Stepping back in time

Facade of Pinang Peranakan House
WHEN I stepped into the cool shelter of the front hall, it seemed as if I travelled back in time. Out of the blazing sun, my eyes adjusted quickly as I looked around.  From the tiled floors and antique furniture to elaborate fixtures of a bygone era, every detail reeked of history.

The Hai Kee Chan, literally translated as Sea Remembrance Store, was once the home and office of Kapitan Cina Chung Keng Kwee, one of Penang’s historic personalities. Built in the late 19th Century, it enjoyed many great years but the building fell into disrepair and was abandoned in the late 1930s.  But now, what I saw had absolutely nothing remotely shabby about it.

The Kapitan Cina showed the distinctive taste of Penang’s wealthy towkays of that era when he designed the mansion with a unique blend of Chinese and Victorian architectural influences. He spared no expense in importing cast iron from Scotland for the pillars and balcony balustrades and exquisite floor tiles from England for a colourful mosaic in the halls downstairs. Chinese carved wooden panels inset with stained glass filigree motifs divide downstairs rooms while the wooden finishing on the staircase and floors upstairs are polished to a shiny sheen.

Today, the Pinang Peranakan Mansion is more than just a museum because it is furnished with priceless artifacts that depict a typical mansion where the rich entertain and showcase their wealth to guests and business partners.

Opulent Furnishing

Golden archway entrance into a dining hall
Dining rooms and reception halls fringe the central air-well where male and female guests wait in separate reception areas to maintain propriety, before they were ushered into the dining room or upstairs for an audience with the Kapitan. Tables with marble tops, chairs and stools inlaid with mother-of-pearl looked charming but I wondered if the seats would be comfortable for a long wait.

In the elegant dining rooms, glittering crystal chandeliers cast a mesmerising glow on heavy drapes and mirrors on the walls and sideboard. The table was laid for an elaborate Western meal with matching sets of cutlery and crockery for a gracious and extravagant dining experience.

Tray of spices in old-fashioned kitchen
In the back, the kitchen was equipped with charcoal stoves, claypots and coloured enamelware so well kept that they could be whipped into use again at short notice.  Another archway led to an airy chamber which must have served as the library because there were bookcases filled with books, built into the walls in a clever space-saving design!

I could not wait to explore the upper floor. After removing my shoes, I climbed the wide wooden stairs but with each step, they seemed to creak louder in protest! When I reached the landing, I was distracted by a beautiful wall decoration. The ornate sewing on this exquisite tapestry was impressive and Peter Chan, marketing manager of the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, explained that it was actually a bedspread, bolster and pillowcase set!

Natural light spilled into the halls from open corridors that bordered the air well and highlighted a collection of 1920-1930 exhibits in glass display cases.  Among them was a tall glass showcase filled with a 30-year collection of precious German porcelain figurines. Another glass case contained opium smoking apparatus while a huge cabinet displayed crockery in brightly coloured traditional Peranakan designs.

In the Ancestral Hall, a portrait of Kapitan Cina Chung Keng Kwee stared benevolently down at us. He was dressed in Manchu finery as a Second Level Magistrate, a prestigious position awarded by the Ching Dynasty Emperor.

Private Chambers

Ornately designed dressing table
The ancestral hall led to the Kapitan’s private chambers and guest rooms. Walking through two bedrooms, I saw the contrast between one richly decorated as a plush Chinese boudoir and the other lavishly furnished in English dark wood.

The beds caught my fancy. For the Chinese, the traditional bed was an important item of furniture as a lady would entertain friends, work on handicrafts and look after her children there. With its canopy and curtains intimately drawn, it is large enough to be a tiny room within a room!

In a little foyer, strips of “chi-kee” playing cards were strewn on a round table as if left over from an unhappy ending to a game. This popular card game was a favourite pastime then, made more exciting by high gambling stakes. An adjacent room was where opium smokers indulged in their habit.

Chinese chamber pot for "yellow gold"

Mansions of this era were not designed with the comfort of en-suite bathrooms, so chamber pots served as a very handy privy. But the chamber pot is an essential item for a Chinese bride for yet another reason.  The Chinese word for what goes into the pot is translated as “yellow gold” so if a bride brings a chamber pot to the groom’s house, it symbolises a blessing of wealth.  I spotted a chamber pot placed in a discreet corner and wondered just how much “yellow gold” that pretty little painted enamel chamber pot had ever held!

A visit to the Pinang Peranakan Mansion allows visitors a glimpse into the lifestyle of the rich in that era. It’s exciting and educational to see how the wealthy enjoyed their leisure in elaborate entertaining and indulging in lavish dining, gambling, opium smoking and private pursuits in the bedchambers.

Fast Facts

Pinang Peranakan Mansion is located at 29 Church Street, George Town, Penang. It’s open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 5pm and closed on Sundays and public holidays. Entrance fee for adults is RM10. There is no charge for children below age 12. There are two conducted tours daily at 11.30am and 3.30pm. For other group tours and reservations for private events, call 04-264 2929, fax 04-264 1929 or email:

This article was first published in The New Straits Times, Travel Times on 30 December 2007

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