The Straits Chinese
The existence of a Chinese-Malay sub-culture, now nearly extinct, is little known in the West.
Philip Courtenay, Friday, 1st October 2010
Although artistic creativity was limited among Straits Chinese themselves, their increasing wealth funded a demand for distinctive items of furniture, porcelain, silverware and jewellery. At the height of their affluence, during the late 19th century, there may have been as many as 15,000–20,000 Baba-Nonya living in the Straits Settlements – sufficient to provide a substantial market for items, either imported from China or produced by local artisans (who had often been trained by immigrant southern Chinese master crafts-men), which met their preferences. Insofar as there are themes that characterise the art and architecture of the Straits Chinese, they are: elaborate ornamentation, intricate detail and an extensive use of colour. Readily observable examples of the eclecticism of Baba-Nonya material culture are to be found in their architectural design, most notably in their distinctive terraced housing. This so-called ‘Straits eclectic’ style, which eventually became a characteristic of all three of the Straits Settlements, originated in Malacca as early as the 15th century, when first- and second-generation Chinese immigrants based their terraced house designs on the linked townhouses of their forebears in China.5 These were essentially shop-houses, combining residential and business functions; however, purely residential buildings in the same style were erected from the latter half of the 17th century onward. The Straits Chinese typically built their terraced houses two or three storeys high. Panelled main entrance doors and French windows on upper floors were adaptedfrom Western building styles, as were other architectural motifs such as Roman Doric and Corinthian columns or pilasters, porticoes and intricate, occasionally Renaissance (or even Baroque) surrounds.
Upper floors characteristically projected out on supporting pillars to create small covered forecourts. Louvred timber shutters, brought by the British from India, and Malay features such as timber fretwork for balustrades, eaves and fascia boards were absorbed into the exterior aesthetic (Fig. 3). Meanwhile, decorative ceramic tiles, imported from Europe and Japan, were used lavishly on columns, pilasters and footpaths, under windows and on gateposts. The symbolic colours of pink and green frequently appeared in their patterns – pink for happiness and good fortune, green for springtime and peace (Fig. 2). Ventilation for these compact row houses was provided by internal air wells designed to admit light and natural breezes while channelling and collecting rain, which commonly flowed from tiled roofs through ceramic fish-shaped gutters.6 Extravagant embellishment of terraced house façades was in vogue during the first two decades of the 20th century, especially in Singapore and Penang. In what Khoo Joo Ee describes as a ‘riot of mixed designs’,7 ornamental plasterwork on upper storeys covered themes ranging from Chinese symbolic motifs and mythical animals to English roses and Grecian urns. In addition, wealthier Baba-Nonya families often built bungalows or summer houses outside the cities, along the coast or, in the case of Penang, in the hills.
There the preferred building style was Sino-Palladian, blending Neo-Classical elements and Chinese ornamentation. Prosperous Straits Chinese homes were furnished with distinctive items in wood, porcelain, silver and embroidery, examples of which can today be found in Malaysia’s museums, antique shops and private collections (although vast quantities were shipped overseas during the 1960s). Among these items, eclecticism of design is particularly maintained in Baba-Nonya furniture, domestic porcelain, silverware and jewellery. In an authoritative study, the Malaysian academic Ho Wing Meng draws attention to three distinctive types of furniture which may be regarded as truly Straits Chinese in design.8 These include items made in the provinces of southern China by local cabinet-makers either in blackwood or rosewood (Fig. 6) ornamented with mother-of-pearl inlays or in carved namwood (Machilus nanmu – a rare tree indigenous to China) patterned with bright red or reddish-brown lacquer. The third type – generally considered the most representative, and certainly the most eclectic, consists of teakwood items largely modelled on 16th- to 19th-century English/European designs and produced by Chinese cabinet-makers between roughly 1840 and 1940 (Fig. 7).
Such ‘Chinafied’ items of furniture differ from their European archetypes in various ways, in particular in their use of Chinese, as opposed to European, ornamental motifs. These include dragons, qilin (mythical hoofed Chinese chimerical creatures), gargoyle-like masks, magpies, phoenixes, antelopes, carp, bats, peonies and plum blossoms on chairs, consoles, cupboards, sideboards, mirrors and dressers. From about the mid-19th century, the Straits Chinese provided a growing market for large quantities of porcelain tableware. For everyday purposes, cheap blue-and-white sets were imported and sold door-to-door by traders from Shanghai. But for more auspicious occasions – weddings, anniversaries, birthdays – bright and ornate pieces of porcelain, nowadays commonly referred to as Nonya ware, were specially commissioned (Fig. 1). Most sources9 state that Nonya ware was produced in the Imperial kilns of Jingdezhen;10 however Khoo, in light of the fact that Nonya ware is of a lower-grade porcelain than that which typically emerged from Jingdezhen (where shards of it have yet to be found), believes instead that it was made elsewhere in southern China.11 Interestingly, Nonya ware is very rarely found among other Southeast Asian Chinese communities, where it apparently has little appeal. The dating of individual pieces is problematic, since no documentation of either its manufacture or import is known to exist. Broadly speaking, however, the earliest examples of Nonya ware were almost certainly imported during the Dongzhe period (1862–75), while the majority were probably acquired between about 1890 and 1930, whereupon demand began to taper off.
The most striking feature of Nonya ware is its colourful nature. Overglaze decorations almost invariably employ bright, warm colours; often the entire repertoire of coloured enamels is used on a single piece, although certain colours and colour combinations are more common than others. The most popular colour combination, particularly where panel and border decorations are employed, is, once again, green and pink (Figs. 1, 8 & 9). The green used is characteristic of the famille verte palette, while the pink, which often tends towards mauve, recalls the later famille rose. For those pieces not employing panel decorations, greens – ranging from yellow-green to blue-green – are the most common ground colours employed. Other ground colours include pink or mauve, mustard green, brown and, more rarely, yellow or powder-blue.Despite the wide-ranging repertoire of Chinese decorative motifs available to porcelain decorators, those found on Nonya ware are almost exclusively confined to flowers, birds and insects, among which the phoenix and the peony are the most distinctive and frequently occurring. The phoenix, emblem of the Empress and symbolic of the warmth of the sun, the summer harvest and fertility, is invariably shown either perched on a rockery – symbolic of stability and permanence, and often surrounded by peonies – or in flight among peony sprays. Peonies, emblematic of spring and symbolic of wealth, love and affection, feminine beauty, honour and happiness, are, when not being used in combination with a phoenix or butterflies, often employed as central decorations on their own. Also commonly featured are pairs of crested pheasants, symbolic of beauty and marital pairing; chrysanthemums and cranes, symbolic of longevity; and lotus flowers, symbolic of purity, marital happiness and faithfulness. These design motifs are in keeping for the sorts of occasions for which Nonya ware was originally commissioned.
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