Culture Shiok

Published on 23 June 2015

In a salute to the exhibition, Great Peranakans: Fifty Remarkable Lives, all things Nyonya & Baba go under our microscope.


It can’t have escaped attention that all things Peranakan are back in vogue. 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.

On TV and on stage, artists, musicians, actors and playwrights led by Jeanette Aw, Pierre Png, Ivan Heng, Dick Lee, Tang Mei Ling and Lim Kay Tong fly high the Peranakan flag. And remember MediaCorp’s hit series of 2008, The Little Nyonya?

But this being Singapore, food takes centrestage, as the likes of Nicole Loh, Shermay Lee, Sylvia Tan and Violet Oon introduce a new generation of greedy gourmets to bakwan kepiting and buah keluak.

Photo: Colin Chee

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 the following pages show, as a society. We are all the richer for it.


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).

Most people will be instantly familiar with the two- to three-storey terraced row house model (though even here, there are sub-categories such as Chinese Baroque and Straits Chinese Eclectic). Long and narrow, these stylish residences 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, thanks to the country’s sky-high property prices, 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.


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.
WEBSITE Find Out More.

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 historical 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 objets, 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.

INTRICATE SIGNS To a Peranakan, certain plants, birds and the colour green are rich in symbolic meaning.


Know your Nyonya nibbles.

Pulut Inti
Steamed glutinous rice, usually coloured blue, is topped with grated sweet coconut that’s been cooked with gula melaka, and wrapped in a banana leaf.
Kueh Lapis
Made with butter, sugar and spice, thin cakes (a few millimetres thick) are baked separately and then layered one at a time to create the final masterpiece.
Pulut Seri Kaya
A steamed glutinous rice cake topped with
a rich, thick layer of kaya custard.
Kueh Dadar
A pillowy soft cake, coloured with green pandan, is filled with dense, sweet freshly-grated coconut cooked with gula melaka.
Getuk Getuk
A delicately chewy tapioca cake crowned with a thick snow-white shower of freshly- grated coconut.
Onde Onde
Little pandan-scented balls made of sweet tapioca and glutinous flour that are filled with palm sugar, and then rolled with steamed grated coconut.
Ubi Kayu
A delicate steamed tapioca cake that’s rolled in snowy
grated coconut.
Soon Kueh
A soft steamed pastry made of tapioca flour that’s filled with braised turnips, shrimps and mushrooms.


These famous Bibiks & Babas made a difference.

Just in time for SG50, Great Peranakans: Fifty Remarkable Lives is a grand exhibition that celebrates the achievements of 50 men and women who have shaped Singaporean life, art, education, business, governance, and more over the past two centuries. Collectively, their stories and over 100 objects from their lives add to the greater discussion about the evolving Peranakan and Singaporean identities. On till 31 March 2016 at the Peranakan Museum.

PHOTOS Peranakan Museum
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