of the newsreel cameras, for delivering her husband, Captain Harry Tose, and his crew, safely from the jaws of certain death.
News of the dramatic rescue flashed around the world as fast as telegraph could take it. Articles appeared in the Straits Times in Singapore, the Buffalo Evening News in the United States, theArgus in Melbourne, and The Queenslander in Brisbane. The arrival of the triumphant President Roosevelt and its exhausted passengers and crew was filmed for posterity by newsreel cameras when it docked in England.
The saga of the Antinoe, and the ship which rescued its crew became legend! When Captain Fried and his men returned to America, they were treated once again to a heroes’ welcome, and given a ticker-tape parade through the center of New York City! The Antinoe was probably one of the most famous sea-rescues in history since the Titanic, and would not be eclipsed in peacetime until the sinking of the Andrea Doria in the 1950s.
— — — —
This article was originally published in The Australia Times – HISTORY magazine in March, 2015. Permission for republishing on throughouthistory.com was granted by the original author and copyright holder…me!
Yes! Wah liao indeed! And much wealth, prosperity and good luck to all! It is the crowing year of the ROOSTER!! Not my year (damn, that sucks…!), but, it’s Chinese New Year nonetheless!
Now, others will call it ‘Lunar New Year’ and that’s their prerogative, but to me, being two different kinds of Chinese – it will always be CHINESE NEW YEAR!!
Two different kinds? Yeah – two. I’m Chinese-Chinese on my mother’s side, and Straits-Chinese on my father’s side. If you don’t know what ‘Straits Chinese’ is, then I’ll pop in a link to my article about the Straits Chinese here, so that you can read all about them, and their fascinating history!
Either way – It’s Chinese New Year, and that means dusting off all kinds of old, ancient, decrepit traditions and rolling them out of the shed for their once-a-year moment in the sun.
“What traditions!?”, I hear you wail, in your frustrated groan of ‘getonwithitedness’?
Chinese New Year actually has loads of traditions and customs, and it’s all those traditions, customs, superstitions and legends that we’ll be covering in this posting! So, let’s hop to it!…
This is the biggest and most well-known of all traditions during Chinese New Year. If you’re going to any major CNY celebration – make sure you wear red! A red tie, red shoes, red shirt, red dress, red jacket…something red!
Red is considered the luckiest colour in Chinese culture. That’s why all the doors, rooves, bricks and everything else in the famous ‘Forbidden City’ in Peking – is bright crimson red! To bring in all that good luck, baby! This is also why people hang red couplets outside their doors, and light red firecrackers outside their houses.
Red is the Chinese colour of good luck. This stems from an ancient fable where a brave warrior entered a village on New Year’s Eve. He noticed that everybody barred their doors and shuttered their windows, not daring to leave their houses after dark.
Perplexed, he questioned a village elder, asking for an explanation. The old man said that each year on New Year’s Eve, a vicious monster emerged from the forests nearby to devour anybody caught outside after dark.
While they were talking, a little girl in a red dress ran out into the streets. Before anybody had noticed, the monster had arrived. The girl screamed and the monster recoiled in horror, fleeing back into the jungles. Observing this, the warrior deduced that the monster was frightened of the colour red, and sudden, loud noises.
To protect themselves and bring good luck, he advised the villagers to festoon their houses in red fabric, and light firecrackers outside their doors at sundown. The bright colours and loud explosions would keep the beast at bay. When they tried this the next evening, New Year’s Day, the beast failed to materialise.
Ever since, it has been a tradition to wear red, and light firecrackers to scare away evil spirits and demons, and to herald forth good luck for the year ahead.
Offerings to Zao Jun
In households which follow Chinese customs and traditions, one of the most important annual rituals are the offerings of ‘nian gao‘, or new years’ cake, to the Kitchen God – Zao Jun.
As God of the Kitchen, the traditional heart of the home, Zao Jun’s shrine within this room would’ve been privy to all the family’s deepest, darkest secrets and misdeeds. At the end of the year, it was his duty to rise to heaven, and to give a report of the family’s misdeeds to the Jade Emperor. The emperor then granted blessings or retribution accordingly.
