The Peranakan Life: Visiting Baba House

Last weekend, Prescott and I made a trip down to NUS Baba House, a heritage museum that gives visitors a glimpse into life in an early twentieth century Peranakan house.

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There appear to be many versions of the definition of Peranakan, but the common element is that Peranakans are the descendants of Chinese immigrants to Singapore (usually male) who married local spouses along the Malay peninsula (usually female, and usually Malay). The Peranakan community in Singapore developed its own culture, including distinctive food, clothing, rituals (they’re famous for having 12-day weddings), and design. Here, for example, are some of the traditional Peranakan tiles that decorate so many of the shophouses in Singapore:

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The building that we now know as Baba House was built as a private home around 1897; it was then occupied by several different Peranakan families and eventually fell into disrepair. It was eventually donated to the National University of Singapore (NUS), which renamed it (“baba” means “man” or “father” in Malay), restored it, and reopened it in 2008 as a place for people to learn about Peranakan culture. So Baba House now exists at the somewhat awkward section of tourist attraction and research facility.

I loved a great many things about my visit: the house is filled with antiques, many of which are original to the house, and it’s a beautiful space. The main tour host starts you off with some excellent background information and feeds you a snack of ang ku kueh (a glutinous rice cake with a sort of peanut paste inside). But this is really a self-guided tour, and once they left us to wander the house on our own, I found myself with three main frustrations:

  1. You cannot take photographs inside the house — only outside.
  2. Very little is labeled (and while a few items have QR codes sitting next to them, the descriptions that come up when you use these are fairly academic).
  3. It turns out that the museum does have extremely knowledgeable people stationed around the house who can give you stories about the various pieces of furniture and other artifacts, but there’s no way for visitors to know who these people are (they don’t self-identify or wear name tags). So it took me a long time before I figured out how to start getting answers to my questions.

Since I was not able to take any pictures of the museum, I’ll share some of the features that make the exterior of the building so distinctly Peranakan.

When you first come to the front gate, you see this plasterwork on one of the columns:IMG_6862.jpg

This may just look like a fancy decoration at first, but there’s actually a lot going on. You can see a bat at the top, symbolizing happiness (the Chinese word for “bat” sounds the same as the word for “good fortune”). Toward the bottom, there’s a geometric design knowns as the “coin diaper” pattern, which is inspired by an ancient Chinese coin that has a hole in the center. So right from the moment you enter the front courtyard…

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… you know you have entered a realm in which the main priorities are joy and wealth.

You’ll find more symbolic features on the front porch, including a joss stick holder in a form of a “Buddha’s hand” fruit …

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… and a six-sided lantern for the worship of the Jade Emperor:

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Chinese characters abound. Just above the front doors and window we have a reference to the osmanthus flower, which represents prosperity …

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… the characters for the bauhinia plant, which represents harmony among siblings …

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… and the family plaque (reading roughly “to grow prosperous”), which also served as a sort of street address back before we had street numbers.

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There’s a whole lot more to consider if you look up to the second story:

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Here we see the auspicious pairing of the phoenix and the peony (the king of the birds and the king of the flowers) at the bottom in ceramic appliqué, a technique that involves cutting glazed tiles into small pieces and pressing them into wet plaster to create rooftop sculptures. The windows have louvers to let in air while keeping out sun and rain (Singapore’s two big weather challenges). And above the second story windows are Chinese characters that remind the reader to be prudent and vigilant every day, urging us toward a constant journey of self-improvement.

A note if you want to visit NUS Baba House: you can only come on a self-guided tour, and you have to make an appointment. If you’re a working person, your only option will be one of their four appointment slots on Saturday afternoon. Tour groups are small, so you need to book well in advance.

If you do pay a visit, it’s worth taking a little extra time to wander around the nearby streets. Just a few doors down on Neil Road sits this stunning home, built in the same era as Baba House:

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Just a block behind on Everton Road, similar homes — but with less elaborate architectural detail — line the narrow street.

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Unlike Baba House and the other houses along Neil Road, these buildings do not have the traditional courtyards typical of wealthier Peranakan homes. Instead, their front doors all open out onto a “five-foot way,” a covered sidewalk common in this part of the world.

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My favorite part of this area were the murals painted by YC, a Singaporean artist, which show glimpses into a Singapore long gone by. There’s a barber …

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… an amah doing her washing …

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… a highly-detailed provision shop …

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… an old food cabinet (note the cups at the bottom of each leg; that’s where you’d put water to keep bugs from climbing up) …

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… and a hawker peddling his wares (with Prescott checking the time as he waits for the bus):

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Oh, and there’s a pretty grumpy-looking cat:

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If you find that you’re peckish after all of your museum and street wanderings, stop by Strangers’ Reunion for their rhubarb & pear waffle. Yum!

 

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