Penang for me, was a delightful destination – not just for its variety of things to do but for its seamless blend of three unique cultures – Chinese, Indian and British. In my last post on the Street Art in Penang, I shared how I found this was manifested in their street art but what really charmed me was how beautifully it was intertwined in the daily lives of the locals. While the Indian and the British style was quite familiar to me owing to its presence in India, it was the Chinese way of life that had me curious.I got the first taste of this when I visited the Chinese temples in Penang. However, it was the visit to a Chinese Mansion – Pinang Peranakan, that got me to fully appreciate the Chinese Way of Life.
Pinang Peranakan Mansion is a 19th century Chinese home of an affluent family in Penang. This is now converted to a museum that showcases the culture and traditions followed by the Chinese in this region.The Pinang Peranakan did not just tell me the story of the family that lived here but also, shared their beliefs, the customs they followed and the science of Feng Shui. The Mansion was a complete treasure trove for a heritage buff like me and an afternoon spent here was not enough to grasp it all. I cannot even attempt to put it all down here and so, I shall only share 10 of the key attractions that you must see when you visit Pinang Peranakan.
History of the Pinang Peranakan
The history of the Pinang Peranakan Mansion goes back to the Peranakans – who by another term are known as the Strait Chinese. This refers to the Chinese settlements around the Malacca Straits – Penang being an important base here. This Mansion was built by Captain China – Chung Keng Quee, so named by the British. He built this around the 1890s and called it Hai Kee Chan (Sea of remembrance). It is rumored that besides being a house, it was also, a base for the first Chinese Secret Society in Penang. Eventually, it became a regular family home and was passed on through generations.
The head of the family was termed as Baba and the lady of the house was called Nonya. And it is owing to this that the Mansion is also, known by the name – Baba Nonya Mansion. It was in disarray for some time till the cause was taken up, interiors restored and belongings preserved into a museum. Today the Pinang Peranakan is an important part of the UNESCO heritage city of George Town as it showcases not just the lives of the past but also, the traditions of the present. A visit here is quite an engaging one and in some ways overwhelming for there are just tons to see. And that is why my list of 10 things that you must look out for when you visit the Penang Peranakan Mansion.
1) Main Courtyard of Pinang Peranakan
As soon as I entered the Baba Nonya Mansion, the courtyard was the first to greet me. The rectangular open space with benches around seemed perfect to rest your aching limbs while you took in the rich sights of the gilded staircases, ornate balcony fences and stunning carved doors around you. It is here that we met our guide who promptly told that there was more to this courtyard than what appeared.
Built with the principles of Feng Shui, the courtyard was actually open to the sky in the original design. This allowed a lot of positive energy in the form of natural light to come into the house. When it rained, the courtyard was designed such that it allowed the water to collected and taken to a rain harvesting reservoir of sorts. Even today, you can see those small channels around this courtyard. Adding to the harmony of the place were the natural plants here that added the harmony of one of the key elements of Feng Shui – wood.
2) The main entrance
Apparently, what I had just entered through was the side entrance. The main entrance of Pinang Peranakan was actually closed for visitors now but that does not mean that it was any less significant. Interestingly, I first caught it from the inside and then, later saw it from the outside. Gorgeous Wooden doors that allowed you to peep into the home, these stood out against the pale green of the Baba Nonya Mansion.
Adding to the grandeur of the main entrance or for that matter, any of the entrances to this Mansion was the whole Victorian Feel of the windows and railings around them. To me, this was a perfect example of how two cultures can come together to create a unique one for the whole Victorian decor was covered with gold paint pretty much like how the Chinese typically like their interiors.
3) The Dining Hall at Pinang Peranakan
While on one side of the main courtyard were smaller rooms that seemed to be used for seating guests and as games/ card rooms, on the other side was this huge dining hall with teak wood panels and sideboards. A signboard said that the hall was called Tok Panjang. The fascinating thing about this hall was the way the mirrors and entrances are placed around the table. So if Baba was sitting at the head of the table, he would be able to see the main entrance right opposite him, the side entrance through the right mirror and the staircase leading to the rest of the mansion from the left mirror! Now that is Feng Shui!
And while you admiring this, don’t miss the ornate Chinese partitions that separate the various sections of this mansion. Here beside shielding the women from the direct contact from the men, these partitions are said to break the evil spirits. Furthermore, they also, believe that good vibes are when you don’t have hard partitions in the house and no straight lines. Which is why even the dining table was oval 🙂
4) Water Fountains within Pinang Peranakan
Separating the main courtyard from a side one are lovely Chinese doors. I am not sure if I should say that these doors led to a small shrine-like corner in the main mansion or whether they opened to a side courtyard with a gorgeous water fountain. Feng Shui suggests flowing water to be a good omen and which explains why this lovely piece of art. I know that if I were Nonya, I would have a lovely lounge chair installed around here and would curl up with a book to the soothing sound of the fountain. Sigh!
