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Angeline from Katong Antique House
Photograph: Kashmira Kasmuri

Meet 100 years of Peranakan history at Katong Antique House

Heirlooms and antiques collected over decades keep the unique culture of the Straits-born alive

Cheryl Sekkappan
Written by
Cheryl Sekkappan
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To say that Katong Antique House is home to 100 years of Peranakan history is no exaggeration – it might even be an understatement. Inherited, restored and maintained by the late founder Peter Wee, a fourth-generation Peranakan and the former president of The Peranakan Association Singapore (TPAS), it contains treasures that date back to the 1800s.

Stepping into the house is like stepping into a time capsule. Pictures of old babas and nyonyas line the right wall, with the left and far side covered with an altar, ornate chairs and cabinets full of antiques. There is a second hall and kitchen in the back, and an upstairs floor similarly filled with precious artefacts – the result of more than 40 years of collection by Peter.

Peter passed away in 2018, but thankfully, Katong Antique House has found new guardians in Eric Ang and Angeline Kong, who worked closely with Peter when he was alive. After a decline in Peranakan culture post-World War II, they have seen renewed interest thanks in large part to the famous local series The Little Nyonya. Both share Peter’s goal of keeping Peranakan heritage and culture alive among the younger generations. They maintain the 100-year-old house in peak condition and conduct tours by-appointment. We step into its hallowed halls with Angeline as a guide for an inside look at the rich history within its walls.

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Who are the Peranakans?

"To me, 'Peranakan' is misused, overused and loosely used," says Angeline. So it's worth taking a look at Peranakans' origins. Many scholars agree that the Peranakans are the descendants of Chinese immigrant traders who married local women in the Straits Settlements. Angeline also tells of a historical figure, the Chinese Muslim explorer named Zheng He who persuaded his emperor to arrange a marriage between a mainland Chinese princess Hang Li Po and the Malaccan Sultan. 500 Chinese servants were sent with her to Malacca as part of her entourage, where they settled. These settlers married local ladies, producing offspring of mixed heritage that adapted to Malay culture – resulting in the first generation of Peranakan Chinese. Indian, Dutch and foreigners of other ethnicities also passed through the Straits Settlements for trade and commerce, resulting in other Peranakan groups of non-Chinese ancestry (like the Peranakan Jawi). 

East meets West
Photograph: Kashmira Kasmuri

East meets West

The Peranakans grew in wealth and status through hard work, education and strong ties to Westerners. The fine porcelain ware in the first hall of Katong Antique House embodies the confluence of cultures that make up Peranakan life. Wealthy families could afford the best porcelain from Jingdezhen, China – the porcelain capital of the world. Meanwhile, the community's strong ties to Europeans can be spied in the changing styles of teapots and cups. These antiques are kept in large wooden cabinets, some of which show strong Dutch design influences. Learn more about the evolution of the Peranakan community through the years and across the Straits Settlements at Katong Antique House. 

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A woman's worth
Photograph: Kashmira Kasmuri

A woman's worth

Prior to the war, Peranakan girls were expected to stay at home. Angeline explains that the hallmarks of a fine nonya are accomplished embroidery and beadwork, as well as excellent cooking. A collection of kasut manik (beaded shoes) in the first hall of Katong Antique House is a glittering example of what skilled nyonyas can achieve. Cut beads are sewn onto close and open-toed slippers in colourful and intricate motifs for happy occasions, and more subdued designs meant to be worn in the three years after a death in the family. Angeline, who is keeping the craft alive at Straits Enclave and Gunong Sayang Association (GSA), says, "I hope that the younger ones will start to come in. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Peranakan or not. My goal is to make sure that the beadwork doesn’t die off.”

12 days of weddings
Photograph: Kashmira Kasmuri

12 days of weddings

If you think that modern weddings are a chore, Peranakan weddings were on another level entirely. These 12-day affairs saw bride and groom going all out. In particular, brides would take the opportunity to display their wealth by adorning their dresses with diamonds and jewellery. They were typically in their teenaged years, and were lucky if they got to see a picture of their husband before the big day. Look at wedding pictures from the 1800s and 1900s and hear more stories about marriage customs and nuances in attire at the Katong Antique House. 

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Where the action is
Photograph: Kashmira Kasmuri

Where the action is

Women weren't allowed to step past the second hall of the house whenever there were visitors, but the kitchen was their domain. This was where they cooked up a storm for large family meals and the occassional party. Bold and bright trays hang from the kitchen ceiling at Katong Antique House – these were used to heave out Peranakan dishes like ayam buak keluak, chap chye, sambal belachan and kuehs. Check out the unusually large mortar and pestles, painted tiffin carriers, moulds for kueh kuehs and more in this perfectly preserved Peranakan home kitchen. 

A fading trade
Photograph: Kashmira Kasmuri

A fading trade

In the past, it wasn't uncommon to see these lanterns hanging at the door of Peranakan family homes. These surname lanterns have a 600-year history, and typically come with a family name and trade woven into the design. For the Straits Chinese, these lanterns play the vital role of containing the family guanxi – a natural force or spirit that maintains the prosperity of the house. When families move to another home, they bring the lantern and the accumulated guanxi within. Lantern-making is a dying trade – it involves the hard work of bending bamboo strips into the elegant curves of the lantern, before wrapping in a glue-soaked canvas. 

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Baba Peter Wee
Photograph: Kashmira Kasmuri

Baba Peter Wee

A wall in the second hall is dedicated to Baba Peter Wee (far right) and his family. He's a descendent of the decorated philanthropist Tan Keong Siak (second from right). Peter first opened an antique shop in Orchard Road to house the Peranakan heirlooms and treasures he had amassed, through flea markets, auctions and hand-me-downs from family and neighbours. He only opened Katong Antique House in 1979 after inheriting the building from his maternal grandfather. He felt that Joo Chiat, with its rich Peranakan heritage, was an ideal location for a private museum meant to reintroduce subsequent generations to Peranakan culture and heritage. 

In good hands
Photograph: Katong Antique House

In good hands

Peter Wee’s passing in 2018 was a huge loss for the Peranakan community, but Katong Antique House has passed into steady hands. Eric Ang, Peter’s former assistant, and Angeline Kong, a good friend of Peter’s and a nyonya herself, now maintain the private museum and run tours by appointment. “This place has a lot of meaning to me,” says Angeline, whose grandmother used to bring her to play at Peter’s aunt’s house – a grey shophouse beside Katong Antique House that is now a salon. With the Katong Antique House slated to open fully in April after renovations complete, both Eric and Angeline are eager to welcome visitors back. 

Visit the museum

Katong Antique House
  • Shopping
  • Marine Parade

We've barely scratched the surface of what you can see and learn at Katong Antique House. Take the chance to get up close and personal with invaluable Peranakan heirlooms and antiques, in a beautifully preserved heritage shophouse. Private tours will commence by the end of April and cost a modest $15 per person. Book your appointment at 6345 8544 or katongantiquehouse@gmail.com

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