Peranakan Tiles: The Japanese Connection

Peranakan tiles, as they are now often called in Singapore, have symbolised a love of foreign design for over a century. With their bright colour palette and bold motifs, these heritage gems are often assumed to be of European origin due to their gentle and classical designs. So it’s a surprise to find out that many popular designs in Singapore were made Japan! Why is this the case?

A very popular ‘high relief’ Japanese tile with English design origins

A very popular ‘high relief’ Japanese tile with English design origins

Japanese tiles entered the global tile market for a short but very active period between WWI and WWII. Although it might seem natural for Japan to export ceramics due to their long history of beautiful creations, it took some time for the nation to transition from the traditional hand-made way of producing ceramics to modernised methods involving machinery and new types of chemicals.

The same floral tile on the bottom row of this catalog about Japanese tiles.

The same floral tile on the bottom row of this catalog about Japanese tiles.

In fact, Japan turned to foreign consultants such as German-born scientist and educator Gottfried Wagner to help fast-track things. Dubbed the ‘father’ of modern Japanese ceramics, Wagner was invited to Japan in 1868 to work for an American trading company. He quickly moved onto his true calling as an educator and researcher, and successfully trained the first generation of Japanese technicians in tile technology.

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Where to See Peranakan Tiles in Singapore

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 including Belgium, the UK and Japan, these costly trade tiles can still be found in some kitchens and facades of traditional shophouses, and on the tombs of locally based Chinese and others.

Beautiful tiles at a shophouse on Petain Road, Singapore

Beautiful tiles at a shophouse on Petain Road, Singapore

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.

A foot-selfie at Thian Hock Keng Temple

A foot-selfie at Thian Hock Keng Temple

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!

Amazing range of tiles available at the Peranakan Tiles Gallery

Amazing range of tiles available at the Peranakan Tiles Gallery

Cemetery Tiles

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.

Wall tiles at least 100 years old decorate a Teochew style tomb

Wall tiles at least 100 years old decorate a Teochew style tomb

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!

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Japan 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, make sure to use the hashtag #sgheritagetiles to see other tile examples around Singapore!

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