Beautiful then and now
Both functional and decorative, vintage tiles are a beautiful reminder of Singapore’s past. Imported from around the turn of the century, these beautiful objects were popular for both their functionality and design. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, Chinese-Peranakans in Singapore appeared particularly fond of these elaborate surface coverings, which are hence often referred to as ‘Peranakan’ tiles. Shipped in from countries such as Belgium, the UK and France, these costly trade tiles can be found in the kitchens, shophouse facades, and even on the tombs of many wealthy Chinese-Peranakans.
Tiles at Temples
Imported tiles also included robust patterned floor types suitable for the local tropical climate. Their use extended to public places including temples, schools and public institutions. A comfortable design marriage between Chinese culture and English floor tiles can be seen at Thian Hock Keng Temple, one of Singapore's oldest Hokkien sites of worship. Take a careful look around and you’ll see both floor and wall tile examples.
Peranakan Tiles Gallery
Nearby, you’ll also find the Peranakan Tiles Gallery. Boutique owner Victor Lim offers a wide range of both replica and vintage tiles, along with a variety of Peranakan gifts. Rest you legs as you try at local coffee and some sweets at the nearby Chong Wen Ge cafe. You can even enter the nearby pagoda to take a look and chill out in the shade. The new MRT station Telok Ayer is right nearby, after you’ve sampled some Korean and Japanese food nearby!
Over the past several years, I’ve discovered similar tiles on tombs of my Peranakan relatives at Bukit Brown Cemetery, also known as Singapore’s best ‘outdoor’ museum. The cemetery is a wonderful place to learn about Singapore’s history, but is quite overgrown after having been closed for over thirty years. Unless you are used to bush-bashing in the tropics, I strongly recommend that you join a tour operated by volunteer guides, otherwise known as the ‘Brownies’. Private tours are also occasionally offered by Jane’s Singapore Tours.
Tiles in the City & Beyond
If you’re looking for somewhere around the city to take in tiles, try Emerald Hill near Orchard Road, or Keong Saik Road near Chinatown. Other main spots include Petain Road, Everton Road, the Wanderlust Hotel on Dickson Road, the Joo Chiat area and East Coast Road. I’d love to hear what other areas you might find!
Export Tiles in Japan (!)
And if you happen to be visiting Japan, note that vintage tiles can be found there too! In fact, Japan was one of the major manufacturers of export tiles to Southeast Asia from the early 20th century until World War 2. I’m keen to learn more about the production of tiles in Japan and explore the link between one of my favourite countries and my ancestors in Singapore! In 2017, I visited the INAX Tile Museum, which is dedicated to the general history of tiles and situated in Tokoname City near Nagoya. Tokoname has a long tradition of ceramics dating back to the 8th century.
Tea and Tiles
I hope you enjoy admiring vintage tiles in Singapore, with lots of fun exploring along the way. Singapore has lots of coffee shops for you to recharge and ‘post’ along the way. On Instagram, a favourite hashtag is #peranakantiles. Thank you for sharing the tile love!
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