On the Trail of the Phoenix – Nyonya porcelain ware @ the Peranakan Museum
As you guys probably know, I’m thoroughly intrigued and in awe with the heritage and culture of the Peranakans. From furniture, to beadwork and embroidery, to jewelery and silverware, the nyonyas and babas of the not-too-distant past decorated their lives to such levels of luxury and extravagance, it is almost unthinkable, put in today’s context. This royalty-like lavishness is perpetuated in everything that they ate and used. For me, nothing speaks more about a culture than its food. Peranakan cuisine is most certainly a sparkling jewel amongst Southeast Asian culinary delights, a melting pot of many others with the Chinese and Malay cuisines as their primary influences, alongside others like Portuguese, Thai, Indonesian and even Dutch, depending on the region. What’s more interesting is the Peranakans developed and maintained different types of porcelain ware that’s been used for every family dining occasion, from the every day lunch and dinner, to eleborated fanfares like Tok Panjang. Even ceremonial ware for offerings to the deities, ancestors and mourning for a newly deceased have their own unique set of crockery, differentiated largely by motifs and color. Made primarily from Jingdezhen 景德镇 in Jiangxi, China, nyonya porcelain ware are largely influenced by the “famille rose” 粉彩 coloring style during the Kangxi period, accentuated by the bold use of colors. The favorites amongst the Peranakans include fuchsia pink, turquoise green, yellow, cobalt blue and purple. The Peranakan Museum located along Armenian Street houses a lovely collection of peranakan porcelain ware especially the colored ones, is a good place for one to begin to get to know more on what and how the Peranakans eat.
Entrance of the Peranakan Museum along Armenian Street
A typical motif used in nyonya porcelain ware – the Phoenix, a symbol of the matriarchal infrastructure of a Peranakan household. In this case, the phoenix is surrounded by auspicious motifs, flanked by red-crested cranes （丹鼎鹤）in the foreground, to represent longevity, magpies (喜鹊）on the trees for happiness, and a large bat with wide spread wings (蝙蝠) bordering the whole motif，which is allophonic to “福临门” arrival of good fortune. Then there is the indan lotus （莲花）on the left for 出污泥而不染，濯清涟而不妖 “purity”, as well as a peony (牡丹) for 富贵 “good wealth and luck” on the right.
A pair of covered teabowls in salmon pink and yellow with peony motifs.
A pastel blue bowl from the Qing dynasty Guangxu period (光緒 年製) with a floral/wavy-edged rim. On the pale vermillon border are are 八吉祥, the 8 religious emblems or treasures of Buddhismm namely the 蓮花 lotus、盤長無盡結、雙魚、華蓋、幢、輪、寶瓶 and 海螺。
Another bowl in yellow with floral edges. This piece is bigger and thus has 2 phoenixes/peonies pairs instead of just one on the pastel blue one earlier.
What’s more, this is made during the 宣統 era, the last emperor of the Qing dynasty. The line drawings are significantly finer and more intricate. Owing to the short “stint” of Puyi’s reign, 宣統年製 nyonya porcelain ware are remarkably rare, most if not all of which are already in the hands of serious collectors. Colored ones like this yellow bowl are even rarer!
A green ground kwa chee covered tray, for displaying an array of seeds, nuts and candy for the nyonyas and bibiks would nibble on, if they are not chewing on betel nuts as they play cherki. This piece is from the 同治 Tong Zhi period, made during the mid to late 1800s.
Another kwa chee tray in flamboyant fuchsia pink with 鳳凰于飛 ＂phoenix-in-flight” and peony motif made in the 光绪 Guangxu period. The lime green border shows the 八吉祥 motifs again, alternated with lotus blossoms.
Kamchengs are covered jars used for containing and storing food items from cooked desserts or assortment of spices and condiments, depending on size. The name comes from Hokkien where kam 盖 is the lid while cheng 盅 is the jar below, and definitely not the severely romanicised “感情” in the drama serial “Little Nyonya”.
This particular piece in coral red has motifs of 福禄寿 Hock Lock Siew，three deities of Taoist origins representing Good Fortune (Fu), Prosperity (Lu), and Longevity (Shou) respectively. It is also decorated with 寿桃 peaches symbolising longevity with a turquoise green Fu dog as the handle/finial.
Another beautiful piece in 桃红色 violet red with phoenix and peony motifs all over.
