An insight into Peranakan culture

WHEN in Singapore, the journey into Peranakan culture often starts at the Katong Antique House on Katong Road.

A brisk walk from the Le Peranakan boutique hotel on East Coast Road will lead you to the double-storey shoplot that Peter Wee inherited from his maternal grandfather.

The property is filled to the brim with Peranakan artefacts, bric-a-brac, collectibles and treasures passed down and amassed over the centuries. Yet the affable Wee and an assistant keep the place spick and span.

Surrounded by treasures: Wee standing on the steps of the doublestorey shoplot he inherited from his maternal grandfather and turned into the Katong Antique House.

Describing his inheritance as “a cultural centre for all things Peranakan”, Wee said his Baba-Nyonya roots could be traced to Malacca. His late grandfather Tan Cheng Kee had blood ties with the late Tun Tan Cheng Lock, a founding member of the MCA.

Further enlightening us on the culture, Wee said it originated from the customs and traditions of Chinese people living outside of China, specifically in Penang, Malacca and Singapore.

“Over time, it became infused with Malay, Indonesian, Thai, Indian, Dutch and English cultures to produce a unique way of life. We speak a language containing Malay, Hokkien and English words. Prior to 1966, the Peranakan people were referred to as the Straits Chinese,” he explained as we toured the place.

Bigger curios are housed on the ground floor, leaving just enough space to manoeuvre oneself around. A curtain guards the dining room where visitors get to feast their eyes on family heirlooms, memoirs and aspects of day-to-day Peranakan living.

Upstairs, Wee, who owns more than 200 pieces of sarong material, gleefully threw us a challenge: “Name a colour and I will match it with one of my pieces.” He won.

Taxing: A worker working on bead embroidery for a pair of slippers.

A media member was later selected for Wee to demonstrate how the Nyonya kebaya should be worn. He pointed out that it was imperative for the ends to merge into a flowing design.

Before parting ways with Wee, the group enjoyed luscious pulut inti made from glutinous rice and palm sugar. Visitors curious about the Katong Antique House can walk through to the courtyard free of charge or opt for the 45-minute guided tour with tea and kuih at RM37 (S$15).

We were off next to Joo Chiat Place for a date with another Baba, Raymond Wong, who was waiting to tell us about his maternal grandmother Kim Choo’s famous kueh chang or glutinous rice dumplings.

Explained Wong, “Nyonya dumplings are different from the standard bak chang or pork dumplings. Kueh chang contains more than 10 types of spices and are loaded with coriander.”

One of his staff members painstakingly demonstrated the fine art of Peranakan embroidery for beaded slippers. Each exquisite design is the product of hours of labour and a huge strain on the eyes. The delicate footwear, like most of the items at Wong’s place, are for sale.

Wong was also kind enough to share tips on pagi sore batik which allows sarong kebaya wearers to flip the batik material for morning and evening wear. It is made possible by having two different designs on the same piece of batik.

The insights into Peranakan culture will indeed make your stay at Le Peranakan memorable.

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