One of the many mysteries of Singapore’s tiled heritage are landscape tiles. I’ve come across several at Bukit Brown Cemetery, and some of the nearby cemeteries in the area. However, I’ve yet to see such tiles on any shophouses in Singapore. It seems that these beautiful scenes were latecomers to the world of heritage tiles.
Bukit Brown Cemetery was almost exclusively for Chinese burials, and tiled tombs there make up probably no more than ten percent of all graves. Many of the tombs incorporate traditional Chinese carvings and features. However, if you look closely at the landscape tiles, you’ll start to make out images of Mt. Fuji, European mountains, Shinto shrines and even Dutch windmills!
I’ve found landscape tiles dating back as early as 1936, well before World War II. I suspect that these tiles were handpainted in Japan, and shipped to countries with migrant Chinese populations including Taiwan, China and Malaysia. It’s also possible that the tiles were painted by local craftsmen in these countries using plain tiles imported from Japan.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, there seems to have been a resurgence in these landscape tiles. This time, the designs are much bolder and more realistic. Even so, I still doubt that they were printed by machine, but I could be wrong.
In traditional Chinese culture, tombs are often considered the ‘house’ or place of rest for the deceased. It’s fascinating to think about the reasons why the deceased, or the descendants, would have chosen scenes from another culture. Was it because these tile panels were a practical and affordable way to depict scenes of ‘water’ on the tomb?
If we consider the importance of running water as per feng shui principals, it starts to seem clear that landscape tiles might have been an attractive solution. I have seen moats and similar water features on very large tombs from earlier times.
Although quite different from what many consider to be ‘Peranakan’tiles, this genre shows the fluid ability for Straits Chinese to ‘mix and match’. It shows the deep cross-cultural DNA of early Singaporeans, and reminds us of how much there is to learn about the past.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on these landscape tiles. Leave your comments in the box below. I look forward to sharing any further information I come across.