It's a delight to be featured in the recent issue of BWN Asia magazine, produced by Business Women’s Network founder Michelle McFarlane. I’ve been a member for several years and always enjoyed the group's strong sense of community and support. Michelle was also a part of my inaugural Tile Tidy Up, and even came back a second time with her husband! If you’re a women into business and based in Singapore, check out this terrific organisation.
Vintage Tile Tidy Up
I recently reached out to my circle to see if anyone was available at two days notice to help me clean up graves! I couldn’t believe the response to my unusual request with over 9 people pledging to give up their precious Saturday morning in almost 80% humidity. Dozens of other people emailed me to say that they loved the idea and could they join next time?!
Why, Why, Why?
Cleaning up a number of tile tombs is a necessary part of preparations for a book I am currently writing, tentatively called Singapore Heritage Tiles: A Decorative Legacy of Love. I’m keen to showcase a selection of vintage tiles from spaces connected to me personally in order to better understand their designs, varieties and origins. To me, decorative tiles are also symbol of love and life. Get exclusive updates and videos on this project
A now or never project
Since I launched this project in April 2019, I’ve visited Bukit Brown Cemetery over 10 times as part of my research activities. With four members of my family still buried there, my project is urgent with some speculating that the cemetery may be completely removed to make way for development in the near future. With the help of history enthusiasts and cemetery caretakers, I’ve narrowed down my focus to some 200 types of vintage tiles I believe to be rare and special.
a crazy-rich-in-culture project
It’s a bit of a crazy project since there are a reported 100,000 graves at Bukit Brown Cemetery, which is only one of four cemeteries in the area. However, I feel that tiled graves make up only 10 percent of all tombs, and date back mainly to the 1920’s and 1930’s. Some shophouses in Chinese Peranakan enclaves carry similar tiles, and can still be found in pockets around Singapore, Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia. However, such tiles are in danger of being overlooked and undervalued without dedicated research into their styles, motifs - and international origins! Get exclusive updates and videos on this project
Connecting everyone to a beautiful past
This passion project isn’t something that I’ve taken up lightly - so I do truly thank those who are supporting me in this journey. It’s a privilege to share my findings with those who are keen to enjoy a timeless beauty that is an important part of Singapore’s architectural history. I hope that my research sparks a way for others to connect to this glorious past, and means for the next generation to understand and appreciate their heritage.
Thanks for supporting my passion project! I'm really excited to be helping uncover a special chapter of Singapore’s decorative past in an exploration of beauty, heritage and life. Over the last seven years, I've been privileged to connect to culture in this fascinating country. I'll be sharing my findings through a full-colour book to be released later in the year.
Let me tell you a little more about myself, and how this idea for a book came about. My move to Singapore in 2012 was prompted by the birth of my first child, and a growing personal desire to learn more about my father's heritage. Shortly after settling in, my uncle called me and asked me to help him deal with some 'family matters'. I had no idea that I was to attend the exhumation of my great grandfather and his brother.
Amid what looked like a tropical jungle, I was shocked to witness the bones of my ancestors dug up. This unforgettable event triggered the start of a more serious effort to trace my father's heritage. I came to learn more about this overgrown location, otherwise known as Bukit Brown Cemetery. Volunteers, otherwise known as the ‘Brownies’, led me to the further family graves, including my Peranakan great grandparents and my Hokkien great-great-grandfather.
My research then took on a more urban flavour, with trips to clan houses, family properties in downtown and distant suburbs, and various temples. Along my travels, I began to notice the presence of beautiful decorative ceramic tiles. It was if they were following me, or trying to tell me something.
At my Hokkien great grandfather's clan house, I was amazed to see a massive number of floor and wall tiles covering the entire two floors. I remembered the tiles I'd seen on the outside of my great grandfather's shophouse on Club Street, and started to feel that the tiles were a symbol of my connection to Singapore, and a bridge to my father's culture.
I look forward to sharing the timeless beauty and hidden stories of these stunning artefacts for current and future generations.
Get regular updates on my book project with exclusive live events and insights into Singapore’s decorative past
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.
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!
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!
If you enjoyed this blog post, I’d love to hear from you at the comments section below.
Nozawa Onsen...why would a town be named as if it were a hot spring? I’d vaguely heard about the place many years ago, but frankly hadn’t paid much attention. When my husband started looking for a place to ski in Japan that wasn’t yet booked out, Nozawa seemed like a winner due to its small size and proximity to Tokyo. We spent one week there with our young family in early December, 2018.
