Minimalists stay clear
Many cultures and traditions have shaped the development of Penang, but one of the most remarkable is that of the Peranakan, whose affluent and opulent lifestyles are celebrated at the Pinang Peranakan Mansion.
In the early days of the settlement it became widespread practice for Chinese merchants to reinforce business connections by marrying into local Malay families. The men adopted some of their Malay wive’s 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 descendants of this hybrid culture are known as Peranakan (meaning “mixed race” in Malay), Straits Chinese or Baba-Nyonya as men are addressed with the honorific “Baba”, and women “Nyonya”. The legacy of this initial amalgamation of traditions is the superbly spicy 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 Pinang Peranakan Mansion, was built in the late 1800s as “Hai Kee Chan”, the former office and residence of tin magnate and triad leader Kapitan China, Chung Keng Kwee. The mint-green house 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, 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.
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 unique temples, in a display of narcissism honouring Chung himself—look out for his life-size bust at the altar.
Guided tours (English, French, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, Malay, Thai and Arabic) are included with your entry fee and are available to groups of ten or more, and it’s well worth waiting around until the numbers are acquired, as an abundance of secrets are hidden within these walls. For further insights into the lives of Penang’s rich and famous, join a tour of the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion or visit the home of barber turned sugar magnet and philanthropist, House of Yeap Chor Ee, and if you’re heading to Melaka, visit the Baba and Nyonya Heritage Museum.
Address: 29 Lebuh Gereja (Church Street), Georgetown
T: (0426) 42 929;
Coordinates (for GPS): 100º20'28.51" E, 5º25'4.64" N
See position in Apple or Google Maps: Apple Maps | Google Maps
Admission: 21.20 ringgit for adults, 10.60 ringgit for kids
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
Our top 10 other sights and activities in and around Penang