If planning a trip to Malacca, it is definitely worth it to find the Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum. My friends and I had this on our list of places to visit during a weekend trip to the heritage city, and were lucky enough to find parking just a few lots away from the museum entrance.
The museum is tucked away on Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, a narrow street parallel to the famous Jonker Walk. There is parking along the street, but quite limited - the best would be to park further away if you are unable to find a spot and take a walk to the museum instead. My friends and I arrived at just after 3.15pm. The next tour was starting at 4pm.
We were a bit alarmed by the entrance fee of RM16, especially as the house didn't look so big from the outside. It wasn't until we joined the 4pm tour that we began to understand - the price is definitely worth it.
This year marks the museum's 30th anniversary, and I was awed by how well maintained all the rooms and furniture are. The family that once lived in this house are a Peranakan Chinese family - a term meant for descendants of Chinese immigrants who came to British Malaya and intermarried with the locals here. 'Peranakan' is a Malay word loosely translated to 'descendant', and besides the Peranakan Chinese, there are also the Peranakan Indians, Arabs, and Eurasians.
However, it is to the Peranakan Chinese that the Baba and Nyonya titles are relevant. Baba is an honorific title for Peranakan Chinese men, while Nyonya applies to the women.
The museum encompasses two of three lots originally owned by Baba Chan Cheng Siew, the third having been converted into a cafe. More than a century after the terrace houses were first acquired in 1861, the descendants of Baba Chan - his grandchildren - are now the owners of the museum, and are well into their 80s. The house was first opened to the public in 1985.
Signage at the front of the museum lets you know when the next tour is starting, though guests are definitely welcome to enter without joining the tour group. To enter, you will have to ring the doorbell by the side of the main entrance.
My friends and I joined just in time for the 4pm tour, with some 20 other visitors. The tour guide was a friendly and cheerful woman wearing the traditional kebaya Nyonya and batik sarong.
We started the tour in the first hall of the first house, which is the only place in the entire museum where photography is allowed. Portraits of Baba Chan, his wife, son and daughter-in-law grace the walls of the entrance hall.
I would highly recommend joining the tour. Lasting roughly one hour, we were given a comprehensive history of the Chan family as well as a glimpse into their lives in the late 1800s. As they were a very wealthy family from Baba Chan's endeavours in gambier and rubber tree planting, the interior of the house is richly furnished, with Dutch, Portuguese, Malay and Colonial influences.
Some of the furniture was brought in from China, dating back centuries. Take special note of the blackwood furniture, inlaid with mother of pearl and the intricately embroidered portraits in fine silk threads. Each piece has a history, and each room of the house tells a different tale.
One of the beautiful embroidered portraits you will find here.
The two houses that make up the museum had a different purpose in the past - the middle house was meant for the family proper, where they lived in for most of the time. The second house adjoining it was meant for entertaining guests and business partners. Meanwhile, the third house which is now a cafe was originally the servants' quarters. From the outside, the houses do not betray their size. I could definitely see how 'bigger on the inside' applies here, as each house stretches back a whopping 60 metres, despite its modest width. The leisurely stroll towards the back of each house takes you past multiple halls and a total of two sun-drenched courtyards.
While some halls such as the dining, kitchen and living areas still maintain their original layouts, most of the rooms have been refurbished to focus on a specific aspect of the Baba Nyonya lifestyle. For instance, the bedchambers upstairs now give you an inside look to Baba Nyonya wedding traditions, birthday celebrations, funeral arrangements and even their pastimes and hobbies. One particular hall, which is the rumah abu or 'ancestral home' pays tribute to the Chan ancestors. Seven times a year, the family (now having spanned seven generations) gathers here to offer prayers and pay respects.
One of my favourite pieces in the museum was the specially made mahjong table, with custom drawers, slots and even a cup holder for the players. Yet another was the beautiful staircase made of cenggal wood - a one of a kind accomplishment of carpentry and art, with gorgeous gold leaf motifs.
We spent almost an hour and a half in the museum, even after the tour had ended. I really enjoyed learning about the Chan family history, and admiring the beautiful furnishings throughout the house. Definitely make some time to visit if you are ever in Malacca town.
The tour guide was very insightful, and she even gave some of the tourists recommendations on where to try some of the delicacies and treats enjoyed by the Baba Nyonyas, around town. I can safely say that out of all the museums I have visited so far, this is one of my favourites.