A Tour of Penang's Peranakan Mansion

Front entrance, Peranakan Museum in Penang
Front entrance, Peranakan Museum in Penang.

 Mike Aquino

The Peranakan Mansion on Church Street, Georgetown, Penang in Malaysia is a monument to the ambition of a single man, the Kapitan Cina Chung Keng Kwee.

Born in China, the young Chung emigrated to Penang and eventually climbed up the ranks of the Hai San secret society that controlled mining manpower in the royal state of Perak. At the pinnacle of his power, having been appointed the superintendent of all Chinese in Penang (Kapitan Cina), Chung purchased property along Church Street and built a large two-storey townhouse and family temple. 

He called his residence the "Hai Kee Chan", or Sea Remembrance Store, and designed it in the Straits Eclectic style preferred by Peranakan of his time (though he was not a Peranakan himself; for more on this unique culture, read about the Peranakan of Malaysia and Singapore).

Completed in 1895, the Hai Kee Chan combined architectural elements from both East and West: an open courtyard reminiscent of Chinese townhouses was supported by fancy ironwork imported from Glasgow; traditionally-furnished anterooms inhabited by Chung's concubines and children looked out to Church Street from full-length French windows.

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The Peranakan Museum's Decline and Rebirth

Jewelry and chinaware display at the Peranakan Museum
Mike Aquino

Sadly, the decline of the family's fortunes after World War II left the Hai Kee Chan in a precarious state for most of the 20th century. Things began to look up when Penang architect and native Peranakan Peter Soon purchased the property. A passionate collector of authentic Peranakan antiques, Soon set to work restoring the house to its original condition.

Today, the Hai Kee Chan is better known to the public as the Peranakan Mansion; Peter Soon's personal collection of over 1,000 Peranakan artifacts populate the Mansion's interior to paint a picture of how the upper class lived in the Kapitan's day.

Proceed to the next page for a look at the courtyard, the first stop at any tour of the Peranakan Mansion.

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The Peranakan Mansion's Main Hallway

The Courtyard of the Peranakan Mansion, Penang, Malaysia.
Mike Aquino

The Peranakan Mansion is located on 29 Lebuh Gereja (Church Street) on the eastern side of Georgetown, Penang's historic core. (Official site, location on Google Maps). The mansion is open to visitors from  9:30am to 5pm; guests can take advantage of daily tours conducted at 11:30am and 3:30pm.

The courtyard that welcomes visitors upon entry looks like any central atrium typical of a wealthy businessman's residence, though the materials betray origins from all over: Chinese carvings share space with floor tiles from Staffordshire in England and iron columns imported from Glasgow, Scotland.

From the central atrium and the hallway surrounding it, visitors can walk into any of several rooms on the periphery, or climb up the stairs to the second floor. Proceed to the next page to enter the ladies' anteroom on the ground floor.

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The Ladies Quarters, Peranakan Mansion

Inside the Ladies Quarters at the Peranakan Mansion, Penang, Malaysia
Mike Aquino

Even in the households of forward-thinking Chinese men like Kapitan Chung, women were best seen and not heard.

Fortunately for Chung's household, women were allotted luxurious but secluded living quarters on the ground floor of the house. Chung's four wives and many daughters probably spent their days playing the Peranakan card game cheki or gossiping in this room facing Church Street.

Antiques from the late 19th century complete the tableau: mirrors, furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl, a deck of cheki cards, a spittoon for betel nut chewers, and traditional Peranakan food baskets.

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Masterwork on the Doors of the Peranakan Mansion

Closeup of Wooden Door Screen, Peranakan Mansion, Penang, Malaysia

Mike Aquino

The doors preceding the ladies' quarters have wooden screens that deserve a closer look: the shrubbery, birds, and intricate filigree work were all carved from single pieces of wood, extending in sharp relief on the inner side of the door.

Kapitan Chung imported seven master carvers from Guangzhou for this task; the marks of their names and their home workshops can be seen on the finished product.

