Learn about the best places to see Peranakan culture in Singapore.Read More
Beyond Singapore Shophouse Tiles
Singapore’s decorative tiles are often a favourite feature of shophouses, and loved by both local residents and tourists alike. I’m excited to bring together my passion for design and history in an exciting project to uncover the stories behind Singapore’s decorative past. In uncovering the cultural, historical and international connections of these beautiful surfaces in places of worship, we go beyond the shophouse facade to a unique and unchartered territory.
My introduction to Singapore’s past
My introduction to the existence of tiles beyond shophouse ones was rather abrupt. I hadn’t long moved to Singapore when in late 2012, my uncle rang me up and asked to meet him there to do something-something. He didn’t actually explain in advance that I would be attending the exhumation of my great grandfather and his brother. In the pouring rain, I stood shell-shocked at a Taoist priest chanted prayers while tomb keepers hacked and dug away the earth.
As I soon learned, the removal of their graves was due to the construction of a highway through part of what I know realise was Bukit Brown Cemetery. Since then, I’ve been compelled to get to know this overgrown and untouched part of Singapore. Through the help of volunteers from Heritage Singapore - Bukit Brown Cemetery Facebook page, I managed to discovered four relatives still buried at the cemetery.
decorative ‘peranakan’ tiles
As an artist with architectural training, I’ve been increasingly inspired by the various types of tiles at Bukit Brown. I’m especially drawn to the decorative tiles commonly found on Peranakan Chinese graves and the various styles and types evident. In Singapore and neighbouring cities like Malacca and Penang, such tiles can still be seen on some shophouses once owned primarily by wealthy Peranakan Chinese. The fact that these tiles were used points to a possible wish for the deceased to enjoy beauty in the afterlife, and for their descendants to remember them in style.
Japanese tiles lead the pack
The international flavour of the tiles is quite amazing with nearly 60% apparently from Japan. The rest were manufactured in England, Germany and Belgium. With a number of shophouses demolished in the 70’s in Singapore*, it leads to strong possibility that some tiles at the cemetery may be found nowhere else in Singapore, let alone Asia. It will be interesting to try to find out!
Be part of the project
This project is about bringing people together in a shared love of discovery and learning. I hope you’ll support my efforts to find out more about this amazing corner of Singapore, and be part of upcoming excursions, sharing sessions and updates on new tile tales.
I’d love to have you onboard! Drop me a line anytime
Support the project
Follow me on Instagram to see photos of my discoveries of trade tiles.
Visit Bukit Brown and join regular tours offered by a team of dedicated volunteers
Like the Heritage Singapore Bukit Brown Facebook page to learn more about BBC
A wonderful feeling to have recently completed my second recent solo show Crossing Cultures in Singapore. I enjoyed connecting to new and old friends who have supported my exploration of Peranakan heritage and local culture.
In my Singapore Heritage Tile Art Collection, I interpreted traditional architecture elements into a tale of contemporary design, and showed handcrafted woodblock prints from my recent art residency in Japan.
It was fun to conduct sessions of live printing from my temporary workbench at the cafe as well! Audiences saw the process behind my woodblock prints and heard snippets of my seven-year journey to uncover my family history. I also chatted about my recent art residency near Mt. Fuji as part of the Japanese woodblock MI-LAB AIR program.
It was a fantastic opening of my show with a full shophouse! I was blessed to be surrounded by friends, family and clients. Baba John Teo, General Manager of the Peranakan Museum & Deputy Director, Policy and Planning at Asian Civilisations Museum, kindly opened the show. Award-winning chef & designer Benjamin Seck amazed all with his delicious Peranakan canapés, floral arrangements and hand-made sarong kebaya.
The show was a collection of my artwork inspired by personal links to Singapore, and natural and man-made surroundings. I was pleased to present new additions to my Singapore Heritage Tile range, including Baba Nyonya Love Story. I created this artwork based on the tales of young suitors coming to the front entrance area of a traditional Peranakan shophouse. From behind the dividing timber screen, giggling girls would watch the discussions between their father and the matchmaker.
Since discovering that my great grandfather grew up in a shophouse on Club Street, I’ve been interested in learning more about the history and architecture behind these grand ladies. Lovely to have esteemed author Julian Davidson join the special evening. Looking forward to his new book!
