26 Dec 2015: Peranakan Tiles of Singapore

tiles-1In the early part of the 20th century, decorative tiles found favour with the affluent Peranakan community of Singapore, who decorated their houses, furniture and other surfaces with them. This book attempts to showcase some of the most exquisite examples seen across Singapore today. It also aims to create awareness about this fragile legacy that needs to be preserved for future generations.

Decorative tiles were once employed as outward symbols of wealth and prosperity. In the late 1900s and the early part of the 20th century, the affluent Peranakans of Singapore and Malaya embellished the façades of their houses, courtyards and walkways with decorative tiles, in place of traditional carvings or sculptures. These decorative tiles came to be referred as Peranakan tilesa nod to the community that could afford to buy them. Little has changed since then. The acquisition, and restoration of original tiles to their former splendour, command premium prices.

According to Victor Lim—a leading Singapore-based tile aficionado—the earliest recorded history of tiles goes back nearly 6,000 years to the early Egyptians, who used blue-glazed bricks to beautify their homes. Tile-making flourished in the ancient regions of Mesopotamia and Persia, and soon reached Europe. In the early part of the 11th century, tiles made in the European countries surrounding the Mediterranean showed both Islamic and Byzantine influences. The oldest tiles in Singapore were imported from British manufacturers like Minton, Hollins & Co. of Stoke-upon-Trent, Staffordshire as early as the 1890s.

tiles-2Our book-of-the-week, Peranakan Tiles, is a historical and pictorial celebration of tiles found in Singapore—over 180 pages exploring different types from the late 19th to early 20th centuries—showcasing some of the more exquisite designs seen in the heritage precincts of Katong, Chinatown, Emerald Hill and Little India. Similar tiles are also found throughout the former Straits Settlements of Penang and Melaka, and indeed in other urban centres in Malaysia.

A Peranakan himself, Victor began collecting tiles from demolished shophouses in the late 70s when he was a teenager. Since then, he has amassed a collection of over 10,000 pieces in all shapes and sizes. What started out as a hobby is today his passion as well as a source of livelihood and fame—Victor is also the co-owner of a company that specialises in tile restoration of conserved shophouses and Chinese temples.

Victor believes that tile collection as an amateur hobby gives one the opportunity to learn about their evolution, the various manufacturing techniques and decorative processes. It also provides glimpses into the time period in which the tile was made—the social conditions, the history and the decorative trends. Indeed, antique tiles are fragile legacies of Singapore’s heritage and deserve to be urgently protected and conserved for the generations to come. His book is co-produced by Anne Pinto-Rodrigues, a Singapore-based writer and fellow tile enthusiast.