Sunday, November 09, 2008

out of the blue - what's your hallmark ?

1. the town painted blue
Having read of its opening in the ST, I ventured in search of the Baba House one Sunday morning. As I seldom had a good reason to wander westward of Chinatown - Ngau Chair Sooi - 牛车水- and being unfamiliar with the places, I was a little lost in my direction where this house was located.

The house is located in the far west of Neil road, adjoining Kampong Bharu Road at Blair Plain. Other than the Baba House, I was also pleasantly surprised to find an estate of conservation Straits Eclectic houses. In my many weekend strolls in Chinatown to take in the sights of this unique brand of local straits architectural style, in the shophouses, the clan associations in Ann Siang Hill & Kiong Siak Road, it did not occur to me that a piece of history is neatly tucked way in this area.

The blue color of this house seems familiar, I thought. It’s a deep blue color tending towards violet. Oh yea, it‘s indigo. Some ten years back, while on a visit to Penang, I’ve seen this color in another century old mansion. It’s the Cheong Fatt Tse (CFT) Mansion, located in Leith Street. I got to know of this house in the 3rd Hakka forum held in Singapore in 1996. CFT Mansion has since been converted into a boutique hotel.

Wondering, why blue, I did a google on – straits house, color blue & CFT Mansion, and found the answer in the entry on CFT Mansion – in wikipedia:


The distinctive blue colour of the mansion is the result of mixing lime with natural blue dye made from the Indigo plant. The blue was very popular in the Colonial period and the dye was imported from India. The lime wash was very effective in a tropical weather as it absorbed moisture and cooled the house.
However the blue is a colour of death in Chinese culture and the practice was never introduced in
Hong Kong. The house was originally painted white in the time of the owner, and the indigo was applied much later.


The early settlements in the Straits in Penang, Malacca and Singapore were supposedly a townscape of blue colored buildings. However, considering that the Baba & Nyonya of old were as deeply steep in customs and traditions, with many pantang larang (taboo’s) it makes me also to think after reading this quote, would not the blue a taboo color too for the Peranakan.

Perhaps, the color blue chosen for the Baba House is our 21st century interpretation of what the houses and townscape was like then in the colonial period a hundred or more odd years ago in the Straits Settlement. It is a reflection of the color of a past era, rather than the actual color of the House of Wee. It could perhaps have been painted in a more auspicious hue, such as pastel red or maroon.

(CFT Mansion - Penang : photograph taken: 12Dec1998)

Unlike the linked Straits shop, the CFT mansion was build as a standalone complex. Perhaps because of its Hakka roots, it was very much simpler in style, and plainer in its overall ornamentation. In contrast to the southern Min-nan (Fujian) architectural style found typically in the Chinese temple architecture, where the roof is curved and heavily embellished with auspicious symbols and scenes from folklore, the CFT mansion has a much straighter line reflecting perhaps of elements of northern China architectural style – where the Hakka’s migrated from.

Talking about a standalone type Chinese style mansion, there is still one & only remaining on the island – the House of Tan Yeok Nee, located at the junction of Penang Road and Clemenceau Ave. After its make over as the Graduate school of the University of Chicago, this house is painted a pastel yellow. It's was build in a much earlier the period around, 1865-85, and a true blue Min-nan style Chinese townhouse. But it now sits oddly alone, incongruous with a backdrop of modern structures.

Had the city center been preserved of its pre-war townscape and many of the old architecture, perhaps the Lion City would have been in the map of UNESCO Heritage city, too. However that is left now of the city are pockets of old hardware that hardly have a discernable link to past.

2. Hallmark -堂号

Well, so much of the blue, I was next drawn to the two big golden characters hung above the main door of the Baba House.

Considering that this was the house of the Wee –黄 - Huang (pinyin) – shouldn’t these two characters be - Jiangxia - 江夏, rather than - Zhongsheng - 种 盛 . For the - 堂号 – tanghao - literally hall mark - of the surname Wee is - 江夏 - Jiangxia. The family name instead is written on the lantern hung on the left side of the porch – 黄府 - Huang fu – House of the Huang.

江夏 - Jiangxia - refers to the place where the Huang clan originated, and it refers to a geographical location, usually located in the northern plains of China in the prefectures of - Shansi, Gansu and Hebei – 山西,甘肃,河北省. This was the - zhongyuan - 中原 – the Central Plain – irrigated by the Yellow River – 黄河 - and its tributaries, and supposedly the cradle of the Chinese civilization.

In the Europe, it would have been the coat of arms, while in Japan the Samurai family would has their unique – 纹章 – monshyoo - family crest. However, in China, with a strong Confucian influence of revering one’s roots, respect for education, and abhorring feud, there was never the evolvement of a family crest that identified with the militaristic. .

As such, according to the Chinese tradition, each family would have their family hall mark reflecting the place where their progenitor originated. The name – tanghao - could be translated as the - mark of the ancestral hall. When the Chinese migrated to the South Seas – the Nanyang – 南洋 - they brought along this tradition with them.

Other than using a geographical location the tanghao could also be in the form of a motto or part of a wise saying left to posterity by a venerable ancestors, to inculcate virtue, scholarship or righteousness, etc among their posterities.

As to why - Zhongsheng –种 盛 - for this house of the Wee, it is probably named along the line of a family motto and one has to refer to their family genealogy. Zhong –种 - literally means seed or progeny and - sheng –盛 - flourishing, prosperity, or abundance. Perhaps, the venerable ancestors would wish for the clan to multiply and prosper.

