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WELL LIT.: Intricacy of a Peranakan home

February 2nd, 2013 Technology / Science

THE Peranakan Chinese have been given a detailed literary treatment in prolific author Ronald G. Knapp’s latest tome, The Peranakan Chinese Home: Art And Culture In Daily Life.

In a book that is visually stunning, the Peranakan, or, “native-born Chinese of Southeast Asia (who are) descendants of early Chinese migrants and traders who settled and married local women”, are described with the author’s clear, historical and social narrative that allows any reader a wonderful introduction to this community.

In an email interview, Knapp, who has been either author, editor or contributor to more than 20 books, says his interest in Chinese culture began as far back when 50 years as he undertook research for his doctorate dissertation in Taiwan. Subsequently, the 72-year-old lived in Singapore for a year while serving as a visiting professor at Nanyang University and has, since 1977, travelled to mainland China annually.

His interest and knowledge of Asian culture is enormous. He has also travelled widely in Malaysia. Through his travels, the author realised,” that there was little written about houses in China and that I had extraordinary access, I began writing articles about Chinese vernacular architecture. In 1986, I published the first book in English on the subject.”

Though Knapp has achieved the distinction of Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the State University New York, he gave up teaching in 2001 to focus on being a researcher and writer.

“Over the next two decades,” he continues: “I wrote many more academic books on Chinese domestic architecture, each one with increasing detail and sophistication.”

Detail and sophistication are indeed very much Knapp’s strong points in his undertakings and in his book, more so with this latest publication. Over 146 glossy pages of text and beautiful pictures captured by A. Chester Ong, with whom Knapp has a long professional association, the book covers a key element of Peranakan culture — the home.

Eight chapters are dedicated to house forms and facades, symbols and iconography, various chambers and sections such as the reception hall, living areas and the courtyard, and the introduction “Who are the Peranakan Chinese?” is eight pages, a concise yet enlightening appetiser of what lies ahead.

For any reader that is even the slightest bit curious about Peranakan culture or wants to know the history behind the beautiful, colourful and intricate designs of the Peranakan home, this book is a good place to dip into.

In fact, the author talks of a revival of sorts in recent years of a growing — or renewed — interest in Peranakan culture within Asia and beyond, that “speak of the efforts of many people to revive a culture to its proper position after having languished in the shadows over a period of three decades following the Second World War.”

Visually, a favourite section is on The Courtyard, where the pictures easily transport you to a place filled with serenity and light. In an increasingly obtrusive modern world where space is a commodity, this chapter is a welcome relief that speaks of simpler times when life was not lived in a rushed manner. From the skywells to shuttered windows and tiled terracotta floors, this is luxury the elegant old-fashioned way, and it is charming.

The author made long field trips, starting from scratch when researching the subject of old Chinese homes but adds: “We were very fortunate that many individuals in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia stepped forward with suggestions of homes to visit. Some of these residences were on our shortlist, which naturally included well known residences, but we ultimately visited far more homes than anyone had ever known existed or written about. Without the welcoming efforts of so many throughout Southeast Asia, this project could not have moved forward to the level that it has.”

Though the author says that the Peranakan community’s ability to evolve and flourish through time and challenging conditions (such as the geographically un-unified nature of its diaspora) is a remarkable and endearing characteristic,

“It is also important to realise that Peranakan Chinese are but a large and important subset of Peranakans viewed broadly. Not only Chinese immigrants,” he says, “but also Indian, Arab, and Europeans married local woman in Southeast Asia, and established their own Peranakan communities such as the Chitty Melaka, Jawi Peranakan and Eurasians.”

The Peranakan Chinese Home, published by Tuttle, is priced at RM95 and is available in all leading bookstores.

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Western and Chinese elements appear on the facade of this row of shophouses in Emerald Hill, Singapore.

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The restored Wee family residence in Singapore, which is now the Baba House Museum. Entered through an ornate pintu pagar half-door.

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The second skywell in Tan Cheng Lock’s ancestral residence is ringed by plain wooden shutters, with an ornamental panel beneath made up of conjoined wan characters that symbolise longevity.

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Four Peranakan children pose for a studio portrait in the 19th Century Singapore wearing silver amulets, beaded slippers, tunics and caps. (Picture courtesy of TUTTLE).

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Ronald Knapp is passionate about Asian culture