In order to ensure good fortune for the year ahead, the household (usually in the form of the lady of the house) would give Zao Jun offerings (or bribes!) of sweet desserts (including, but not limited to new years’ cake), so that his jaw would be glued shut and so he would only tell the emperor about the good things which the family had done that year.
Legend says that Zao Jun was a man who broke up with his wife, experienced hard times, and returned to her for charity when his luck had run out. While she went to get him a drink, Zao Jun, overcome with shame, crawled into the clay, wood-fired stove in his wife’s kitchen, committing suicide. The Jade Emperor of Heaven took pity on him, and appointed him as the Kitchen God thereafter.
Chinese New Year Food
There are loads of foods which are traditionally eaten during Chinese New Year, either because they’re considered Chinese delicacies, or because they’re seasonal foods traditionally eaten during the New Year period. Some of the more common ones are…
Nian Gao (literally ‘Year Cake’ or New Year’s Cake) is a big tradition in Chinese households. Given China’s vast size, it’s probably no surprise that nian gao varies significantly from coast to coast, north and south across the country, and that the ways in which nian gao is consumed is also extremely varied.
The type of nian gao that most people outside of China will be familiar with is a fat, round, dense, sticky little thing, which traditionally hailed from Canton Province (today Guandong Province), in southern China.
If you’ve ever eaten nian gao, then you’ll know that what I say next will be more true than you want to admit – it’s extremely dense, sweet, filling, and in some instances, it can be bloody hard to eat! It’s so gooey and chewy it’s like trying to eat liquid tar! Good luck with that…
Despite this, however, nian gao is amazing. My favourite way of having it is with dessicated coconut sprinkled on top. It tastes just divine. A pity we can only have it (or at least, only buy it) once a year.
Nian Gao should not be confused with moon cakes. The size is about the same, but the texture and taste are completely different!
Also called Lo Hei, among several other naming variations, Yee Sang is popular in southern China, and many Chinese-expat communities, such as those in Malaysia and Singapore. Yee Sang is a Chinese-style salad, served cold with sweet sauces, a wide variety of vegetables, nuts, and most uniquely of all – raw (or if not raw, then at least, cold) fish.
The tradition with yee sang is to mix it up by throwing it up in the air as high as possible, while using chopsticks. Trust me, this is not easy…it’s a lot of fun!…but it’s not easy! And if you do it wrong, it’s a hell of a mess!!
Egg noodles, usually served with lobster or crayfish, is another extremely popular Chinese New Year dish. It’s also popular during anniversaries and birthdays. The length of the noodles symbolises longevity, continuity and a long life. As such, you should eat them and slurp them for good luck – but never snap, bite through, or break them, as that would symbolise one cutting short one’s life or run of good luck! Woops…
The Giving and Receiving of ‘Hong Bao’
Aaaah yes! Every little Chinese child in every gigantic Chinese family will have grown up with THIS amazing tradition – the yearly gifts of hong bao!
‘Hong Bao’ literally means ‘red bag’ or ‘red packet’ in Chinese (in Cantonese, it’s the slightly different ‘Ang Pow’, but it means exactly the same thing). They’re the little red envelopes stuffed with money, which parents and older, married relatives, give to children, and any unmarried relatives. When my brother announced that he was getting married at a family reunion – one of my aunts jokingly teased that he should reconsider his decision – it would mean no more red envelopes of cash from her!…or anybody else!…in the family once he tied the knot!
(Note to self: Never marry).
Like a lot of other Chinese traditions, the giving and receiving of hong bao goes back untold centuries. The earliest records of a hong bao-like tradition dates to the days when China still had large numbers of round coins with square holes in them, as part of their currency.
To wish their offspring good luck for the year ahead, parents and grandparents would tie coins together on red cord or string, and give them to children to symbolise good fortune in the months that were to come. This eventually morphed into the more convenient red paper envelopes or packets which are used today.