5) The Chinese Attires
If you are a fashionista, fashion blogger, fashion designer or any of those related fields, then you might just find some inspiration among the attires showcased in Pinang Peranakan. From regular wear to bridal wear to special occasion clothes and shoes, there is just so much to see. However, here are some pieces that I found quite interesting.
These tiny shoes are not doll’s shoes or kid’s shoes. They are infact, for Nonya and her daughters who followed the ancient Chinese custom of Foot Binding. Now, this was something that I had only heard of through various books and documentaries where rich, affluent women broke their bones and bound their feed to make them look small and pretty. It was a kind of status symbol and as these women did not really have to do housework, they could well afford the unsteady gait that came along with it. To add to the beauty of the so-called Lotus Feet, came in these tiny shoes in various patterns, colors, and even beads! Hmmm!
Another interesting attire were these marriage blouses called Kebaya. Quite like in India, red was the color of the wedding outfits, even for the men. Embroidered on them were lovely designs, mostly of figures that showcased power. Like the one at the right in the glass showcase for Nonya, with a huge Phoenix and the one on the left for Baba has a lion!.
There was plenty that I learned about the traditions of the Peranakan Chinese through these attires like how they wear varying shades of black for 3 years after a death in the family. And the more time you spend here, the more stories you seem to uncover. So, make sure you take it slow and easy here.
6) Jewels of the Affluent Chinese
It was not just the Gold that impressed me. Sure enough, there were anklets, necklaces, earrings, rings and more but the thing that totally had my attention was the headpieces. Like this bridal one that went with the Kebaya that I have described above. And if you zoom in a bit more, you will see a picture of Nonya wearing it.
Another unique one was this blue one that had the feathers of a kingfisher in it. While you cannot make that out in the Tiara, it was evident in this butterfly hair clip.
While here, don’t miss seeing the traditional brooches called Keronsang, used to pin up Nonya’s Kebaya.
7) The Private Quarters of Pinang Peranakan
The 1st floor was all about the private chambers of Baba and Nonya. It is here that you must go and glimpse at the Ceremonial marriage bed of the couple. No doubt the work on it is exotic, but it is what you find beneath it that makes it completely unique. There is a small basket kept under the newlyweds’ bed and within it is contained a cock and a hen. As per the customs, after the first night, when the basket was lifted, it was observed which one of the two ran out first. Based on that, it was believed that the firstborn of the couple would be the gender of the bird that ran out. 😉
8) The Furniture at Pinang Peranakan
The ornate furniture with those delicate filigrees had me quite mesmerized. From these wooden chairs to the round tables, cupboards, and beds, everything was so beautifully done. The most important thing to notice in all these was that the principles of Feng Shui of having rounded edges were well followed. Each room had a masterpiece that was quite different from the other.
And further enhancing these masterpieces were objects of art, like this Ivory ship or the myriad Chinese vases of different shapes and sizes across the mansion. Like I said, time would not seem enough if you were to spend time examining each one of these!
9) Blending in the Colonial influence
The British influence was not just evident in the exquisite balcony rails of the Pinang Peranakan Mansion. It was even within the mansion as I discovered. First of these would be the floors of the mansion that were made from Scottish tiles.
And then there were the lovely and unique glass domes called the Gelai Tulup. These were made for the Bridal chambers and enclosed within these were figurines from Thailand and Germany. The domes themselves were made in England. I am sure that you all would be able to spot many more instances of the British influence but it is how well it blends into the whole Chinese way of Life that I found particularly interesting. Don’t you think so?
10) The Kitchen & the Temple of Pinang Peranakan
There is a side alley within the Pinang Peranakan Mansion that takes you to the family temple. Sadly time was up and we missed that one. However, what I did manage to get a quick glimpse of was Nonya’s kitchen which has now been converted to a shopping area for memorabilia. There are tons of crockery and utensils that you can observe here but it was the entrance to the kitchen that caught my eye. Yet another example of how a Chinese painting was enhanced by the European statues at both ends.
I don’t exactly know how much time I spend in this mansion – maybe 2, or 3 hours – but it sure was not enough. These are just 10 highlights of the many things I saw and I assure you that there is an equivalent that I might have missed. I personally, loved discovering the customs that went along with the mansion and its inhabitants. They sure gave a good insight to the Chinese Way of Life in Penang and this is exactly why, you should add Pinang Peranakan Mansion as one of the must-do things in Penang.
- There are plenty of direct flights from across the world that fly you into Penang. Malindo Air is one such airlines that you must check for cost-effective and comfortable flights.
- Click here for the exact location of the Pinang Peranakan Mansion in Georgetown. You can hire a cab or get a bus to get you here. It is quite central to George Town.
- The official website of Pinang Peranakan can be found through here. The place is open on all days between 9:30 to 17:00 hours.
- The ticket price per adult is RM 20 while for children above 12 years it is RM 10. A guide takes you around the place and explains various parts of the Mansion.
- Though it says photography is not allowed, I did see plenty of people with their cameras and video recorders.
- 2-3 hours at the minimum is required to see this mansion.
- There are rest-room facilities available within the Mansion.