If you’re looking for bars and a sake-infused nightlife, Nozawa Onsen might not suit. It’s a quiet little village on the side of a steep mountain that appears at time reluctantly waking up to outside interest. In fact, I’ve never seen so many Aussies in one place! Not that the locals are unfriendly, in fact most are delighted if you can muster up the courage to say ‘konnichiwa’ (hello).
One charming aspect about this town is the large number of public baths dotted around. Located about ten minutes apart, they run on a community caretaker system and are free of charge. Having spent some 25 years in and out of Japan, I consider myself an ‘onsen’ fan and was keen to try them out. Cold Japanese winters have never been my favourite thing, but I do love the traditional custom of visiting the bathhouse to warm up (and sometimes socialise!). If you’re a bit shy, you could try the Nozawa Onsen Spa Arena, which allows people to bathe in their swimsuits at the outside onsen. You can come along hands-free and just hire a set of togs. If you’re not too large, that is. I was kind of pushing the aunty size category at an Australian size 14. There’s a cafeteria there too, so you could easily spend a few hours just relaxing in the heated environment.
The warm and the scolding
After a couple of days, I decided to venture beyond the onsen in my B&B and try some of these bathhouses. After getting into my birthday suit, I was a bit surprised to be hit by the blast of cold air inside the bath house. Unlike public baths that I’ve been to in the city, there was no heating to be found. Also, the only water coming out of the taps to ‘pre-wash’ our bodies was the temperature of melted ice.
An experience to warm to
With my daughter was looking increasingly unhappy with this cultural experience, I did my best to wash both of us by mixing the scalding bath water with the tap water to make it more acceptable. Putting cold water in the communal bath is not the done thing though, so I ended up trying to place warm wet towels on her as the water was too hot for her initially. By the end of our trip though, she was amazingly able to get in most baths with me. I think she was motivated mummy-daughter time, and by the fact that it was the only family activity that she and I could do alone.
Place to Eat
Perhaps because it was so early in the season, there weren’t many places to eat at night-time. We found enough to get small restaurants to get by, although it meant we needed to plod down the mountain each evening. We made it a habit to eat early and carry small treats to entice our kids to walk back up the hill. The ski-in, ski-out location of our accommodation, Lodge Nakajima, was terrific for weary ski bunnies with the ski shuttle just up the road and a few yummy nearby cafes. I’d love to visit again, perhaps during a different season. I’m already eyeing off the Dosojin Fire Festival, held in…hey, January! Never mind, I still have a few more onsen out of the 13 in the area to check out!
Some hints on making your stay at Nozawa Onsen ever better!
• Catch Shinkansen to Iiyama station and then Nozawa Liner bus from bus stop #4 outside Iiyama train station (buy tickets at vending machine) to Nozowa central bus stop. Buy tickets for return trip inside the Nozawa bus terminal office at the vending machine.
• Kuroneko Black Cat logistics - affordable way to send bags ahead to accommodation from airport or vice versa
• Cash is king - many stores and restaurants still only take cash
• Kids play area at bottom of Hikage gondola offers a free sled hire service
• A free snow mobile service runs between Nakasaka gondola and Hikage gondola.
• Ski lessons can be booked at information centre at Hikage as well as other gondola offices and ski shops
• Childcare located upstairs at information centre at Hikage gondola
• SPArena Super sento - family can bath together bring bathers or rent, also normal onsen cafe for breakfast or dinner
• St Anton Cafe - gelato & apple cinnamon buns steamed on street outside
• Loop shuttle bus leaves from Nozawa central bus stop to Nakasaka gondola at top of village.
• Winterland restaurant a great place for a casual meal of Chinese gyoza and beers with a small children's play area.
• Other places we ate:
• Tanuki Bar - modern fusion
• Gyoza restaurant (name?) Near Yamakotei Gyoza
• The Corner Steak House
• Winterland- near Central Bus Stop
• Spare a Onsen restaurant
• Hatoguruma- spacious and good local food
• Cafe Step - western breaky/lunch good coffee next to ski shop opposite Nagasaka Gondola
• The Craft Room - good coffee and western lunch near Nagasaka Gondola
• Uenotaira Lodge - cafeteria top of Hikage gondola
• Hatoguruma - good local food, spacious and non-smoking
• Local food restaurant behind Hikage Information Centre - only restaurant open at Hikage base as at 20th Dec. More to open after Xmas
• Withdraw cash at post office but check hours, max ¥50,000 per withdrawal with a ¥200 fee
• Snow monkey day trip is popular but wear proper footwear as some nearby construction is making the area muddy.
• Take your own bath towel and small white body washing towel and soap/shampoo from your hotel to the public bath as there is usually none available to borrow
• If staying in village can use the Yu-Road moving walk travelator to reach Hikage Station gondola. If it is in operation at the time of your stay!
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