Traditionally, the amount of money inside the envelope is of significance. Ideally, it should always be an even number (so $10 instead of $5, for example). This is to ensure that good things always come in pairs (numbers divisible by two). In my long history of receiving hong bao, I’ve had amouts ranging from $5 all the way up to $100!
The traditional greeting expected at the receipt of a red packet is ‘Gung Hey Fatt Choy!’ (Cantonese), or ‘Gong xi fa cai’ (Chinese-Mandarin). In either dialect, the result is more or less the same: “Wishing you happiness and prosperity for the year ahead!”.
Another big, big tradition for Chinese New Year is the annual family reunion. When you have large families spread out all over the world, this can be a bit hard to pull off, but in China, at least – the annual family reunion is still a BIG event. Millions of people book flights, train-tickets and bus-tickets to travel hundreds of miles across China to be with their relatives on Chinese New Year’s Eve.
In some instances, it’s not just the living who join the reunion, either! In some parts of Asia, even the dead are invited! This usually takes the shape of visiting shrines or family temples, or graveyards to leave offerings to ancestors, to clean up gravesites, and to light incense, burn paper money and in some cases, light firecrackers to wake the spirits of the dead and invite them back to the family home.
Nothing like having the WHOLE family around during New Year’s Eve, huh?
Incidentally – this tradition is also why it’s considered VERY bad form in Chinese culture to stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice – You do the same with sticks of burning incense when offering prayers to the dead. So unless you want to commit a major social faux-pas – keep your chopsticks down!
The Lion Dance!
The lion dance – performed using a giant lion puppet, is yet another popular tradition. Although not an animal on the Chinese Zodiac, the lion dance has been a part of Chinese culture for hundreds of years.
Traditionally, the dancers come from local martial-arts schools, Chinese youth associations, or clan associations, and are typically young men (the exertion involved in the dancing is significantly higher than you might expect!).
The aim of lion dancing is to try and grab at offerings of vegetables, red envelopes (Hong Bao or Ang Pow), and to bring good luck to the local community. They’re usually accompanied by loud, raucous music, designed to drive away demons and evil spirits, and sometimes, even firecrackers.
The lion dance that most people are familiar with comes from the Canton or Guandong region of China, in the far south, near Hong Kong. Many people confuse the lion dance with the dragon dance – which are absolutely nothing alike. The lion dance involves a long, full-body lion with a working head, which the dancers move around inside of. The dragon is held up in the air on poles, with the operators working the poles from below.
The Twelve Zodiac Animals!
This is possibly the most famous part of Chinese New Year – The Chinese Zodiac! There are twelve animals in the Zodiac, they are, in order (yes, there is an order):
Rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig.
Each animal has specific attributes and qualities, and being born in one year over another means that you’re supposed to have different strengths and weaknesses.
Myself? I’m a rabbit, or ‘tuzi‘, in Chinese. And what could be more awesome than being a a fuzzy, cute little sex maniac who delivers chocolate? According to the books, among other things, Rabbits are highly creative. That sounds like me! 😛
So where do these twelve animals come from? Well, for that answer, we need to go back to the Guy in the Sky – the Jade Emperor. Confused with time, because they had no way to distinguish passing years, the commoners prayed to the emperor for guidance. In his wisdom, the emperor devised a twelve-year cycle. In trying to figure out how to structure this, he came up with the idea that each year would be represented by an animal. To decide which twelve that would be, he arranged a race. The first twelve animals to finish the race, and most importantly – cross the river at the end and make it to the other bank – would be honoured for eternity by having a place in the Chinese Zodiac.
Now whether or not you really believe this – it makes for a heck of a fairytale.
Happy New Year!
This is just a brief rundown of the most common Chinese New Year traditions, customs and rituals. Although they can vary from region to region around China, as well as from place to place among expat Chinese communities around the world, most families and communities who follow Chinese traditions will adhere to at least some of these, which are the most common and well-known customs.
