The old British couple was posted right before a dark wooden cupboard. An American man, probably in his middle age was sitting on a decorative oriental chair, hunched over a notepad and pen, the Russian dame in a sleeveless maxidress was leaning against the heavy ornamental door, arms akimbo and a fidgety Spanish duo of mother and daughter with disheaveled hair and brutally sunburnt arms and face was just waiting for it to start and then finish, so they could go back to their hotel, put a tick on their list of things to visit in Singapore and order room service. Then there was the suave Australian couple – the man in a tailored suit and the blond woman in a red dress with long distracting legs emerging from it, poised on the short rotund chairs in the middle of the room. I was of course with my sketchbook and pen lingering at the back, trying to read them as much as they would let me.
It felt like walking into one of those penultimate scenes in the small screen adaptations of Agatha Christie stories, where the inimitable Poirot has called upon the suspects in the living room so he could unfurl the mystery. My ears are almost tuned in to hear the rising crescendo of David Suchet’s voice – “Mesdames et Messieurs, it’s time to reveal the truth about this terrible crime” – and finally pinning down the murderer – “After everybody left, it was you Mr. Doyle, who picked up the gun, ran along the deck and shot your wife in her sleep.”
A tap on the shoulder requesting me to deposit my bag before the tour, broke my post-lunch reverie. Egg-headed Poirot had been replaced by grey-haired Chia Hock Jin, our amicable tour guide and I along with the other ‘suspects’ were crowding inside the remarkably restored living room of ‘Baba House’, the ancestral home ( built around 1895) of a wealthy Peranakan shipping merchant Wee Bin.
The Peranakan Story
Having introduced himself, Hock Jin warmed us up with a short history of the Peranakans, which started with the settling of Chinese merchants in the Straits of Malacca during the 15th century, who began integrating certain traits of local Malayan culture into their own Chinese heritage, thus giving birth to a distinctive hybrid culture with an identity of its own. By the 19th century, the Peranakans were mostly working as intermediaries between the mainland Chinese traders and the Dutch, Portuguese and British colonial traders, thus amassing immense wealth, which they spent lavishly in building such elaborately decorated houses. “They were sending their children to English medium schools rather than Chinese schools, or abroad for tertiary education or professional qualifications, so when they were back they could join the British administration.” said Hock Jin with arms deep inside his trouser pockets.
Leading us out of the drawing room through the main door, Hock Jin insisted, we take a closer look at the cobalt blue facade of the house with red gable and pitch roof, and not just admire its many architectural components for their beauty but understand their significance and symbolism as well. “Houses in those days were not numbered, so to understand who lived where, all you had to do was look at the facade”, he says, pointing at the two lanterns which have the origin of the family and surname of the resident written on them in winding strokes. The Chinese signboard with golden characters above the main door spell out the name of the house – ‘Everlasting Prosperity’. Motifs of peonies and phoenix on the facade, signify prosperity, peace, good wealth and luck. Hock Jin has been cupping a canary yellow ceramic bowl, which he suddenly holds out in public view. “Notice those friezes below the louvered windows? Those were made from tiny ceramic chips of different colours.”
The facade seems deceptively narrow for its wealthy owners but Hock Jin reassures that the house is much longer inside than what its entrance suggests. “During the Dutch rule, property owners were taxed as per the width of the frontage”.
“The living room is where the patriarch entertains his guests” begins our guide as we make our way inside again. Ornately carved Qing dynasty blackwood furnitures with mother of pearl inlay frames border the room on all sides giving it a rich luxurious feel; dainty ceramic vases, porcelain figurines and crockery adorn the corners atop side tables and cupboards; decorative venetian mirrors hang from the walls, an Austrian round table and chairs set, popular in the 19th century, sits at the centre while one of the four family altars that every Peranakan house must have, is placed at the head of the room facing the main corridor. Despite the heat and humidity outside, the dark interiors help in keeping the temperatures down.
“Feng Shui played an important role in the design of the house in those days. Do you know why there are two side entrances from this drawing room into the house?” Most nod their heads in negative.”So any bad energy that barges into the house through the front door, dissipates before flowing inside.” More fascinating details stumble out of our guide that we greedily lap up – demons tend to shuffle their feet and the high threshold serves as a hurdle for them to trip and fall if they enter the house, or the mirrors are hung so when the demon looks at his reflection, he realises how ugly he is and leaves pronto!