What’s left of the hallmark?

Wondering how widely still is the practice of hanging the tanghoa prominently in front of their house still retained – I did a walk around the estate, and in Emerald hill, and Joo Chiat, on a little survey. Alas I could barely find more than a handful of houses that still continue with this tradition.

When the early immigrants that migrated to colonial Singapore & in the Peninsula, it was a common practice for those who have made it – and owning a house to prominently displace their hall mark in front of their house. It was to - 光宗耀祖 - guangzong yaozu – literary - to brighten one’s clan and to illuminate one’s ancestors, and to remind them of their roots.

To find your roots - some of the common tang hao - are:

陇西 – 李 - Longxi – Li (pinyin) – Lee (dialect)
西河 – 林 - Xihe - Lin – Lim
延陵 - 吴 – Yanling - Wu - Goh, Ng
太原 – 王 - Taiyuan - Wang –Ong
滎阳 – 郑 – Xinyang – Zheng - Chang, Chung

This house located in Emerald Hill, has the tanghoa as - 沛國– Peiguo . And its family surname is supposedly a Zhu– 朱 – Choo (in dialect ) meaning vermilion. It’s illustrious lineage would include the founder of the Ming dynasty – 明朝 ( 1368-1644 ) Zhu Yuanzhang - 朱元璋.

Other than in the form of a plaque, I found one with the tang hao written in crimson on two big lanterns hung from the verandah. It reads – 清河 – Qinghe - and the family surname should most probably be – Zhang - 张 - Teo ( in Hokkien) .

Perhaps this tradition of hanging the tanghao in front of one’s house is a tradition unique among the migrants. In the visit to the ancestral village in China many years back, I did not observe each home has a tang hoa hung on its doorway. However, each village would have their ancestral temples where members of the same surname would gather to venerate their ancestors – and each village would have sizeable members with the same surname. The tanghao is set at the ancestral hall.

Leaving behind their ancestral village, and wandering to the South Sea – 南洋 – the early migrants were usually a mix lot of different surnames, but from the same district of same dialect group.

In the foreign land, they would first and foremost gather to form clan associations of a certain dialect group or district. Subsequently, with sufficiently sizeable numbers, they would form clans of similar surnames – though not necessary from the same district or village.

For the individuals who lived dispersed on a foreign land, they took to identifying themselves by displaying their tanghao in front of each of their own house. Be it the grand mansion of the smart migrant who made it big, or the hardworking & thrifty migrant who made it good to build their first house of timber and attap roof, traditions ran deep, and they would proudly display their venerable tanghao - always to remind them of their roots.

This photograph is from my hometown in Menglembu. The tanghao tradition is kept pretty much alive in the old houses in the rural areas. It reads - 晋阳 –Jinyang – and the surname of the family is probably - 唐 –Tang.

Alas, be it here or there, one hardly could find this tradition being practised in the homes in the new housing estates and apartment blocks. It is no longer cool to display such archaic plaque - especially in front of one’s chic house.

Well, so much for the hallmark, and a bye-bye to another traditional practice...

Reference: -

1. Streets of George Town, Penang.

An illustrated guide to Penang’s City Streets & Historic attractions
Khoo Su Nin - 2nd edition 1994. First published in 1993.

Flipping thro this book and comparing it to the book, entitled:

Singapores 100 historic places, (National Heritage Board – first published 2002),

-one could not help but be amazed at how much the two cities have in common – physically. In the street names – you have or had it here, they have and still have it there, Armenian Street, Chulia Street, the clan associations, the Straits Eclectic shophouses/houses – architecturally so similar, and uniquely of the Straits.

The Singapore Street Directory (Edition 1988) - was the first that I bought when I first arrived in Singapore had Farquhar Street. However, a check in the Singapore Street Directory (New 2002 Edition) this street name is gone. It was located behind the New Seven Storey Hotel, parallel to Rochor Road. This hotel will disappear too in the new edition of the street directory.

2. Chinese surname

A good lead into the origin of the Chinese surname is found in wikipedia. However a more detail and indepth explanation of the tanghao is found in Baidu – the Chinese web seacher . However you need to read Chinese to understand the contents.

In Wikipedia

3. The Peranakan Association -

4. Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion - the Blue House

At the turn of the 20th century Penang, this Leith Street was supposedly the Hakka Millionaire Row’, with a concentration of wealthy Hakka migrants, and among them Cheong Fatt Tse. He was one of the pioneer Nanyang industrialist, and was once appointed the Consul- General in Singapore, of the Qing Court

5. Singapore – A guide to Buildings, Streets, Places
Norman Edwards & Peter Kayes, Times Book International 1988

Addendum - 2008.Dec.30

Saw this at the Sri Maju long distant bus head office terminal in Ipoh.
四知堂 - Hall of the Four Know
The bus terminal is the former mansion of the Yeoh Family – 杨 – the Yang Clan.

Why the ‘four knows’ - 四知 – shi zhi?

Legend had it that during the Eastern Han -东汉Dynasty – close to 2000 years ago. An official Yang was bribed to keep mum, by a governor, and that no one would know of the incident.
However the upright Official Yang replied -天知,地知,我知,你知 .
- meaning : heaven knows, earth knows, I know and you know.
To commemorate the up-righteousness and integrity of this predecessor, and as a teaching to their descendants, the Four Know became the tanghao - hall mark - of the Yang clan.