Arts & Culture

Relooking at the Peranakan Museum

From 2008 to 2019

Words by
b-side staff

Since April, both the Singapore Philatelic Museum and the Peranakan Museum have been shut for redevelopment. They will reopen at the end of 2020.

The Peranakan Museum has been one of the architectural highlights of Armenian Street since 1912, when it housed the Tao Nan School. Its classical facade makes it an Instagram must for many, especially since buildings in Singapore are increasingly slick and minimalistic to cater to more modern tastes.

With pastel paint and intricate carvings on its many pillars, the Peranakan Museum is a testament to Peranakan culture: refined beauty embodying gentleness and grace.

Discover the importance of the Peranakan Museum to Singapore and the region, as we wait for its reopening.

The current premises started as Tao Nan School, a school building of Chinese influence. What were some considerations when acquiring the space for a museum of Peranakan nature?

The original building of Tao Nan School was initially first refurbished as the Asian Civilisations Museum, which opened in 1997. In 2005, plans were made for the building to be redeveloped to house the world’s first Peranakan museum. The Peranakan Museum officially opened in 2008.

Do you think Armenian Street is an ideal location for the museum? Why?

Since the Peranakan Museum was established on Armenian Street 10 years ago, we have actively presented exhibitions and programmes highlighting both the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of local Peranakans.

Having celebrated the community’s rich culture for so many years in Singapore together with stakeholders along the street, and with the steadfast support of the Peranakan community, Armenian Street has become synonymous with Peranakan culture.

Being located within the Bras Basah Bugis precinct — Singapore’s arts and heritage district — has also elevated the museum’s presence among residents and foreigners. Some key events of the BBB precinct include the Singapore Night Festival, which takes place annually over two weekends in August.

The pedestrianisation of a portion of Armenian Street, from the road in front of the museum until the road junction, will be completed by May. This transformation will create an urban park where there will be new opportunities to share Peranakan hospitality, food and culture.

Does the current architecture reflect the Peranakan culture of aesthetic and beauty?

The former Tao Nan School, which houses the Peranakan Museum, was designed in the Eclectic Classical style. The fluted columns and the symmetry of the building are characteristic of Classical architecture, while the balconies fronting the façade suggest a colonial or tropical style. The layout of the building is also based on Straits Settlements bungalows with rooms arranged around a common central hall, with toilets and kitchens outside the principal building.

The building also exhibits various tropical adaptations, including the spacious verandas and large windows that allowed the building to be naturally ventilated before it became air-conditioned.

It was gazetted a national monument in 1998, and its façade has been conserved since.

What is one significance you hope the Peranakan Museum stands for in Singapore, and the whole of Asia?

The Peranakan community forms one of South East Asia’s most colourful living cultures, with vibrant stories and legacies that have been passed down through generations of babas and nyonyas.

We hope to provide a stimulating and educational experience for all, while representing the living culture of the Peranakan community in the region.

Some architectural changes have been made. Share with us what those changes were and the reasons behind the decisions.

Chu Lik Ren of the Public Works Department was the principal architect responsible for converting the Tao Nan School building, which was completed two years after renovation works started in 1994.

When Chu embarked on the project, the Tao Nan building had been vacated for 10 years and painted using only one colour. To revive the dilapidated building, Chu wanted the façade of the building to look more vibrant, feminine and welcoming. Hence, in the conversion, he chose four colours for the building’s façade: white, light, dark beige and green.

Chu also had to comply with the conservation guidelines set by the-then Preservation of Monuments Board, which stipulated that the building’s original façade and interiors had to be kept as intact as possible because the building was under review for consideration as a national monument.

New elements such as sprinkler pipes, fire alarms and electrical cables for light, among others, as well as strengthening works that needed to be introduced into the existing building to support its function as a museum, were hidden within the thickness of the floor zone and within the internal members of the structure itself.

The canteen and toilets located behind the main building were demolished, and a three-storey block was built to house all the heavy machinery, air-conditioning equipment, toilets and storage facilities required for the museum.

Finally, new marble flooring was laid on the first storey, appropriately designed light fixtures were added to the museum, plasterwork was restored, and new doors and windows were also set in to complete the embellishment of the main building.

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