“The women and the children were not allowed in the living room in those days. But that didn’t mean they couldn’t see what was happening here”, says Hock Jin with a obscure smile as he points at the small openings in the carved wooden partition screen dividing the first and the second hall, through which unmarried Nonyas could peep through. The Family Hall was the matriarch’s domain, where the second altar was kept along along with a cupboard that stored ancestral tablets with recordings of the family’s eldest son’s birth details, through several generations. Elaborately painted portraits of the Wee family adorns the walls. The architecture is predominantly tropical with a refreshing airwell on the side that also helps keep the house cool. “This is where the family well was supposed to be but since this house is on a slope, the well is at the back.” explains our guide.
After the extravagant and slightly dark living room, the unexpected indoor-outdoor feel of the family room is refreshing. “Design of Peranakan houses always account for the five elements of Feng Shui – wood, fire, earth, metal and water” says Hock Jin, as we scrutinize the interesting amalgamation of Eastern and Western architectural elements. The colourful tiles lining the wall of the air well were distinctly British, there’s a buddhist swastik in the room and an attractive white panel on the wall with Chinese zodiac signs etched on it.
Hock Jin leads the group from the family room to a surprisingly sparse kitchen with brightly coloured Nonya cooking paraphernalia neatly displayed – lacquered stackable meal containers, scarlet coloured dishes, cups, jars, vases, dessert moulds, a traditional grinding stone along with an oven from yesteryears with metal woks stacked atop, a mortar and pestle, and a blue ceramic kettle. The alter of the kitchen god is affixed to the wall, as if to oversee and bless the laborious cooking of mouthwatering Nonya dishes.
Second Floor Bedrooms
A flight of wooden stairs lead us to the highly polished second floor with more Chinese dark wood furnitures and two bedrooms, one of which is a bridal chamber, dedicated to the 12 day ritual of Peranakan weddings. Just like the living room, the bridal chamber is flamboyant with an exquisitely carved, lacquered and gilded canopied bed from 19th century with motifs featuring fertility symbols. Across the room are several ornate armoires for storing the bride’s sarongs, kebayas, handkerchiefs and so on. The most intriguing feature that hooked the tour group was the peephole on the floor, that gave an unobstructed view of the living room and the main door. “So a Peranakan wife could see all who came to call on her husband.” says Hock Jin to his audience, now sitting on their haunches, trying to shove their face into a tiny gap on the floor.
End of Story? Not quite!
The tour ends on the third floor which houses a contemporary exhibition on Batik. “Please feel free to look around” says, Hock Jin and offers a perfunctory “thank you” for taking his tour, which sends the Spanish mother and daughter scooting down the stairs towards the exit. Others follow, making thumping sounds on the wooden steps as they climb down. But some of us linger around Hock Jin because his eager eyes haven’t dulled yet. He might have more to say if we poke the fire. He begins talking about the Great Depression of 1930s, when prices of tin and rubber on which the Peranakans heavily relied, fell rock bottom. The two world wars dealt heavy blows to Peranakan wealth, status and influence (as loyal British subjects, they contributed to the wars by making considerable donations), when many fell into poverty and had to sell off their landed houses and family heirlooms. “Then came the Rent control Act of 1947” says Hock Jin, pausing briefly. This mandated the rent of pre war houses like this, to be controlled in Singapore, and in effect frozen, resulting in further deterioration of income.
In 1966, Lee Kuan Yew’s government enacted the land acquisition act, to promote urban renewal, which empowered the government to acquire land for compensation, to be paid on a predetermined formula. Pre-war houses made way for high rises. “Many Peranakans converted to Christianity in the 1940s and 50s, women started working after the war and gradually with urbanisation, intermarriages and modernisation, the Peranakan culture stagnated and their identity suffered”, says Hock Jin, with eyes cast on the parquet floor.
Howver, the recent years have marked a conscious revival in all things Peranakan, with the conservation of heritage Straits Chinese buildings, with exhibitions showcasing the Peranakan way of life, with growing interest in the language, food, attire; and with restaurants serving Peranakan cuisine and antique shops selling artefacts such as silverware, beads slippers, porcelain, furnitures etc cropping up across Singapore. “Restoring Baba House and opening it to the public was one such revival effort” says Hock Jin.