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Main Dining Hall, Peranakan Mansion

Grand dining room; one of the mirrors can be seen on the right
Mike Aquino

On the other side of the home stands the grand dining room, where the Kapitan ate with his distinguished guests.

Two large mirrors hang on opposite sides of the room. These mirrors were useful in a time before CCTV cameras; from his position at the head of the table, Chung could look at the mirror on the right to see who was coming into the front door, or look at the mirror on his left to see who was climbing up or down the stairs.

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"English" and "Chinese" Rooms in the Peranakan Mansion

The "Chinese" anteroom at the Peranakan Museum
Mike Aquino

As Kapitan Cina, Chung did business with every community in Penang and Perak - and someone with Chung's means did everything they could to make their guests feel at home.

The two rooms flanking the dining hall in the previous page are decorated in radically different styles, appropriate for the cultures that Chung was accustomed to dealing with. The "English" room carries European-style furniture and decorations, including Victorian cabinets and fine bone chinaware. British colonial administrators like William Pickering and Sir Andrew Clarke would be brought to this room for after-dinner discussions.

The opposite room is decorated in a more traditional Chinese style (above), with furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl and blue Chinese vases. 

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The Peranakan Mansion's Second-Storey Private Quarters

Ancestors' portraits at the Peranakan Museum
Mike Aquino

The rooms on the upper floors served as the personal living quarters for Chung and his household. Up here, you'll find a series of portraits depicting Chung, his wife, and his own parents in traditional Chinese outfits customary of mandarins of the second rank.

This rank was given to Chung (and retroactively provided to his immediate ancestors) by the Manchu Emperors, in recognition of his contributions to Imperial causes in China and Vietnam.

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The Peranakan Mansion's Bridal Suite

View of the Bridal Suite, Peranakan Mansion, Penang, Malaysia.
Mike Aquino

On the upper floor, visitors can see two different bedrooms - one furnished in a more traditional Peranakan fashion, and a "bridal suite" furnished according to early 20th century standards.

Traditional Peranakan ladies were expected to master three skills before being considered for marriage: embroidery, cooking, and making the traditional beaded slippers known as kasot manek (Wikipedia). Examples of Peranakan embroidery and kasot manek beadwork can be found in the traditional bedroom.

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Bridal Gown on Display Upstairs

Bridal gown, Peranakan Museum, Penang
Mike Aquino

The bridal suite contains a bed laid out with a more modern wedding gown. As the 19th century made way for the 20th, Peranakan wedding mores changed - the elaborate wedding wear typical of traditional ceremonies transitioned to white wedding gowns and tuxedoes typical of English weddings. (The Peranakans happily adopted English fashions.)

None of the rooms in the Mansion have bathrooms attached; the masters and mistresses of the house did their business in chamberpots, which were then brought to the latrines by servants in the morning.

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The Peranakan Mansion's Jewelry Museum

Jewelry display, Peranakan Museum
Mike Aquino

A building adjoining the Mansion has been extensively renovated to house Peter Soon's priceless collection of Peranakan jewelry.

The prosperous Peranakan have long held good jewelry in high esteem; the Jewellery Museum curates a massive collection of bracelets, earrings, tiaras, and the traditional brooches called kerosang that held together Peranakan kebaya (blouse tops).

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The Chung Ancestral Temple Next to the Peranakan Mansion

Central Atrium of the Chung Ancestral Temple, Penang, Malaysia
Mike Aquino

A narrow passageway leads out from the Mansion to the next-door Chung Ancestral Temple, which still belongs to the Chung family. The temple was completed in 1899, and built to more traditional specifications by craftsmen brought over from China.

Four generations of Chung ancestors (beginning from Kapitan Chung himself) are honored in this temple; pictures of the Kapitan's descendants line the main altar. Unlike the Mansion, the ancestral temple follows the traditional Chinese playbook to the letter: gold-leaf-encrusted wooden panels, stucco sculptures depicting the Kapitan's favorite Chinese folk tales, and "door gods" guarding the streetside entrance.

Bat motifs grace the furniture in the ancestral temple; bats are auspicious in Chinese culture. Real-life bats can be seen roosting in the rafters.