Many cultures and traditions have shaped the development of Georgetown, but one of the most remarkable is that of the 19th and early 20th-century Peranakan Chinese, whose affluent and opulent lifestyles are celebrated at the Peranakan Mansion.
Built by tin magnate Chung Keng Quee in the late 1800s, the mint-green house at 29 Lebuh Gereja may not look remarkable from the outside, but step through the front doors and you are transported into a lavish world. Wherever you look there is something else to see and for those not accustomed to the florid fashions and fancies of the Peranakan Chinese, there comes a point when you wonder whether you can take in any more. Every surface is gilded, stuccoed, carved or otherwise embellished, and the mansion is a lasting tribute to the luxury and excess that came to define the fascinating hybrid culture of the Peranakan in Georgetown at the turn of the 20th century.
The Peranakan – also known as Baba-Nyonya or Straits Chinese – represented an intriguing mix of traditions, fashions and styles. The first male Chinese settlers (the baba) on this peninsula used to take Malay wives (nyonya) and adopted some of their spouses’ indigenous customs, fusing these with those of their Chinese homeland to create a culture that became unique to the Straits settlements of Penang, Melaka and Singapore. The legacy of this initial amalgamation of traditions is the superbly spicy hybrid nyonya cuisine, as well as the colourful embroidered kebaya dresses of the women, and even a creole Malay-Hokkien language, Baba Malay, which is still heard very occasionally among older Penangites.
As the 19th century progressed and the Peranakan made great riches in the tin and rubber trades, they expanded their cultural diversity by adopting the colonial British lifestyle. The wealthiest of them began to wear clothes in the latest European fashions, spoke English, took part in British pastimes such as tennis, cricket and croquet, and indulged in the finest wines and whiskeys. To complete this outward show of wealth, they also decorated their houses by amalgamating the very best of traditional Chinese with the latest furnishing trends from Europe.
The Peranakan Mansion really showcases this hybrid style. European architectural elements, such as the intricate ironwork pillars and balustrades from Glasgow and decorated ceramic floor tiles from England, are combined with ornate, gilded Chinese screens and doors as well as an open central courtyard, which is typical of wealthy Chinese houses from the period. Meanwhile the furnishings, which include antique Chinese porcelain, tapestries, stucco paintings, collections of gaudy Victoriana glassware, Persian rugs, glass etchings and blackwood furniture inlaid with slabs of fine marble and mother of pearl, are typical of the excesses of the time.
Of particular interest are the upstairs bedrooms, decorated in ‘bridal chamber’ themes from different decades over the first half of the 20th century, and the family hall, where you can see enormous paintings of Chung Keng Kwee’s ancestors, dressed in traditional Chinese finery, as well as an elaborate altar to the family spirits. Look out for the original Victorian sink, decorated in florid floral designs, in a corner of the upstairs landing.
Downstairs and to the far right, there is a re-creation of a traditional nyonya kitchen, as well as a museum devoted entirely to the owner’s priceless collection of nyonya jewellery. Explore further and you will also find one of Penang’s most peaceful temples, dedicated to the Chung family’s ancestral spirits.
The Peranakan Mansion is very close to Little India, so if you are in need of refreshments before or after your visit, this is a great area in which to pick up spicy street snacks or perhaps to sit down for delicious curries served on banana leaves at nearby Sri Ananda on Lebuh Penang.
By Mark Thompson
Last updated on 23rd September, 2014.