I was at my local auction-house this week just poking around, seeing what was on offer for the first auction of the year, when I stumbled across some items which were being listed for sale, and they struck me as being rather strange.
Strange because they were obviously reproductions, and because this is an auction-house which deals largely in antiques, jewelry, art and furniture. Just looking at them I could tell they weren’t as old as the dates printed across them, but I expected that the chaps at the auction-house knew that when they put them up for sale.
The items, two telescopes, later sold for what I felt were pretty high prices, considering that they were obviously of modern manufacture. And this got me to thinking about antiques collecting, and the risks involved with it – specifically – buying fakes and reproductions, when you’re looking for a genuine antique!
In the antiques world, almost anything and everything can, will, has been, or will be, faked. And I do mean literally anything – you can go online right now, and buy a whistle which someone will swear up and down, was used in the trenches of the First World War. It’ll look old, and it’ll have period markings on it – but it is NOT an antique! (Incidentally – these whistles are reproductions manufactured by the ACME Whistle Co.
Now, to be fair, that’s not to say that the ACME Whistle Company is deliberately trying to cheat the public – they are manufacturing whistles with old-fashioned markings on the barrels, they are aging them and selling them – but they are selling them as modern reproductions of antique whistles. There’s nothing wrong with this. And there’s nothing wrong with you buying them. Just so long as you’re aware of the fact that these whistles are not 100-year-old, First-World-War originals! And so long as you don’t try and sell them as such!
However, there are people out there who will try and sell them as such, and at significantly increased prices. Knowing how to tell the difference between a real whistle from the First World War, and a modern reproduction, is just one example of how collectors need to be able to tell the difference between a real antique, and a reproduction, or a fake!
What is a Fake?
A fake, or fraudulent item, is something manufactured to look like, and be passed off, as an original item, and which will be sold at a price matching the original item. It has absolutely no value as an antique, and if you buy one, you will be stung – hard! Because reselling it will be almost impossible – nobody will willingly purchase a fake.
And just so we’re clear – faking items isn’t a modern phenomenon – people have been faking things for centuries! You can even buy an antique fake, as well as a fake antique! Some antique fakes might actually be worth money, because of the notoriety around them, but again, you need to be careful about what you buy.
What is a Reproduction?
A reproduction is an item which has been manufactured to superficially look like something else that was produced previously. Reproductions are legal, and sometimes even desirable, but they should not be confused with the original article. Reproductions can be useful in the sense that they give an impression of age at a fraction of the price, but one should not expect original-quality manufacturing standards for a reproduction-quality item. You get what you pay for.
What is a Replica?
A replica is generally defined as being an exact copy of an antique. Replicas can vary just in terms of visual appearance, all the way up to being fully-operational, functioning replicas. They differ from a reproduction in that usually, much more detail, time and money has been spent in manufacturing these, since they are meant to be faithful copies of an original item. Replicas are popular choices with historical reenactors, since they can get the ‘real thing’, but not worry about potentially damaging an antique, which could be decades, or even centuries old. Firearms, clothing, historical eyewear, kitchenware and many other items usually have modern replicas of antique originals available online. The quality is not necessarily as good as one might like, but the functionality should at least be on the same level.
The Three-Part Pick-a-Part
When you start collecting, the most important thing to learn is how to differentiate an antique from a replica, reproduction and fake. If you can’t do this, your collection could be filled with loads of fakes!
“So what?” I might hear you ask, “Does that really matter?”
Well, that depends. If you blew hundreds of bucks on something expecting it to be 200 years old, and it was made last week, would you be happy? If you unknowingly sold a fake and your buyer called you out on it, would you be happy? Buying and selling fakes can be a painful business, and not just for your wallet, but also for your reputation, if you do this regularly. People will avoid you, and once your reputation’s shattered, selling anything will be a real hassle!
In spotting fakes, there are some things which the novice can learn and read about to protect themselves, but other things only come with experience and the balance of probabilities.
The Real McCoy or a Fraudulent Ploy?
