We discover how the unassuming ceramic tile – including the Peranakan tiles in Singapore – marks its place in history.
One of the oldest forms of decorative art, the ceramic tile can be dated as far back as 4000 BC. Historically found in ancient temples, monuments and places of worship, these vibrant and geometric shapes adorned buildings and floors from Mesopotamia to Egypt and the Roman Empire.
Today, we rarely think twice about mass-produced tiles that embellish our buildings and bathrooms. But, like all forms of art, it’s a medium that delicately tells a tale of our past. This is why the owner of Peranakan Tile Gallery, VICTOR LIM, has dedicated most of his life to preserving a piece of Peranakan culture through his collection of antique tiles and heirlooms.
Also known as the Baba Nyonya, the Peranakans are descendants of Chinese traders who settled in parts of Southeast Asia as early as the 15th century and became a culturally syncretic minority of local and foreign influence. Elements of their colourful culture can be found not only in the food, architecture and vibrant textiles of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, but also in these delicate ornamental ceramic tiles.
Luckily, some Peranakan tiles still adorn the streets and remaining shophouses of Singapore, most of which are now heritage-protected sites. As for those that have been lost in the drive for development, Victor and a handful of passionate individuals strive to keep their story alive.
We paid Victor a visit at his Chinatown gallery, with its impressive collection of over 30,000 antique tiles, to find out more about this precious part of the Singapore story.
Tell us about yourself; when did your passion for antique tiles begin?
I started collecting tiles in the 1970s, at the age of 19, before I began my national service. During that time, more and more houses were being demolished for urban development in Singapore. Of proud Indonesian-Peranakan descent myself, I felt the urge to preserve a piece of our history, so I began salvaging tiles from shophouses that were being knocked down.
My story took a detour in the 1980s when I moved to America to continue my studies. From there, I enjoyed a wonderful career in the hospitality industry, but my passion always brought me back to my roots in Singapore. In 2011, I started my tile manufacturing company, Aster by Kyra, while continuing to salvage Peranakan tiles and other antiques across Singapore, Malaysia and even Thailand.
What’s the history behind the tiles? How did they make their way to Singapore?
Decorative ceramic tiles of this kind – known as encaustic tiles – were once only used in monasteries and places of worship. But they resurfaced during the Gothic Revival movement and gained huge popularity in the Victorian era. The Industrial Revolution fuelled their popularity and mass production meant private homes and commercial properties could now be adorned with these intricate colours and patterns.
Prior to World War I, the tiles that came to Singapore were mostly from England. They tended to be variations of Art Nouveau majolica tiles that were commonly used for suburban houses across the British Isles in the late 19th and early 20th century. They quickly gained popularity among the Chinese and Peranakan communities in Southeast Asia who regarded them as an emblem of wealth and affluence – particularly those with auspicious elements like fish, fruit or birds.
Were all Peranakan tiles manufactured in England?
No; they were produced in other countries, too, including Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. In the 1920s, the machinery used in their manufacture was introduced in Japan to establish domestic manufacturing. The Japanese employed Chinese artists to draw auspicious elements like dragons, pomegranates, lotus flowers and peonies; these became very popular with the Asian market.
How did you learn to identify the history of a tile?
Most of my knowledge is self-taught. I collected and read a lot of books on the trade and manufacturing history of tiles and have learnt to recognise certain eras and manufacturers. There are a few telling characteristics, like the markings on the back and the quality of the material.
How do you spot a fake?
Original Peranakan tiles are expertly carved, coloured and glazed for durability. The production of these tiles ended around 1935 and many of the materials used in the process of creating and preserving the colour – like cobalt, copper or manganese – were discontinued or are no longer in use due to their toxic qualities. To the trained eye, it’s easy to spot a fake; though ceramic is still used as the base, motifs are now machine-printed and the materials used today don’t produce the same enduring result.
What’s the most valuable tile in your collection?
Our tiles range from 85 to 265 years old, with some being more rare than others. My favourites change all the time, especially when new ones come into the gallery. Our most valuable tiles, however, are those made by William De Morgan (19th century) and John Sadler (18th century).
We hear you’re working on getting UNESCO recognition for these Peranakan tiles. How is that going?
Yes! We compiled and submitted the reports to the Forum University and Heritage of UNESCO, both in Paris and in Spain. No word from them yet but we’re hoping for good news in the near future.
Can these Peranakan tiles be purchased?
Yes, many of our antique tiles are for sale. Like me, we have several visitors who love the thought of owning a piece of history; locals buy them as a nostalgic keepsake, while many foreigners buy them as a memento of their time in Singapore.
The Peranakan Tiles Gallery is located at 36 Temple Street. For more information, visit asterbykyra.sg or call 6684 8600.
This article first appeared in the October 2021 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase the latest issue or subscribe, so you never miss a copy!
Read on for our round-up of some great furniture in Singapore!