All things Nyonya & Baba go under our microscope.

Peranakan culture is back in vogue in Singapore. In all walks of life, whether in the arts, or music or fashion, aspects of Peranakan culture have been slipping (back) into the daily lexicon of Singaporeans.

In recent years, Peranakan terrace houses and shop houses have been spruced up as entire rows from Emerald Hill Road to Keong Saik Road have been restored as homes or fancy restaurants, galleries and offices.

But this being Singapore, food takes centrestage, as the likes of local chefs Nicole Loh, Shermay Lee, Sylvia Tan and Violet Oon introduce a new generation to bakwan kepiting and buah keluak. Hipster foodies flock to young chef Malcolm Lee’s Candlenut where he serves up divine modern renditions of classic Nyonya fare like a lamb shank rendang and gula melaka panacotta.

The East Coast, the traditional enclave of the Peranakans, draws a new appreciative generation of food lovers and architectural enthusiasts for the area’s incredible collection of eateries, often located in period terrace houses.

The Peranakan Museum is, these days, just as popular as the more mainstream galleries drawing regular crowds of young and old alike. And wouldn’t the bibik grandmothers of yore have been tickled if they’d known their beaded slippers and beautifully-sewn kebayas are now popping up in fashionable boutiques and on the runway?

Historians tell us that in the 10th century, Chinese traders and sailors settled in Java. By the 14th and 15th centuries, a larger community of southern Chinese merchants from Fujian and Yunnan had started to settle in Singapore, Malaya and Indonesia. These early Chinese settlers were all men, and they eventually married local women, and started a second family here in the tropics.

Over time, these interracial marriages became more and more common. Eventually, a distinct ethnic group emerged with their own separate set of customs and its own language, a melodic patois of Malay, Hokkien, English and Chinese that is still spoken today. These were the Peranakans of Southeast Asia, the name derived from the Malay word beranak which means to give birth.

This issue then is a timely celebration of this most multicultural of people and of their ‘rebirth’. Thanks to a resurgent pride in their culture and legacy, they continue to celebrate their unique role in the history of Singapore and the region and, as a society. We are all the richer for it.

Photograph by Colin Chee

Building Blocks

Private courtyards and air-wells aside, what are the hallmarks of a typical Peranakan house?

Just as Peranakan culture is, itself, an amalgam of eastern and western influences, so too is its architecture. Across Southeast Asia, the Peranakan communities developed various building styles.

The Southern Chinese-styled home, for instance, reflected a deep concern with feng shui, the better to trap and amplify fortune, longevity and health of its occupants. Everything from the orientation of the house and ornamented roofs down to the extensive use of colour was chosen to maximise the flow of good qi (universal energy).

Long and narrow, these two- to three-storey stylish residences that followed a fairly standard template, where the row of houses is fronted by a narrow five-foot way.

Plasterwork decorations rich in symbolism and colour were splashed on the façade, roof and interiors. Standard features included the double-leafed saloon doors that provide privacy while admitting light and fresh air into the interiors. An elaborately carved floor-to-ceiling screen typically divided the ground floor’s reception foyer (that also held the family’s altar table) from the private courtyard, the latter dominated by an air-well, al fresco dining area and ancestral altar. The kitchen was usually located at the rear of the house along with the toilets and servants’ quarters.

A wooden staircase led to the upper levels where the bedrooms and the family’s private living quarters were located. Before the advent of the intercom, residents lifted a discreet peep-hole in the floor above the street entrance to check who was knocking on the front door.

Happily, Singapore boasts an excellent collection of Peranakan terraced houses, many of which, have been preserved or restored to almost mint condition. Great clusters of these homes can still be admired along Spottiswood Park Road, Emerald Hill Road, Pagoda Street, Club Street, Everitt Road and in the Joo Chiat neighbourhood.

TRADITIONAL CHARM Saloon doors and a narrow five-foot way frontage are hallmarks of Peranakan architecture.

Open House

Immerse yourself in Peranakan culture at these specialty museums.

Baba House

This gracious blue-hued building along Neil Road was built around 1895 as a private home for Wee Bin, a wealthy Peranakan shipping magnate. Meticulously restored and now open to the public, it is a stunning example of a period terrace house whose architectural details are predominantly Chinese.

WHERE 157 Neil Road
ADMISSION By appointment only. Visitors are required to sign up for heritage tours.

The Intan

As Alvin Yapp, the owner and curator of this jewel of a private museum puts it, the Intan is an ambitious collection of all things Peranakan, and more. The artefacts — from vintage tiffin carriers and hand-beaded slippers to silver betel leaf boxes and elaborate altar tables — come from around the world, each a haunting memento of a bygone era.

WHERE 69 Joo Chiat Terrace
ADMISSION By appointment only.

Peranakan Museum

Set in the historic Tao Nan Chinese School, the Peranakan Museum is a treasure trove that meticulously documents the intricate culture of Peranakan communities in Southeast Asia. Its world-class collection of rare Peranakan art and objects, a great many donated by pillars of the community, is unparalleled. A special ongoing exhibition sheds more light on some fascinating Peranakans.

WHERE 39 Armenian Street
OPENS 10am-7pm daily (till 9pm on Fri)
ADMISSION Free for Singapore Citizens and Permanent Residents. Foreign visitors: $6 (adult), $3 (concession).

Traditional Peranakans adorned their homes and possessions with intricate decorations that held rich symbolic meanings.

Here’s how to decode the more common ones.

The Three Winter Friends Blackwood furniture and scroll paintings often feature the pine, bamboo and the plum blossom.

Usually the only plants that can withstand cold winters, these symbolise steadfast perseverance in times of hardship.

Because of its multitude of seeds, this fruit symbolises fertility and descendants.

With abundant vines and leaves, grapevines represent wealth and longevity.

A symbol of joy because its Chinese name — ha — is the same sound as laughter.

Sometimes found on porcelain, crows represent filial piety and family because in nature, these birds are known to feed and protect their aged parents and fledglings.

A favoured symbol because its name sounds like the Chinese word for wealth.

The colour of spring, renewal and hope, green also symbolises inner peace.