Keeping Peranakan spirit alive – NST

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Wee collects antiques for others to remember and understand the Peranakan culture

Katong Antique House is a treasure trove of things Peranakan. Its owner, Peter Wee, tells ANUSHA K. that there is a need to preserve the rich Peranakan culture or it will be lost forever

LIKE a typical rich baba’s house, Katong Antique House, a 30-year-old, two-storey shop-house in 208 East Coast Road, Singapore, is filled with old Peranakan costumes, crockery and furniture.

Time stands still as I look at the many artifacts exhibited along the steep staircase and the surroundings. There are colourful tiffin carriers and beaded slippers in every corner, each with a story to tell.

The first hall is the reception hall where Peranakan items like pulut inti, pineapple tarts, exquisite kasut manek and sarong kebaya can be seen. The second hall is the dining area, which is used for entertaining guests and visitors.

Spittoons, vases, old family photographs and porcelain are displayed in the main gallery in the upper level. Most of these are heirlooms that have survived World War II. They belong to Peter Wee, a fourth-generation Peranakan who inherited the house from his maternal grandfather, Tan Cheng Kee. Wee, 63, and his 96-year-old mother live a stone’s throw from Katong Antique House.

His fascination with things Peranakan started when he was a young man. When his grandfather passed away, he started collecting artifacts.

My mother initially objected,” says the soft-spoken Wee. “She didn’t see the point in collecting old things but eventually, she understood that there was a story behind each artifact and if I didn’t keep these things, there would be nothing left of our culture.”

Some items, like his mother’s intricately beaded wedding slippers (kasut manek) and his grandfather’s diary, are heirlooms. Others he buys from Peranakan homes in Singapore and he’s a regular at the antique flea market in Amcorp Mall, Kuala Lumpur. According to him, there are some collectors in Malacca and whenever there is an opportunity, they exchange items.

Wee has displayed some of his treasures at the Singapore Peranakan Museum and his traditional sarong kebaya were worn by models during Datin Seri Endon’s fundraising kebaya fashion show.

But he has no intention of selling any of the artifacts from the Katong Antique House. “How do you determine the value of an item without knowing its story or history? I always believe that you should know your past, so you can understand the present and face the future,” he says with a chuckle.

A bachelor, Wee says the artifacts are his children. Sadly, he has no plans about who to pass his legacy to.

Wee has just published his second book, The Peranakan Legacy, which talks about the Peranakan heritage. The Peranakan are descendants of the early Chinese community who settled in the Malay Archipelago during the 17th century. Their culture is a rich blend of Chinese and Malay cultures with influences from the Portuguese, Dutch, British, Thai, Indian and Indonesian.

The book also highlights the essentials in a Peranakan house, from the lesung and tempayan air to navel bundles and infant clothing.

“Most Peranakan books focus on porcelain or customs but I want to write about things commonly found in Peranakan homes,” says Wee.

In Malacca, the common term used is baba (for men) and nyonya (women) but the term Peranakan came about in Singapore after the Straits Chinese British Association changed its name to the Peranakan Association, of which Wee was the first vice-president. He is still an active member of the association.

Wee feels the recent revival of the kebaya, the extensive range of porcelain available and Peranakan eateries that opened in Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, Penang and Singapore, have given insights into the culture.

What’s his favourite Peranakan dish? Wee says he loves buah paya titek, an unripe papaya soup with a piquant, pepperish flavour. He cooks often and one of his favourite pastimes is going to the wet market.

“I used to follow my grandmother to the wet market when I was young. I feel that the life and hub of the city is found in the market, not the shopping mall,” he says,

For S$15 (RM37), a 45-minute tour of Katong Antique House includes an introduction to the Peranakan identity by Wee and a viewing of artifacts. It ends with home-made pastries with aromatic local coffee or tea.

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