Even for the novice antiques collector, there are ways to tell reproductions or fakes, from the real thing. How to find these ways, these indicators, is all in the details of what the item is, what it looks like, how it was made and how it’s presented.
In some cases, knowing if something is an antique or a reproduction is pretty obvious, and in other cases, it can be nigh impossible. So what are some things to look for?
Indicators of Age are probably the first thing to check for. Anything which is a real antique will have genuine indicators of age. Wear, fading, paint-loss, chips, dings, dents, tarnishing, loss of colour, etc. Do fakes have these things too? You bet! The trick is knowing the difference between real indicators of age, and fake ones. Some indicators of age cannot be faked, such as stamps or engravings, particular types of decoration, or particular types of wear. Knowing how to differentiate between the two, is the rub. Some can look incredibly convincing!
Fit, Finish and Features are three more indicators of whether an item is an antique, or a reproduction. Antiques are simply everyday items which are very, very old. They were built or made decades, or even centuries ago, to fulfill a specific purpose. And chances are, they will have fulfilled that purpose very well. And they would’ve done that because of how they were made, what they made of, how they were completed, and the features found on these items.
Look at two seemingly identical items. Their shape might be the same, their physical measurements might be the same. Even the colour and patterning might be the same. But if you look closer, you will see differences.
An item made to be used every day, will be manufactured accordingly. It will be heavier, or lighter, as the case might be. It will have various additional features which will aid it in its function. It will be purely operational, without any excessive flourishes or decorations.
Now look at the reproduction, or fake. In many cases, telling the difference between the two will be fairly easy. The reproduction will ‘try too hard’ to look old. It will be excessively aged or patina’d. It will not have any of the extra features which the antique will have. Why? Because unlike the antique, it wasn’t designed as an object of everyday use – it was designed as a reproduction.
Now look at the fit and finish. Notice any wobbling? Any loss of details or decorations? Generally, a fake or reproduction will have fewer decorative details than an antique original, or again, will try too hard to look old-fashioned, and overdo it on the decorations. Modern reproductions or fakes are designed to fool at a distance – they won’t hold up to up-close scrutiny – provided that you know what you’re looking for. Understanding the difference between all these nuances is vital if you’re to differentiate between an antique item and a fake or reproduction.
Weight and Heft is another way to determine an original from a fake. Most people who manufacture fakes or reproductions will not care about this – their item will weigh less, or more than the item that they’re trying to copy. Why? Because they don’t care, and they don’t expect that YOU will care, either.
Knowing how much the genuine article weighs, when compared to a fake is very important when it comes to things like old coins. Antique coins which were made of gold and silver had by law, to weigh a certain amount, since they were made of precious metals, and the value on the coin had to reflect the weight of the coin itself.
A fake coin will not weigh the same as a real one. It will either be significantly heavier, or significantly lighter. In cases like this, the only way to be really sure is to look up the weight of the coin beforehand and keep it handy when you go hunting.
Grit and Grime are yet another way to differentiate an antique from a reproduction. Most antiques will not look perfect. You try looking perfect after 100 years! Most antiques will have some sort of blemish, some sort of tarnish, some grit, grime, dust or other gunk trapped inside its moving parts, or in crevices or cracks or gullies.
A reproduction will always look perfectly clean. A fake will always look perfectly clean. That’s because…it’s new! Duh!…Or, it might look dirty. But the difference is in the kind of dirt or patina, or tarnish. Real tarnish or grime builds up over time, over the course of decades.
This is not something that you can fake with acid or vinegar or by rubbing crud onto an object’s surface. It can only be achieved by years and decades of use and abuse. Grime and gunk get into every tiny little crevice inside an item, and that’s something you won’t find in a reproduction, no matter how superficially it looks like an antique.
Well, there are just a few tips for the novice collector on how to spot a genuine antique, as opposed to a modern reproduction or forgery which someone might try and sell you as the real thing.
Of course, the tips mentioned here will not cover all antiques – they’re intended as general guidelines, but they should be enough to help most people avoid strife while out at flea-markets, auction houses, antiques shops and when surfing online for that next interesting item for their collection.
