Dating from 1910, the beautifully ornamented three-storey building just west of Hill Street was once the Tao Nan School, the first school in Singapore to cater for new arrivals from China’s Fujian province. Today it houses the worthy Peranakan Museum. While the museum boasts that the island’s Peranakans are “fully integrated into Singapore’s globalized society”, in reality they are at best keeping a low profile, and in a country where ethnicity is stated on everyone’s ID, “Peranakan” isn’t recognized as a valid category – meaning they are inevitably lumped together with the wider Chinese community. The museum should whet your appetite not only for the Baba House but also the Peranakan heritage of the Katong area.
Singaporean Peranakans are Baba-Nonyas, and the galleries focus on their possessions (theirs was largely a material culture) and customs, in particular the traditional twelve-day wedding. Early on you reach one of the most memorable displays, showing the classic entrance into a Peranakan home, overhung with lanterns and with a pair of pintu pagar – tall swing doors; you’ll see something similar if you visit the Baba House. Elsewhere, look out for artefacts such as the ornate, tiered “pagoda trays” used in the wedding ceremony, furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and beautiful repoussé silverware, including betel-nut sets and “pillow ends”, coaster-like objects which for some reason were used as end-caps for bolsters. It’s also worth attending to the video interviews with members of the community, who speak eloquently about matters such as being a hidden minority, whether or not to “marry out” and the prognosis for the Baba-Nonya identity.