Good As Gold
Nothing can replace the sentimental value that a treasured family antique embodies. Such heirlooms occupy pride of place in the homes of those fortunate enough to have them, but the move into high-rise apartments and drive towards urban lifestyles during the 60s and 70s saw many Singaporean families discarding what they then thought of as old, bulky, dust-attracting cupboards. “Regret” is now a common word on the lips of those who did so. Not only do these pieces form a tangible connection with the past, good-quality Straits Chinese cupboards and cabinets are commanding hefty sums under the auctioneer’s gavel. In the heyday of the Peranakans, furniture was often commissioned to showcase a family’s wealth and high social standing. “Mass manufacturing didn’t exist, so while there were standard design templates, each piece would differ according to a family’s requirements or the carpenter’s whim,” says Peter Wee, owner of Katong Antique House and current President of Singapore’s Peranakan Association. “Nowadays, many pieces are reconstituted, they use carved panels that have been salvaged and refitted into a newer wooden frame.” Novice collectors often experience dismay when they discover their “antique” cupboard is not quite the real thing. “The Singapore Timber Council is able to grade the quality of wood used, and collectors get upset to learn that not only is their piece under 40 years old, but the wood is inferior nyatoh instead of seasoned teak.”
Long the preserve of a tight-knit group of collectors and heritage lovers, the unique mix of household furniture and fittings used by the Peranakans has found favour with a younger audience. Find out why local aesthetes are cottoning on to the enduring appeal of these vintage chic pieces
STRAITS CHINESE FURNITURE: TYPES AND SOURCES
Several workshops in China, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia specialise in either upcycling parts of older, broken pieces or manufacture reproductions of vintage furniture. Blackwood or rosewood pieces inlaid with mother-of-pearl can still be bought in Macau, while cheaper versions may be found in Vietnam. Southern China (Fujian and Zhejiang) remains the source for namwood furniture which sports a reddish hue and ornamental carvings in giltwork. Malacca is home to makers of teakwood sideboards and cabinets – many pieces can be seen in the shops along and around Jonker Street. Colonial or Europeaninfluenced pieces may also be acquired brand new in Indonesia, including copies of Thonet’s iconic No.14 bentwood chairs (designed in 1859), which continue to look refreshingly modern in vintage photographs.
“WHILE THERE WERE STANDARD DESIGN TEMPLATES, EACH PIECE WOULD DIFFER ACCORDING TO A FAMILY’S REQUIREMENTS.”
Peranakan furniture is unique on two counts: they were made for the Straits Chinese, and while many were Europeanised in form, they often combined Arabesque patterns with Chinese ornamental motifs. They may also be categorised by purpose – there is ceremonial furniture such as altars, wedding chests and beds; functional furniture, including dining sets, sideboards and cupboards; and reception room furniture, which usually came in pairs or even numbers for formal symmetrical arrangements.
ANTIQUE OR REPRODUCTION?
Founder and owner of Peranakan home museum The Intan, Alvin Yapp, observes, “I find that collectors are quite forgiving of minor defects including scuffs and scratches on antique furniture, though they do pay attention to the beauty and elaborateness of carvings; for a sideboard, a pristine carved crown and finials are essential.” As a rule, “mint” condition antiques command prohibitively high prices, so those who simply appreciate the beauty of Peranakan furniture may consider acquiring good quality reproduction pieces that are equally durable and adapted to suit modern purposes, such as using a food storage cupboard to conceal a home entertainment system. For expert advice and viewings of both reproductions and genuine antiques, both Wee and Yapp recommend seeking out Ng Ah Choon of Guan Antique at Kampong Bahru or visiting Just Anthony at Upper Paya Lebar.
Today’s globalised sensibility means we can confidently mix antiques and modern pieces in almost any decorating scheme. A mash of styles adds visual interest and depth. Larger or highly ornate accent furniture requires adequate “breathing” space or may overwhelm a contemporary interior. Before committing to a purchase, consider colour, proportion and function. An ideal piece should enhance and harmonise with your interior – and prove a great conversation starter to boot.
Once considered too old-fashioned for modern homes, the classic look of Peranakan-styled interiors are gaining favour with young homeowners now; Peter Wee
(Clockwise from top left) Antique Nonya collectibles are now sought after by collectors around the world; Beaded slippers are iconic of the traditional Nonya outfit; Antique Peranakan furniture can fit harmoniously into a modern setting; Vintage pieces can be used to dress a corner elegantly
(Top to bottom) The geometric forms of vintage Peranakan designs make ideal complements to mid-century modern furniture; Alvin Yap; Dress up the home with these colourful tiffin containers