It was during an Internet search on Penang cultural sites that I discovered the amazing Pinang Peranakan Mansion, the typical home of a rich Straits Born of a century ago, recreated to offer a glimpse of their opulent lifestyle and of their many customs and traditions.
Straits Born (also known as the Peranakan) were the privileged elite on the Malay Archipelago for half a millennium, and descended from marriages between foreign traders and local women on the Malay Archipelago – Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand -, forming a unique race with a distinctive cultural identity of their own.
The Peranakan comprises the better-known Baba (men) and Nyonya (women) community in Malaysia and South East Asia, communities that mainly flourished in Melaka and Penang (Malaysia), Phuket (Thailand) and Singapore.
Each of these communities, despite their relatively small size, have added to the diversity of the region, encompassing their own infusing unique blend of elaborate customs, traditions and speech, cuisine, attire, jewellery, and architecture – all showcasing various cross-cultural elements at their best. An extravagant complexity branded Peranakan Heritage that remains very much hidden within the communities.
One of the best ways to take a deeper look into the vestiges of this culture is a visit to the Pinang Peranakan Mansion. Owned by a non Baba who collects Peranakan items, this Penang’s heritage mansion shows eclectic design and architecture. Built at the end of the 19th century by one of local history’s famous personalities, this house had once served as the residence and office of Kapitan Chung Keng Kwee.
Peranakan Mansion is a Chinese courtyard house was much like a typical large Baba home of eclectic style, incorporating Chinese carved-wood panels and English floor tiles and Scottish ironworks. Having survived the many decades of neglect and decay, the mansion has now been restored to its former glory of a stately home and displays over 1,000 pieces of antiques and collectibles of the era on display.
I was lucky to be assigned for my visit to Lillian Tong, the Museum Curator. Lillian has already published two books on Peranakan heritage and is working on one on Chinese jewellery from that era. She, as most Nyonya and Baba do, traces back her roots to five generations and has discovered to be of Thai origins: her ancestors in fact worshipped Thai divinities and used to go into trance the way Chinese Thais do during Chinese new year.
She is a superb guide I must say, she puts so much passion on what she does and went the extra mile to tell me stories other visitors do not usually hear. She gleamed and shone while, in academic English – her father was British educated -, she explained about good and bad luck believes, about Peranakan weddings that would last 12 days and nights, described grooms and brides embroidered dresses, told about ghosts and zombies, explained curtains and embroideries particularities.
It was such a pleasure hearing about Nyonya and Baba who traveled to look for a prince who needed to be killed before he would inherit a throne, while using staircases with balusters of cast iron from Glasgow featuring hollowed out designs of fleur-de-lis, and entering amazing ambiences like the front hall, richly decorated with European-styled teak furniture, Victorian ceramic figures and glass epergnes, and the main hall, typically separated from the rest of the house by an ornately carved wooden screen in Straits and Chinese homes.
We walked on tiles from China, on rooms built over columns from Scotland. Peranakan people mixed all sort of traditions, dresses and ways of living, using objects and decorations from Europe and from anywhere available, mingling them with their own. Their dinner services include table covers from Ireland, and porcelain, glass and silverware, all imported from Europe.
Peranakan Mansion contains Queen’s Burmese vases, Chinese dynasties and Victorian era paraphernalia, and even some Arab influences, as the Peranakan people used items without feeling threatened by the Muslim influence. In fact, Straits Born mixed religions as well, mingling their taoism with Buddhism and Christianity.
Peranakan Mansion previous name was Hai Kee Chan (Sea Remembrance Hall in Penang Hokkien) and its previous owner was Kaptitan Chung Keng Kwee, the richest man in Penang in the late 19th Century. Kaptitan Chung was a powerful man who controlled all the dodgy businesses at the time: prostitution, gambling, tin mining, you name it. The house is believed to have been the first casino created by women, who would play cards and domino – there is a clear example of a domino table at the museum. They would of course get caught from time to time and sentenced to different levels of punishments by the local police.
Lillian went as far as taking me through a corridor to reach Kaptitan Chung private temple, where his statue is exposed. This temple apparently was used as an entertainment area by Kapitan Chung, as shown by the ‘carved theater’ on the temple walls, and contained no deities but only ghosts, vampires and cheeky zombies who used to jump over the temple door’s threshold in small leaps, sneaking in and stealing the good luck from Kapitan. I loved these stories.
After decades of neglect, Peranakan Mansion was purchased in 2000 and extensively restored to its former glory by its new owner, who turned it into a museum that opened in 2004.
Peranakan Mansion gave me amazing feeling of how it would be to live in that era. For more detailed information about the Straits Born community, follow historian and anthropologist Julian Davison journeys to uncover their history.
Thanks again Peranakan Mansion to allow me to discover a heritage I was not so knowledgeable about, and a special thanks to Lillian Tong for the amazing insight into the Nyonya and Baba culture.
The Pinang Peranakan Mansion is open daily between 09.30 am and 17.00 pm. Complimentary guided tours are only available with prior arrangements. Discounts are available for large groups, such as school groups. It is advisable to contact the museum for guided tour arrangements prior to entering the mansion. firstname.lastname@example.org
Telephone : +60 4-2642929
Admission fees: Adults : RM20 – Children : Free