Heritage Gems

Education at the heart of Peranakan Museum

Mr John Teo, the general manager of the Peranakan Museum, says the museum is "conscious of the building's history as the Tao Nan School", and has demonstrated this with panels on the ground floor that depict the school's history. According to him, Pe
Mr John Teo, the general manager of the Peranakan Museum, says the museum is "conscious of the building's history as the Tao Nan School", and has demonstrated this with panels on the ground floor that depict the school's history. According to him, Peranakans were also "very involved" in the founding of the school.
Mr John Teo, the general manager of the Peranakan Museum, says the museum is "conscious of the building's history as the Tao Nan School", and has demonstrated this with panels on the ground floor that depict the school's history. According to him, Pe
The internal layout of the museum (above) was kept intact to retain the building's charm.
Mr John Teo, the general manager of the Peranakan Museum, says the museum is "conscious of the building's history as the Tao Nan School", and has demonstrated this with panels on the ground floor that depict the school's history. According to him, Pe
This cast-iron eagle (above) is one of a pair sitting atop the twin entrance posts of the building. The eagles are believed to ward off evil.
Mr John Teo, the general manager of the Peranakan Museum, says the museum is "conscious of the building's history as the Tao Nan School", and has demonstrated this with panels on the ground floor that depict the school's history. According to him, Pe
The 105-year-old building now housing the Peranakan Museum was constructed in the "eclectic classical" style featuring ornate Corinthian capitals and fluted columns. ST PHOTOS: ALPHONSUS CHERN
Mr John Teo, the general manager of the Peranakan Museum, says the museum is "conscious of the building's history as the Tao Nan School", and has demonstrated this with panels on the ground floor that depict the school's history. According to him, Pe
Tao Nan School at its Armenian Street location in 1978 (above), before the school moved to its current campus in Marine Parade in 1982.PHOTOS: ST FILE, ZAOBAO FILE
Mr John Teo, the general manager of the Peranakan Museum, says the museum is "conscious of the building's history as the Tao Nan School", and has demonstrated this with panels on the ground floor that depict the school's history. According to him, Pe
Tao Nan School at its Armenian Street location in 1978, before the school moved to its current campus (above) in Marine Parade in 1982.PHOTOS: ST FILE, ZAOBAO FILE

From places of worship and educational institutions to the former residences of prominent figures, 72 buildings have been gazetted as national monuments. This is the latest in a weekly series revisiting these heritage gems. Each is a yarn woven into the rich tapestry of Singapore's history.

With natural sunlight flooding the lobby of the Peranakan Museum, visitors may find that the building's central area is reminiscent of a typical courtyard in a Peranakan home.

However, the 105-year-old building in Armenian Street never functioned as a house.

Instead, it was home to the many Tao Nan School pupils who received a modern education at the Chinese school for seven decades, from 1912 to 1982, before the school moved to its current location in Marine Parade.

Mr Lim Lee Hock, 74, a retiree, who studied there from 1950 to 1956, said: "I spent a lot of time in the school and I still remember how our teachers would go the extra mile to tutor us outside of curriculum time so that we could enter a good secondary school."

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He did well enough in the then Secondary School Entrance Exam - now the PSLE - to be admitted to the popular Chinese High School, now known as Hwa Chong Institution, together with many of his primary schoolmates.

Tao Nan School was established in November 1906 by the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan. Then, it was located at Siam House in North Bridge Road, a private residence belonging to Tan Kim Ching, the eldest son of merchant and philanthropist Tan Tock Seng.

It was the first Hokkien school in the Straits Settlements to offer subjects such as geography and history, in addition to the traditional Chinese curriculum.

Previously open only to members of the Hokkien community, it began admitting pupils from other dialect groups in 1909 and was the first Chinese school in the country to have such an inclusive admission policy.

When enrolment increased, the school leaders decided that a proper building should be built for the school, and the school moved to the Armenian Street campus, which now houses the Peranakan Museum. The term "Peranakan" generally refers to people of mixed Chinese and Malay or Indonesian heritage.

While some may consider the building's current role as a museum showcasing the hybrid Peranakan culture to be distant from its original roots as a Chinese school campus, "Peranakans were very involved in the process of the founding of Tao Nan School", said Mr John Teo, 42, the general manager of the Peranakan Museum.

He gave the example of Chinese-Indonesian businessman Oei Tiong Ham, who donated $10,000 for the purchase of the Armenian Street land on which the school was built. A portrait of Mr Oei, a Peranakan, and his parents' ancestral tablets are featured in the museum's permanent galleries, with a description that mentions his link to the school's heritage.

The museum is also "conscious of the building's history as the Tao Nan School", and has demonstrated this with panels on the ground floor that depict the school's history.

Architecturally, efforts were also made to retain some of the iconic features of the school. In 1991, Mr Chu Lik Ren, an architect from the Singapore Public Works Department (PWD), was tasked to convert the school building into one suitable to house a museum.

The 52-year-old, currently the vice-president at CPG Consultants, the corporatised entity of the former PWD, said: "The old Tao Nan school has always been one of the most handsome buildings in Singapore."

Originally designed by the Municipal Engineer's Office in 1910, the building was constructed in the "eclectic classical" style featuring ornate Corinthian capitals and fluted columns.

Together with his team, Mr Chu restored its facade with craftsmen skilled in decorative plasterwork. The internal layout of the building was also kept intact to "retain (the building's) charm".

A pair of cast-iron eagles that sit atop the twin entrance posts of the building are also a familiar sight to those who have passed through the Tao Nan school gates.

Believed to ward off evil, they have been the school's prominent icons and were taken to the Marine Parade campus in 1982 before being reinstated in their original location in 1996 when the building reopened as the Asian Civilisations Museum.

HANDSOME BUILDING

The old Tao Nan school has always been one of the most handsome buildings in Singapore.

MR CHU LIK REN, who was a PWD architect tasked with converting the school building into one suitable to house a museum.

The Chinese character for eagle - "ying"- is also a homophone of a character in the phrase "jingying", which means "cream of the crop". This is an allusion to Tao Nan's excellent academic reputation and its list of notable alumni, such as former Cabinet minister Yeo Cheow Tong and former minister of state Ow Chin Hock.

For Mr Chu, the naturally lit, three-storey-high air-well at the heart of the old school campus remains his favourite feature of the building, which was gazetted as a national monument in 1998. "I can imagine generations of school children using the stairs around the atrium and the memories this space must contain," he said.

And he is right. Alumnus Mr Lim fondly recalls walking on the floorboards and staircases that would be creaking - not that he minded.

"I enjoyed studying in Tao Nan, it was and still is a very respectable and good school," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2017, with the headline 'Education at the heart of Peranakan Museum'. Print Edition | Subscribe