Saturday, October 13, 2012

Penang Peranakan Mansion - the Splendour of Days Gone By

I visited Penang two weeks ago and for the first time, visited the Pinang Peranakan Mansion.  Now, I have visited old Peranakan house museums before, but these were the traditional  courtyard houses.  Never before have I visited a true Peranakan mansion.  And I must say, it was indeed magnificent!

The Entrance Courtyard
The Penang Peranakan Mansion is the former home, it is said, of Chung Keng Kwee, a wealthy merchant or "Kapitan". Whilst not a Baba himself, he decorated his home in the lavish style of the wealthy Babas and Nonyas of the time.  Whilst the house fell at one point into disuse, it has now been restored and turned into a beautiful museum.  I don't intend to go into detail on the history of the mansion - for that, this website has quite a comprehensive write-up.  rather, I will just give some highlights of my own visit there.

We entered the mansion into a large, bright courtyard.  To the left, the main reception room; to the right, the dining room.  The grand staircase to the upper floors was right in front.  In the corners, there were a number of reception rooms, some probably for family use and others for formal receptions.  Many had family portraits staring down from the walls.  Beautiful statues, elaborate ornaments decorated the rooms - many European in origin, all the better to display the wealth of the homeowner.

The Long Table
I loved the dining area, with the long tok panjang running the length of the room.  Mirrors on the left and right walls of the dining room would allow someone sitting at the head of the table a view of the front door, and also staircase - a powerful position indeed. My aunt whispered to me that in the old days, the old Baba or Nonya would sit there to keep an eye on the family - to see if they could catch anyone doing anything funny!  On festive occasions, the table would be laden with dish after dish of yummy nonya goodies. Family members, starting with the oldest and most senior, would take turns to eat.  Whenever the food ran low, someone from the kitchen would come and top it up.  Such meals would be called "tok panjang", after the long table where the family comes together to eat.

[There is a kitchen at the back of the house,  but it was apparently closed  during the time of our visit for some function.  A pity - I like looking at old cooking implements!]

Kasut Manek tops
Around the house, there are a number of rooms housing collections of Peranakan items - beaded shoes and bags, kebayas, porcelain, jewellery and glass epergnes (there is one in the middle of the table above - it consists of a long vase, with smaller vases suspended from it, and baskets at the bottom to contain fruit.  As an aspiring kasut manek maker, I was of course very happy to see the many beaded shoes in the museum.  Despite their age, these shoes retain their vivid colours and intricate patterns.

The upper floor of the mansion is reserved for the family- their bedrooms, sewing room, etc.  Here, the decorations were simpler, and included (besides the collections) items which reflect the family's daily life.

Peranakan Wedding Bed
Of course, one of the exhibits which I paid extra attention to was the beautifully carved wedding bed, with its embroidered, brightly coloured hangings.  After all, was not family pride at stake?  Of course, it helped tremendously that I could look at this bed up close, without some perspex barrier keeping me away.  Having said that, my memory of my great-grandmother's bed was not that clear.  We had to flip through a book in the little souvenir shop downstairs to pick up the key difference -that my great-grandmother's bed had more open sides whilst this bed was more enclosed.

The glory days of the Peranakans are long over, living only in the memories of the older generations of Babas and Nonyas.  But in this glorious old mansion, with its store of antiques, we can catch a glimpse of those days gone by.

Additional photos here.

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