Beautiful Fragile Time Capsules

For the past few weeks, I have… unknowingly immersed myself in the world of the Straits Chinese (more commonly known as Peranakan or Baba-Nyonya). It started with food (as all Malaysians do), followed by its initial start and its spread across the region. Now, I’m heading into one of the most prominent forms of Peranakan culture – porcelain. And for that, I met an enthusiast.

“This kind of porcelain is very valuable for the next generation to discover…”

It says a lot when he’d rather talk about Peranakan ware, and his genuine passion on the topic, rather than his long list of achievements.

That said, here’s a primer: the “he” in question is CN Liew, a Malaysian based in Hong Kong, and is a visual artist, leaning towards Chinese calligraphy. He is known for creating “surrealligraphy”, a mix between Western painting and calligraphy, and was the first Malaysian invited to the 2011 Hong Kong International Art Fair, and his pieces can be found in selected public and private collections, including the National Palace and National Visual Arts Gallery.

CN Liew, with one of his 2015 pieces.

My gallery is in Hollywood Road… I learnt about antiques and porcelain there, and my Swedish friend shared with me his knowledge and experience about Southeast Asian porcelain.

And to top it off, he’s a collector of Peranakan ware.

“I collect Peranakan porcelain because they can be traced back to China (through the factory stamps and range marks), and it stands out from the rest. It’s special because it is fragile, and it’s a blast from the past – back to the time of the Maritime Silk Road. It speaks of the strong relationship between early Malaysia and China.”

With him was a well-worn book, Straits Chinese Porcelain: A Collector’s Guide by Dr Ho Wing Meng in 1996 – and he carried it and flipped through it like it was a sacred tome, its mysteries and knowledge unfurling itself in every turn of the page. The book is currently out of print, with Amazon listings asking for a substantial amount of greenbacks (for the last few pristine copies).

Green – a common colour in the Peranakan household.

The conversation with him was akin to a crash course on Peranakan porcelain. We first went through the common colours used in Peranakan ware. Each colour stands for a different purpose: cobalt blue is usually associated with funerals; sky blue or turquoise (a rare colour) is meant for normal use; green is another common colour – perhaps the one most think of when you mention “Peranakan ware”; brown is another rare one, exclusive to porcelain produced during the early days of the Republic; and yellow is the Kapitan colour – for those who occupy the higher echelons of Peranakan society.

Phoenixes and peonies are common elements found in Peranakan ware – the former symbolises power and authority, while the latter represents wealth.

“There is a lot that strongly suggests that the inspiration for Peranakan ware came from the Empress Dowager Cixi – when she commissioned the imperial kiln to make porcelain for her son, the Tongzhi Emperor, and later, the Guangxu Emperor.”

Peranakan ware also carries traces of dynasties prior to the Ming and Qing Dynasties, he posits. “The concept of the cracked ice pattern is from the the Song Dynasty – 1,000 years ago. The pattern came from Ge Yao and Guan Yao porcelain. The pattern during those times happened during the firing and glazing processes – Peranakan cracked ice patterns are painted on.”

One thing you’ll notice about Peranakan porcelain is that despite being made in different factories, and by different craftsmen, they look remarkably similar. There’s a reason for that, Liew says. “The Empress Dowager Cixi released a textbook outlining the positioning of every element.” So, there is an existing standard to Peranakan ware, whether it be from the imperial kiln (which boasts a superior level of detail) or a normal kiln.

Coinciding with Japanese expansion and colonialism during that period, there were also Japanese-made Peranakan porcelain. “Some are made in Japan, and they are thinner and lighter than those made in Jingdezhen, China. However, they aren’t as beautiful as the original pieces, and they command a lower price.”

Because it was meant for daily use, wear and tear is common for Peranakan ware, and some intricate details can get chipped off. “Baba-Nyonya ware is very rare and valuable because the wave rim can be easily chipped, so it’s very difficult to get a perfect piece. Even so, people still want them – because they’re so rare.”

A kamcheng – a porcelain storage jar.
Phoenixes and peonies are common design elements, even on spoons.

I asked him about his fascination with the Baba-Nyonya period, and the answer certainly wasn’t what I expected. “The Baba-Nyonya period was a harmonious time, where two different races intermingled and married, and created a new and unique culture. It was ‘1Malaysia’ before the term was coined. It marked the honeymoon stage of the nation…this is social education for the generations to come.”

Drawing from the past, to shape the future. Let’s hope his passion spreads – we all could use a little of his.

Another story, another aspect of Peranakan culture covered. In a sense, Peranakan ware reflects the culture as a whole – beautiful, yet fragile to outside influence. Whether to keep it hidden but intact, or to showcase it and be vulnerable, that’s another interesting question to tackle.

Now, I would like to say that my Peranakan journey has concluded, but looking ahead, it doesn’t look like it’s about to end any time soon…

For those keen to dive into Peranakan culture, there is a Peranakan art auction coming soon, titled, “”Treasures of the Peranakan World”. Organised by Henry Butcher Asset Auctioneers, the auction is a collaboration with Peranakan expert Henry Bong. All are welcome to have a look at the various lots for sale. Here are the details:

Date: 6 November 2016 (Sunday)
Time: 10:30am
Venue: Galeri Prima, Balai Berita, 31 Jalan Riong, 59100 Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur

For more information, head on to

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