It takes a village to raise a child, let alone an artist! Thankful for support from the founder of Business Women Network Michelle Mcfarlane and other members. This fantastic group of ladies offered me advice and strength. Other supporters included Elaine Friedlander of Professional Art Network Singapore NUWA, and Suzi Dafinis of HerBusiness.
A Visual Arts graduate of the Australian National University, Jennifer's background includes architecture, fashion and Japanese translation. In Singapore, Jennifer can often be found in the undergrowth of Bukit Brown Cemetery, exploring historical spots and practicing her kindergarten-level Chinese with her HDB neighbours!
Jennifer helps people enjoy a lasting connection to Singapore through her distinctive prints and paintings inspired by history and heritage. Her clients include the Singapore Foreign Ministry and Tolman Gallery Tokyo.
Benjamin Seck talks with Jennifer Lim about everyone’s favourite topic - food!Read More
Artist Talks & Demonstrations
Join my upcoming series of Artist Talks as part of my show Crossing Cultures. See tickets & dates here.
Japanese woodblock prints take around ten steps to produce - if you’re streamlined! Over several hundred years, Japanese craftsmen have refined what often initially appears a simple process. You may have seen Ukyiyoe prints before…Read some of the steps behind the extensive preparation of handcrafted prints to understand their unique charm.
Step 1. Source the Materials
Tools, brushes, pigments, handheld printing barrens and of course...washi paper, must all be purchased. Generally speaking, these materials are only available in Japan with few other substitutes.
Step 2. Create the Image
Think of mountains and the sea...and what? I use these terms to explain how each section of an image must be an 'isolated mountain' surrounded by a 'sea' of blank space. If you're printing in more than one colour, you'll also need to plan ahead as usually one block per colour will need to be created.
Step 3. Sharpen the Tools
A meditative, if not laborious job, vital to keeping tools in good shape. A sharp tool is actually a safer tool, and less likely to slip during carving.
Step 4. Transfer the Image
I trace by hand each image onto the lightly-sanded woodblock. Accuracy is vital since layers of printed blocks will need to align later.
Step 5. Carve the Block
After transferring my images onto a separate block for each colour, I get carving! I can usually only carve for a few hours at a time during daylight hours. A piece of leather and abrasion powder is handy for 'honing' my tools as I go along. It's important to gauge the depth needed for carving. Too shallow and the carved areas will show. If I carve too deep, I may weaken my block (as well as wreck my tools!).
Step 6. Cut the Paper
Paper must be measured accurately ahead of time with a sufficient border. On the back, a small 'x' is marked to help later on with placing the paper in the right spot on the table.
Step 7. Dampen the Paper
I dampen the washi paper by spraying it with fresh water and leaving it in a damp stack of newspapers. The whole stack of papers is wrapped in plastic so that the moisture can distribute evenly through the washi paper. This step is usually done a few hours before printing, or even overnight. Watch out for mould though - the printer's enemy!
Step 8. Prepare the Inks & Brushes
Each colour is prepared ahead of time to ensure consistency. Brushes may need to be lightly sanded or even singed with a flame to ensure their softness. The block is then printed to 'see' the carved image and any rectifications are done then.
Step 9. Final Printing
Once happy with the test 'proof' prints, printing of the 'good' prints starts. Chocolate and green tea are essential for keeping the printer happy, and in turn, nicely printed work.
Step 10. Dry the Prints
Prints are slowly dried by placing them between sheets of dry paper and applying pressure. Stacks of interesting art and travel are most suitable for this step!
And step 11…enjoying having a piece of handmade artwork and being happy that you can tell a story of how it was put together!
Even wondered why toads and bats appear in Chinese culture and furniture? Maybe not? Then perhaps you've been a bit busy to notice that your favourite blue and white 'carp' bowl means ‘profitable’ and ‘powerful’! Yes, Chinese culture is full of animals both big and small - and they all mean something. My three favourite books on learning about Chinese symbolism:
Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery
An absolute go-to book for everything related to imagery in Chinese art and culture. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Patricia on a number of occasions and her depth of knowledge is amazing.
Origins of Chinese Auspicious Symbols
Handy A5 size book…yes you could carry this in your bag next time you’re hanging out in Chinatown or at the Peranakan Museum!
Gateway to Peranakan Culture
Because Chinese Peranakan traditionally followed ancient practices for funerals and ancestral workship, you can see many symbols in their material culture. From crabs and fish on beaded slippers, to pheonixes and bats on their furniture…it’s a beautiful mix!
And if you find some other good books, don’t forget to let me know!