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Q&A with Anne Pinto-Rodrigues: The Surprising Meaning Behind The Colourful Peranakan Tiles You See Around Singapore

Appreciating Singapore’s heritage

With new buildings mushrooming all over the city, many hold Singapore’s remaining heritage buildings even closer to their hearts.

Anne Pinto-Rodrigues, blogger at No Roads Barred and author/collaborator of the book Peranakan Tiles Singapore, shares her knowledge of these decorative tiles that add colour to Singapore’s architecture.


1. How did you first spark an interest in decorative tiles, and why Peranakan tiles in particular?

I can’t remember a time when I haven’t been fascinated by tiles!  A part of my family comes from Goa (in India), which was ruled by the Portuguese for over 450 years, until 1961. The Portuguese have these large blue & white tile compositions known as ‘azulejos’ which you can still see in Goa today. I think that’s where my innate interest in this subject comes from.

My interest was rekindled when I moved to Singapore with my husband in 2011 and I saw the well preserved tiles in Katong, Chinatown and Little India. I was advised that locally these tiles are known as ‘Peranakan Tiles’ as they were popularized by the affluent Peranakan community during colonial times. 


2. What’s the most surprising fact or most interesting anecdote you found out about the tiles in SG while writing the book?

Late 2014, I wrote an article about Peranakan tiles for PASSAGE, the bi-monthly magazine of the Friends of the Museums Singapore. There has been a lot of learning on this subject since then. I’ve particularly enjoyed viewing the old, archival B&W images of tile ads from the late 1800s /early 1900s, which we have used in the book.

One of the most interesting facts about the tiles in Singapore is that nearly a third are from England. As the largest tile producer in the late 19th century, England exported a huge number to its colonies across the world, including Singapore, Malaya and India. Another third of the tiles in Singapore are from Belgium and roughly, another third from Japan. 

Another interesting fact that came up was that back in the day, Peranakans and Chinese even decorated their tombs with tiles as you can see in the Bukit Brown Cemetery in central Singapore.


3. Is there any significance behind the patterns and colours commonly seen on Peranakan tiles?

As mentioned earlier, nearly a third of the tiles you see in Singapore came from Japan in the early part of the 20th century. The Japanese manufacturers made these tiles specially for their Chinese and Peranakans customers in South East Asia. So they bore motifs of fruits, flowers and birds that were considered auspicious, as per Chinese symbolism. The fruit motifs that you see on tiles include pomegranates, peaches, pineapples, grapes as well as a citron known as Buddha’s hand in Asia. Flower motifs include peonies, narcissus, plum and peach blossoms and birds would be the peacock and magpie, among others.

Jalan Besar

Blair Road


4. Are there any places where people can buy these tiles?

The best place to buy either antique or replica tiles would be at Aster by Kyra. It is managed by Victor Lim who is Singapore’s leading tile collector as well as the collaborator on this book.

image: Aster By Kyra’s Facebook Page


5. Do you have any tips on how to incorporate Peranakan tiles into home decor?

You are only limited by your own creativity. I have seen a sewing machine repurposed as a table, where tiles were used to cover and decorate the cavity where the actual machinery stood.

Tiles can easily be incorporated into the surface of any furniture and you will see a few examples in the book. Of course, today you even have merchandise like coasters and fridge magnets made of replica tiles.



6. What else do you like about Peranakan culture and why?

Not surprising that as a woman, I appreciate the fashion elements of Peranakan culture – the elaborately embroidered attire that Peranakan women wore and continue to wear, known as ‘sarong kebaya’ where kebaya is the long-sleeved blouse and sarong (as I’m sure you already know!), is the full-length skirt. They also wore/wear beautifully designed, very intricate gold jewelry along with delicate, hand-made beaded slippers. All very festive! 


7. Where can readers buy your book? What’s the cost? 

The book retails at about $65/- inclusive of taxes and is available at the Peranakan Museum, Chillax Market (Bukit Timah), Katong Antique House & Kim Choo in the East as well as book stores like Kinokuniya.

You can also order it online for delivery within Singapore.

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