III: Picking up the Pieces — Peranakan Tiles Gallery

Next to the majestic Thian Hock Keng Temple, one of the oldest Hokkien temples in Singapore, sits a quaint Peranakan Tiles Gallery — definitely more modest in size compared to the former, but just as arresting and vibrant.

This tile gallery boasts a variety of vividly-coloured Peranakan style tiles with intricate patterns, proudly collected by Baba Victor Lim, who owns this fine establishment.

Baba Victor Lim has been collecting tiles since he was a teenager, a cheap thrill (turned lucrative) born from his love for Peranakan culture. With the decline of this culture in Singapore, many traditional Peranakan shophouses have been demolished to make way for new developments but Mr Lim, would always be the first to salvage these tiles, restore them to its original beauty, and display and sell them at his boutique.

“Sometimes my contractor friends will call me and tell me when they are going to knock down buildings with beautiful Peranakan tiles in them,” he said.

Besides sitting at the corner of a café and looking as pretty as a picture, the Peranakan Tiles Gallery cum Museum provides you with a wealth of information; from books about art history to Mr Lim’s story of how the gallery was established in text.

Displayed amongst the racks of polished tiles is also a couple of half-restored ones accompanied by a step-by-step guide on how to restore newly salvaged cemented Peranakan tiles.

Mr Lim himself is a walking encyclopedia about all things Peranakan, and he was more than willing to share about the common symbols found in the Peranakan tiles.

According to him, many of these symbols originated from Chinese culture. For example, the pomegranate and grapes motifs, which both represent fertility, and the peach which means longevity.

The most interesting symbol, however, was the peacock. Unbeknownst to me (a Christian) and my Indian colleague, the peacock is a significant entity in a myriad of religions. In Christianity, the peacock is a symbol of eternal life because of how it sheds its feathers and grows even brighter ones back (which draws a similarity to the resurrection of Jesus Christ) and in Hinduism, the peacock is a symbol of the goddess Lakshmi. Buddhists also use the peacock as a reminder of Guan Yin, a goddess who embodies compassion.

While most of these tiles originated from Japan, some actually find their roots in England and Belgium.

“They were considered art, inspired by 18th and 19th century Art Nouveau and Art Deco,” added Mr Lim.

Since the opening of his gallery, many news sites have featured him and his unique passion for giving old tiles a new life. Even students have come to him for help with their history project work. Hence, there was really nothing much he could tell us about his beautiful collection that couldn’t be found in the news archive or the internet. However, there was one question I’m sure we all want to know the answer to: Out of all these stunning tiles, which was his favourite?

“My favourite tile changes all the time actually. But currently, it is this one,” he said as he stared reverently at an old, chipped yellow tile.

I pointed at the faded piece (just to make sure) and asked, “this one?”

He nodded.

Out of all the polished tiles decorated with birds and fruits and splashed with brilliant colours, Baba Victor Lim liked this worn-out, uneven tile the most?

“It’s actually from a church in England (we later found out it was from St. Margaret’s Church Tylers Green) and it’s over a hundred years old!” he explained.

He beamed proudly at his favourite tile and said: “Think about how much history it holds!”.

Think about how much history it holds.

This gallery was not made to simply display beauty or earn profits. It was made to highlight exactly how much history these tiles hold for Peranakan Culture in Singapore.

The colours and patterns of these tiles speak of the Peranakan’s love for beauty and grandeur, and the broken state they were found in, the quickly fading memories of a dying tribe.

Mr Lim’s patience in collecting and restoring the tiles speaks of his love for his culture and his determination in keeping Peranakan culture alive in Singapore. Just as how Auntie Jocelyn’s insistence of celebrating Peranakan cuisine and clothing speaks of her longing to relive the days of growing up in a Peranakan household. (Read Auntie Jocelyn’s story here!)

Baba Victor Lim and I

As Singapore trudges on forward to face new challenges and pursue greater dreams alongside other developing nations, we must always remember to look back and think about how much history our country holds because our history, be it the carefree Kampong days or the memories of living in a picturesque Peranakan-style house, is what built our Singapore today.

Here’s a quick glance at Baba Victor Lim’s stunning collection of Peranakan Tiles!

Peranakan Tiles Gallery
168 Telok Ayer Street
Singapore 068619

Operating hours: 12pm-5pm daily
Contact: 6684 8600

By Rachel Lim