Kamchengs come in mini sizes too as with the following three, which sit nicely in one’s palm. Pastel cyan with peony motifs
Peruvian brown with peony motifs
Yellow with pheonix and peony motifs
One of my favorite pieces in light sky blue with the phoenix, as well as pheasants, butterflies, chrysanthemums amidst other floral motifs all over. Instead of the 八吉祥 motifs, the border of the lid is decorated with a stylised Greek fret or Greek key motif.
Another fuchsia pink kamcheng with elaborated phoenix in flight motif
A simple pink kamcheng with butterflies and peony
In contrast, this teal green kamcheng is much more lavishly decorated and comes with a matching porcelain ladle, ideal for scooping 汤圆 glutinous rice dumplings which are contained in the kamcheng.
A dark blue kamcheng with floral motifs
Pink with bright and colorful designs all over! The alternated yellow and green border motif on the rim of the cover is what is known in the trade and to collectors as the “Chong Chai” motif.
A large floral-edged platter on pedestal with a single phoenix-in-flight and 8 peonies around it, 7 large ones on the face and 1 small one along the border amongst the 八吉祥 motifs.
A rather tall porcelain cup in pale lime green and a 一品富贵 single peony motif
Chupu, also known as “kam au” 盖杯 is a tall bowl with a dome-shaped lid and funnel-shaped finial, the large chupu was used to contain bird’s nest and other tonic soups that the Peranakan Chinese partook of. Extremely difficult to collect as a single piece as the lid and the bowl is of a smug-fit, unlike kamchengs and breaking on part would make the other irreplaceable. The chupu is made as a single piece when it was made as the kaolin is “thrown” on a pottery wheel and then carefully slit around to separate what becomes the lid and the bowl. Many collectors would still purchase either with just the lid or the base bowl while the other portion remains missing as they are refined pieces of art in their very own right, in hope to reunite with the other piece in time to come.
A perfect piece in fuscia pink in all respects.
A “chupu” in a rare lime green with violet red peonies bearing such sharp contrast. Interestingly, this particular piece has “ear hooks” found typically on kamchengs where metal rings would be held in place, a seeming hybrid of the two. It serves as a wine-warmer.
Another beautiful piece in royal blue.
One of the very many chupus on display. This piece bears a standing phoenix unlike the ones “in-flight” seen earlier.
A pair of dark base chupus, identical in design but alas not a mirror pair. The brushwork is also somewhat lacking compared to the other pieces and color use a tad too gaudy for my taste.
In contrast, this is one of my favorite pieces on display. with very small and simple floral motifs.
Another piece in turquoise green with a standing phoenix motif, serving as a sugar bowl.
The highlight of the nyonya porcelain ware collection at the Singapore Peranakan Museum has to be the full Tok Panjang collection previously owned by Kapitan Yap Ah Loy, now belonging to and on loan from Mrs Betty Mariette. Unlike the earlier pieces, the motifs are “simpler” with butterflies and lotus blossoms. Alas, the sheer grandeur of the whole collection is a sight to behold and only a very small section of the Tok Panjang is seen in these photos and most certainly do not do the actual set justice. One’s got to see it for themselves to know it.
Closeup on one of the plates, the inverted faded words come from a mirror reflection on the glass of a plaque describing this lavish set.
Silver chopsticks! Talk about eating in style!
An array of smaller yellow floral edged bowls resting on silver repoussé saucers, probably for serving desserts. The lot of six then sits on a large silver tray.
And of course there are many more fine pieces which couldn’t be properly photograph-documented owing to my limitations and lack of in-situ ambient lighting (flash photography is not allowed). With the Peranakan cuisine close to my heart, this is my favorite gallery of the museum and definitely worth revisiting over and over again.
39 Armenian Street, Singapore 179941
Monday: 1pm to 7pm
Tuesday to Sunday: 9am – 7pm (to 9 pm on Fridays)
Do join their guided tours if possible. I had the great pleasure of being shown around the museum by Ms Mutch, a Scottish lady who’d lived in Singapore over the last 4 years and knows more about the Peranakan culture than we locals! Shame on us!
Alas, garnering such a collection is by no means an easy feat and not without hiccups, the most recent saga is a donation made by Mr and Mrs Tan Eng Sian, descendants of the Chinese philantropist Tan Kim Seng. I shall not elaborate this further here but one who’s interested can refer to the following links