Time Capsule: The Katong Antique House

More than just a collection of family heirlooms and memories, Peter Wee’s Katong Antique House is a precious window into Singapore’s Peranakan heritage. Clara Lock documents the importance of preserving, remembering and sharing our memories. 


Words and images by Clara Lock


Peranakan antiques collector Peter Wee can still picture the dining table in his childhood home, piled high with Chinese porcelain and Western dolls his family had discarded when they moved out of their rambling Waterloo Street bungalow.


There were beaded slippers, his parents’ wedding invitations, and three of his grandfather’s old diaries, which Peter had retrieved from under piles of clothes in a wardrobe. Peter was only 10 years old then, but something in him stirred when he pictured these items being left behind.


He told himself that one day he would read his grandfather’s stories.


So Peter carted them over to the family’s new home in Frankel Avenue in the east coast, despite the dismissive chorus of “throw away lah” from the adults in the family. The larger pieces of furniture were either sold to second-hand dealers, or left behind in their old home.

“There was no sense of preservation back then”, said Peter, who was a quiet and introspective child, spending more time poring over the detailed carvings of antique furniture than climbing trees in their large garden.


Peter, now 67, kept his resolution, along with the time-weathered pages of his grandfather’s jotter books. He commissioned a friend to transcribe the diaries, all inked in cursive lettering, so that he could read the thoughts of his entrepreneur grandfather, who started the now-defunct Alhambra movie theatre in Beach Road.


Besides uncovering his grandfather’s adventures in game hunting and wheel making, Peter also learnt where he got his insightful and philosophical nature.


“My grandfather’s thoughts are in me,” he said.


But his storekeeper father and homemaker mother did not share his sentimentality, the latter showing no interest in keeping the pair of beaded slippers she used when she got married.


Revisiting his Childhood

Today, that same pair of slippers is a precious heirloom, and resides amid the hundreds of antiques and collectables that line the rafters of Peter’s home gallery. The two-storey shophouse along East Coast Road is a well-known Peranakan institution. Named Katong Antique House, it is a tribute to Peter’s growing up years and a repository of the Peranakan community’s heritage.


When Peter inherited the shophouse from his maternal grandfather in his early 30s, it was bare and unadorned. So Peter filled it up with Peranakan furniture similar to the ones he grew up with, rescuing items from other families that were otherwise bound for the recycling bin.


His dining table, for instance, came from a household in Joo Chiat which would otherwise have thrown it out. It is an act, he says, of coming around full circle: “I wanted things I can recall from my childhood, things that let me relive those memories.”


House of Forgotten Stories


Peter bought furniture from rag-and-bone men, garage sales and auction houses; each piece of furniture costing him between $10 and $50. Every time he took something home, he tried to get the seller to recount its history, but found that people either knew little, or did not care.


“If you don’t ask, they won’t share. What they want is for you to give them the money, and to get rid of the item – that’s all,” said Peter, adding: “If you don’t know the story, there’s no reason for you to keep it.”

So Peter read voraciously to uncover the stories of the furniture he owned, learning their make, time period, country of origin and design influence.


“If you don’t know the story then to you it’s a table, it’s a chair. It’s the history that makes it alive and interesting,” Peter said.

Some 15 years ago, he decided to open up his house to the public, charging $15 for a 45-minute tour. He personally shows visitors around, explaining the cultural influences behind his antiques. A sideboard adorned with Chinese dragons and phoenixes, Western cornices and Malay flowered patterns is a representation of the Peranakan community’s rojak nature, he points out.

Peter has no children, nor any plans for his collection in future. So he shares it while he can, to the 80 or so visitors – mostly students and tourists – each month. As president of the Peranakan Association, he also regularly opens up his home and small library of Peranakan culture to researchers.


“If the next generation is not told the stories, there’s no reason for them to keep the culture or its material items intact,” said Peter, who wants to share the knowledge he has amassed over the years.


Future Culture

Despite growing up among four generations of Peranakans, Peter is realistic about passing his heritage down to future generations: “We cannot preserve what our culture was in the 1920s.”


“When you repeat the same thing year in and out, it becomes a culture,” he says. “But if you don’t, it changes.”

“The way people practise values and customs has evolved,” he said. One example he shared was the elaborate ancestral offerings that took place during Chinese New Year in Peranakan households of the past.


“Families would set up an altar with photos of their deceased relatives, and invite their spirits into the home to share the reunion dinner feast,” he said, recalling what he had witnessed as a child. Only after the two-hour ritual was completed could the family sit down for their own reunion dinner, dining on the same food that had been offered to their ancestors.


“Nowadays all the reunion dinners are just held in restaurants,” said Peter, with regret in his voice.


Preserving the material culture that tells a story of the past is all he can do, although Peter knows that without a next-of-kin, his precious collection may become another man’s trash.


“History is a cycle,” he said. “I’ve been living with my collection for 40 years and sharing it with others – that in itself is an achievement.”


Originally posted on irememberSG here