I picked these up at my local flea-market before it closed for Christmas. The last market of the year – almost everybody was selling stuff off cheap. One last chance to make money before three weeks of nothing. As a result, these were going cheap!
“What the hell are they??” I hear you ask.
Well, they’re antique brass spice mills! Ain’t they just the cutest lil’ things you ever saw in your life??
OK, okay…ok…let’s be a bit more serious now…
What are they, really?
Well that’s a bit of a tricky question to answer, actually.
The short answer is that according to all the research I’ve done, they are spice mills, used for grinding up things like coffee, salt, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and whatever else you can cram inside them. But that’s not entirely true. See, mills of this design were originally meant, not for spices, but coffee beans!
They originated with the Greek army because apparently Greek soldiers needed a lot of coffee to make it through a day’s fighting. The problem was that to get the coffee, they had to grind the beans, and grinding beans on the move was a problem, because of how chunky old-fashioned coffee-mills were. Have you seen those things? They’re huge!
To find a compact and portable alternative, some bright spark came up with these things!
Now, they do come in various sizes. All the way from well over a foot long, down to about five or six inches in height. The small mill is about 7.5in high, which makes it a medium, while the other mill is about 13in high, which makes a large! In fact, I don’t think any current manufacturers produce a mill this big!
“So what are they used for?”
As I said, originally these were coffee mills, but these days, people use them for all kinds of things. They’re very popular as spice-mills, for grinding pepper, salt, nutmeg, cinnamon…basically anything that you can cram inside it! The fineness of the grind is adjusted by the screw or nut inside the base of the grinder. A tighter nut means a finer grind (because the grinding-wheels are closer together) whereas a looser nut means a more coarse grind (from the wheels being further apart).
Mills like these have been popular for over a hundred years. And it’s not hard to see why – they’re beautifully made, extremely robust, and they have a huge capacity! They’re also pretty easy to clean.
“How do they work, then?”
The basic operation is pretty easy. You remove the handle, take off the dome-cap, and then you fill the mill with whatever spice you need to grind. You put the cap and the handle back on, and then start grinding.
As you turn the handle, the wheels grind, and the resultant ground-up spices are collected in the base. This stops them sprinkling and spraying all over the place and keeps things neat and tidy. It’s a ridiculously simple design, and I think, very effective and sensible.
“That thing looks COOL!…I want one! GIMME!”
What!? No! Bugger off! Gitcher own darn spice mill!
In all honesty, if you do want one of these things, they’re pretty easy to find. Spend enough time at your local flea-market and you’ll eventually find one. I’ve seen loads of them go through my market for years. I never bought one because I never saw their appeal until now. They’re usually pretty cheap – these two cost almost nothing – and once they’ve been cleaned and such, they’ll last a lifetime!
If you’re after a new one though, they are still made brand new – and you can buy them online. They’re manufactured in Greece, the country of their birth, by a company called Atlas. These might not carry the earth and heavens on their shoulders, but they can grind up a world of spices for you! And they’ll do it with style. Although I generally reckon – not with half as much style as the older ones do!
This week, I fulfilled a lifelong dream – and bought a carriage clock!
Ever since I was a child, I’ve wanted a carriage clock. I think it was the childish joy and fascination with getting to see the gears and wheels and springs of the clock movement clicking and ticking away inside the case, behind beautiful, beveled panels of glass that makes me love them.
Most mechanical clocks are housed in dark, wooden cases, are heavy, clunky and difficult to move around. Carriage clocks by comparison are small, cute, bright, cheerful little timepieces which just keep on keepin’ on, doin’ what they do, and they’re not ashamed to show themselves at work.
The unique design of the carriage clock has made them a perennial favourite for over two hundred years – think about that – TWO HUNDRED YEARS! Ever since they arrived on the scene in the 1790s, they have never been out of production – you can still buy them brand new today!
Who Invented the Carriage Clock?
