House Tour: Katong Antique House

More than a museum, the Katong Antique House is Peter Wee's love letter to his family and beloved Singapore.

Updated on June 13, 2017 8:06 am

Samantha Echavez

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What precious hold memory has over us. In our very own homes, memory has its sacred place on altars, walls, and chest drawers—holding photos of our life's most cherished days, heirlooms, mementos from travels and favourite moments. We make room for the "something old," proudly displaying our grandpa's vintage radio on our console table, our grandma's tiffin carriers on our cupboard. This is how we honour our past at home, how we value the family's shared history. In Peter Wee's case, he devotes not just a room but his entire house to memory keeping. Hundreds of years of history and culture are enshrined within the walls of his home, such that as soon as you enter the 208 East Coast Road property, you are treated to a walk back in time.

Fourth generation Baba Peranakan Peter Wee is the owner of the Katong Antique House, a two-storey shophouse showcasing furniture pieces and furnishings that reveal the richness of Peranakan culture. It doubles as Wee's home and a museum that glorifies the past of the Baba-Nyonyas. The shophouse is a hodgepodge of everything colourful and relevant about Peranakan lives and traditions, from elaborately embellished kebayas to batik altar cloths, beaded slippers, porcelain bowls, and intricately carved wooden chairs and cabinets. Randomly arranged all over the house, the collections create a kaleidoscopic, if not mesmerising, effect—the colours coming alive, stories of the past bouncing off the walls. Noteworthy are the family photos, wedding photos, and portraits all over the Katong Antique House. This act of commemoration—displaying the photos of four generations of the Wee family, presenting their lives and lifestyles—compels the visitor to pay close attention to an important part of Singapore heritage, identity, and culture...and also speaks a lot about Wee's affection for his ancestors and love for the past.

And it was only natural for Wee to devote his life and his home to preserving the Peranakan culture. The Katong Antique House is, after all, an inheritance from his grandfather, and over the years as he started to accumulate different Peranakan items from neighbours and friends who no longer needed them, did he realise the value inherent in the gathering.

"I rediscovered my own roots from every item that was sold to me, from the kebayas, shoes, porcelain, furniture. Each of them tells a story of my own culture which I was fascinated by," Wee recalled. "[That's when] I decided to change the direction of Katong Antique House [from an antique store] into a more cultural and storytelling part of this Peranakan culture. That is more meaningful to me. Because without the story, the existence of a cupboard is just a cupboard."

Almost every item in his home harks back to a memory. "There is a story behind every piece. The kebaya would have told us of our grandmothers' spirit. The stitches of the beadwork elaborated the difficult time when women had to prove their worth by sewing beaded slippers," he said. What he values most are his grandfather's diaries, written records of the family history, and photographs of his old house at Waterloo Street. He still owns his parents' kebayas and some of the furniture pieces from the old family home, subjecting Wee to a fond throwback to his vibrant childhood.

The Katong Antique House also holds a library of books and papers written by students and researchers, covering Peranakan music, architecture, superstitions, weddings, porcelains, jewellery, and furniture. "Come to the library, continue to write about us. Of course, the areas of research are tremendous," said Wee.

As president of the Peranakan Association of Singapore and author of A Peranakan Legacy and soon-to-be-released Memories Relived, Wee is known as the guardian of Peranakan culture. People go to him and hand him valuable Peranakan artefacts in need of home. And it seems that there is no stopping to this bequeathing and cultural sharing. "People come to me. People go to me because they know I am the custodian. We all play our part. To sustain the interest for so long, one has got to have the passion for it," said Wee.

As Singapore turns 50 next year, Katong Antique House stands as a good testament to how heritage makes a nation more colourful, more vigorous: "When you talk about the past, I have a statement for you. Know the past, understand the present, then you can face the future. Knowing the past is the building of your roots. And when you build strong four generations in your past, your roots are very deep, and so you become an identity. And this Peranakan identity is very much a Singaporean culture." Decades of preserving Peranakan treasures, promoting this culture in danger of being forgotten, and glorifying his ancestors...Wee has truly crafted a historical monument out of his humble home. What a gift it is to Singapore. What a gift.

Want a touch of Peranakan to your home? Wee shares these tips:

"They must be aware of their roots. Photographs that reflect weddings and funerals, keep them. Put them in some place of honour like the museum wall. Then some aspects of beadwork, porcelain, antique wardrobe. If you have a chance, get an antique closet. People who revamp their houses must have a sense of history and culture and should embark on their own family first."

Katong Antique House
208 East Coast Road, Singapore 428907
Call 6345 8544 for tours and appointments
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Photos by Chen How Thyng

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