Museum and Gallery Guide

On show: Peranakan batik altar cloths

By Zaki JufriEvents - 10 April 2014 12:00 AM | Updated 14 April 2014

On show: Peranakan batik altar cloths

Think Peranakan and so many things come to mind.

Batik, kebaya, beaded slippers, ‘Emily of Emerald Hill’, food such as itek tim or babi pongteh, and the list may go on.

But there is another aspect of Peranakan culture that has often been overlooked: Batik altar cloths, also known as tok wi in Baba Malay. 

Once a significant feature in the rituals and ceremonial practices of the Peranakan community’s (particularly those from from Java, Indonesia), the altar cloths are the highlights of a new exhibition at the Peranakan Museum.

The ‘Auspicious Designs: Batik for Peranakan Altars’ exhibition runs from 11 April to 28 December 2014.

Visitors can expect to see 36 colourful and intricately decorated batik altar cloths, along with other Peranakan objects and traditional Chinese embroidered altar cloths that reveal the sources and inspirations of their designs as well as the context of their use.

The textiles on display are from the museum’s collection as well as from the collections of Lee Kip Lee and wife, as well as Matthew and Alice Yapp. The couples are two of the most passionate supporters of the museum, and the Yapps recently donated 72 batik altar cloths to the collection.


Altar cloth with Dutch East Indies coat of arms and altar cloth with lions. Photo: Peranakan Museum

Altar cloths were usually hung at the front of a Chinese altar during special occasions, and the majority of them, which were embroided, were imported from China.

Batik altar cloths, on the other hand, are found mainly in Indonesia, namely Java.

The Peranakan Chinese of Java usually commissioned these textiles to decorate their household’s altars during festivities such as Chinese New Year, weddings, birthdays as well as funerals and ancestral worship ceremonies.

Maria Khoo Joseph, curator of the exhibition, said: “These textiles are important in demarcating sacred spaces. The altar cloth also elevates the occasion of the day.”

Batik altar cloths contain traditional Chinese symbols as well as motifs from Southeast Asia and Europe. These tok wi demonstrate how art and religion evolve in changing local conditions.

Dr Alan Chong, the director of the Asian Civilisations and Peranakan Museums, said: “Most of the exhibits here are recognisable. Chinese altar cloths have been used in China for the last 1,000 years and they’re made of batik, which is also familiar to us… the mixture of many cultures are surprising and really marvellous.”

One of the oldest artefacts in the exhibition is from the Ming Dynasty, China. Made of embroided silk using a technique known as kesi (Chinese for “cut silk”), the textile features a front-facing dragon and curator Joseph said it is a precursor to the Peranakan tok wi.

Other highlights includes an early 20th-century piece with the coat of arms of the Dutch East Indies, a mid-20th-century piece with a pair of heraldic lions, and one featuring a pair of dragons which is also the largest cloth in the exhibition.

‘Auspicious Designs: Batik for Peranakan Altars’ | Date: 11 April to 28 December 2014 | Venue: Peranakan Museum, 39 Armenian Street | Opening hours: Daily except Fridays 10am-7pm, Fri 10am-9pm | Tickets: $6 per entry. Free for Singapore citizens and permanent residents

Auspicious Designs: Batik for Peranakan Altars

Auspicious Designs: Batik for Peranakan Altars

Date Apr 11, 2014 - Jan 25, 2015

VenuePeranakan Museum