The carriage clock was invented in the 1790s by legendary watchmaker Abraham Louis Breguet, arguably the most important and famous watchmaker in history – so important and famous that he made watches and clocks for all the crowned heads of Europe in his day – including one Napoleon Bonaparte – who commissioned Monsieur Breguet to manufacture him a small, portable timepiece which he could carry around with him while out on military campaigns.
The problem was that no clocks of the era could do this. Longcase pendulum clocks were too large and heavy. Most other clocks were too bulky or too fragile. Something much smaller and more portable was needed. The answer was what Breguet called the ‘Pendule de Voyage’ – a travelling clock.
From about 1795 to his death in 1823, Abraham and his son made all kinds of incredibly complicated carriage clocks which did everything which a clock could do – strike the hours, half-hours, quarters, minutes, they had alarm-features, they had perpetual calendars, they had moonphase dials on them…impressive pieces of workmanship and artistry, considering that almost everything was made by hand!
The Appeal of the Carriage Clock
The basic shape and style of a carriage clock has not changed since this time. The vast majority of them are rectangular, with a handle on the top, a platform escapement above the movement, which is sandwiched between brass plates, a dial and hands at the front, and winding and setting arbors at the back, accessed by a little door.
The carriage clock became extremely popular. Its small size, unique design, large number of extra features, and the fact that it could be taken with you where-ever you went, meant that carriage clocks became highly fashionable during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and for much of the first half of the 20th century.
It was this simple, elegant construction and design that made me want a carriage clock in the first place – and want one for many, many years! And this month, I finally managed to lay my hands on one.
The Clock Itself
The clock I eventually ended up buying is typical of your standard, antique time-only carriage clocks. It was made in France between about 1905-1925, features an Arabic dial, five glass panels, and what I think is a pretty swanky brass case.
I picked this clock over about half a dozen I could’ve chosen, because of a number of reasons.
The first of these was that it had big, easily-read Arabic numerals, instead of Roman numerals. These would be much easier for me to make out at a distance, with my terrible eyesight!
The second reason was the price. After doing a lot of number-crunching, I decided that buying this clock was better than trying to buy one from one of those crazy high-end retail antiques shops, where they regularly sell for WELL over $1,000 apiece…which I wasn’t about to blow on anything!
The third reason was because of the case. The cases of most carriage clocks (usually made of brass) are pretty elaborate. I mean don’t get me wrong – I’d kill to have one of those, too! But I picked this clock because it was simple, but still had a bit of flare to it. The angles and curves gave it, I felt, a rather simplistic elegance similar to Art Deco in styling, and I love Art Deco!
The fact that this clock had all five main sides faced in glass (not something which all clocks had), was another deciding factor in buying it. I like being able to see the gears!
This particular carriage clock was made by the firm of Couaillet Freres (Couaillet Brothers), near Normandy in France. The firm was established in 1892 by Armand Couaillet, and he was soon after joined by his brothers. The firm concentrated almost entirely on manufacturing carriage clocks, and had quite a turbulent history! A factory fire in early 1912 burned their manufacturing premises to the ground!
The company rebuilt, and retooled, and manufactured carriage clocks right up to 1925, when the brothers broke up and went their separate ways, each setting up his own company. During the First World War, the company manufactured equipment for the French armed forces.
Carriage clocks are pretty easy to find. You’ll see them almost anywhere – any antiques shop, auction-house, flea-market and online sales site like eBay or Gumtree is likely to have loads of them. But one thing you don’t often see are the original, wooden carry-cases. I was lucky enough to buy my clock with a case which fitted it pretty well. I’m busy trying to restore it at the moment.
When they were new, every antique carriage clock came with a carry-case. These were typically lined in velvet and felt, had a wooden body, and were covered in thin ‘Morocco’ leather. Depending on the size and style of the clock, the lid either opened upwards and folded back and down, or else a pair of doors opened to either side, a bit like the doors of a wardrobe.
There was space inside the case not just for the clock, but also the winding-key, and the removable leather-covered, wooden panel which slid down over the glass window (also removable) at the front of the case. The idea was that you could slide up the protective panel and put it inside the back of the case along with the clock. Then you closed the lid. The clock would be protected during travel, but you could still read the time by looking through the window, which added an extra layer of protection against damaging the front glass panel in the clock itself.
Cases like these usually (not always) had a carrying handle on top, made out of a leather strap. These are often missing, or broken on old cases, as they were never expected to last this long. An antique carriage clock and its carrying case, both in great condition, generally command a premium price!
Way back in August, I went on holiday to Southeast Asia. It seems ages ago now, but while there, I bought something at an antiques market that I’d been chasing after for several years: An antique tiffin carrier…
Food-carriers of this basic style have been used in countries like Singapore, Malaysia, India and China for centuries, and the original ones were stacked baskets, usually made of wood or rattan.
With improved manufacturing and machining processes becoming possible with the industrial revolution, tiffin carriers made out of something other than wood (which was perishable and easily broken) now became possible. Decorative stacked porcelain ones were common in Peranakan households in the Straits Settlements in British-held Singapore and Malaya, but in terms of practicality and portability – few could go past the ones which were now being made of pressed steel and brass.
Manufactured in Singapore, India, China, and even some places in Europe, they were made of sheet brass, punched and spun into bowls, and lined in tin (to prevent damage to the brass), or sheet steel, which was punched and spun into bowls, and then painted in enamel paint, which was baked hard, to provide a durable, but smooth, and easily-cleaned surface. Straits Chinese tiffin carriers were often decorated to within an inch of their lives, with patterns of flowers and birds.
The Tiffin Carrier in This Posting
The tiffin carrier which I’ll be concentrating on in this posting – the one I brought back from my holidays – is probably the most typical vintage design, and you’ll find loads of these in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and India, where they were made.
They consist of a single brass frame folded and riveted to a handle and a swinging clamp at the top. The bowls are cylindrical sections with bases, which slot between the frame, held in place by hooks riveted on their sides. They’re kept rigid and immovable by the swing-clamp at the top that holds everything in tension to stop it moving.
Most tiffin-carriers have guide-hooks on all the bowls, so that they slot in neatly and stack up one by one – but this one (and others of different designs) have bowls with smooth sides – the indented bases of each bowl lock together to prevent spills and leaks.
This tiffin carrier has four bowls. I have seen ones with as few as one or two, and some with as many as half a dozen or more! But for most everyday ones, between three to five (or more often, three to four) was more common.
The lid on the top of the carrier also has another compartment, which would be for storing condiments and spices with which to flavour your food, which is compartmentalised in each of the four bowls.
Polishing the Carrier
One reason why I bought a brass tiffin carrier over one made of steel is that the brass ones last longer. They don’t rust, the enamel doesn’t chip and flake off, and quite apart from anything else – they’re so much easier to clean!
As you can see in the opening photograph, the carrier I bought was heavily tarnished. It hadn’t been polished in decades! I spent about two days cleaning it up to restore it to something resembling its original shine, and I have to say, I’m very pleased with the results:
I didn’t bother trying to get it perfect – and for a number of reasons:
1). To get it this far was bloody hard work! And I didn’t want to put in excessive effort and risk damaging the brass.
2). I wanted it to look old, but without looking neglected and dirty. In this condition, it’s aged, but presentable!
3). There were some blemishes on the brass which I wasn’t able to remove, so I left it slightly aged so that everything blends in nicely.
That said, the final result is lovely, as is the interior:
This is what the tiffin carrier looks like when it’s entirely disassembled. Now I didn’t actually do anything to the interior, beyond knocking out a couple of dents, and washing the bowls with hot soapy water, to get rid of any grime and dust.
The grey appearance is because these were lined in tin when they were made (to prevent damaging the brass with food). A similar process was used with copper cookware back in the old days (and in fact, they still make copper cookware lined in tin today).
Although I doubt I would ever use this thing ‘in action’ as it were, I couldn’t resist having my own. I scoured flea-markets for years to find one, and I’m so glad that I now have one which I can honestly call my own!
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!