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Pinang Peranakan Mansion: Bling, beaded shoes and wealthy babas

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The jade-green color popped, catching our eye, as did the smiling young man waving us over to the Pinang Peranakan Mansion.

We just had to take a closer peek.

It looked like a museum – an interesting one.

Pinang Peranakan Mansion, George Town

A pair of beautiful beaded shoes at the Pinang Peranakan Mansion
The Pinang Peranakan Mansion offers a fascinating glimpse into the Peranakan culture

Ah, yes, it was the Peranakan museum in Penang.

Maybe it would be air-conditioned inside too?

Visiting the Pinang Peranakan Mansion is one of the best things to do in George Town.
Visiting the Pinang Peranakan Mansion is one of the best things to do in George Town

What to do in George Town, Penang?

Penang's capital of George Town is full of interesting colorful buildings
Penang’s capital of George Town is full of interesting colorful buildings

When cruising, we usually take guided tours ashore.

But we’d read that the historic center of George Town, Malaysia – declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 – could be explored independently on foot.

(George Town is found on Penang Island off the northwest coast of the Malaysia peninsula.)

So we decided to walk out on our own, trusty map in hand to show us the way to the George Town, Penang, attractions we wanted to see.

The opulent 19th century Pinang Peranakan Mansion looks like the typical home of a wealthy Baba
The opulent 19th century Peranakan mansion looks like the typical home of a wealthy Baba

To beat the heat, we’d leave the air-conditioned sanctum of our Windstar cruise ship, the Star Pride, right after an early-bird breakfast and be back in time for lunch.

Silly us.

Well, let’s just say that by the time we set off, the heat almost sucked the life out of us.

You’d think that after so many (wonderful!) years of traveling together, we’d recognize our tendency to dilly-dally.

And dilly-dally we did.

Another cappuccino. A second helping of strawberries – because everyone should eat lots of fruit in the morning. More Camembert, and perhaps just another half croissant – we don’t want to venture out hungry!

So now it’s almost noon.

It’s hotter than Hades. And it’s hard to read a map when even your sunglasses are perspiring.

Peranakan culture

Pinang Peranakan Mansion - dress
This is how the elite Peranakans dressed (Credit: Lillian Tong)

So when we stumbled upon the jade-green mansion in Penang we were quite delighted.

It turned out to be the Pinang Peranakan Mansion (consistently rated on TripAdvisor as the #1 or #2 attraction out of all the things to do in George Town, Penang, so it must be really really good, right?

We were saved from heat stroke!

And we’d get a dose of Peranakan culture too.

A Nyonya dress
One of the Nyonya dress displays…

“Peranakan” describes the descendants of early Chinese traders who intermarried with local Malay women in Malacca, Singapore and the island of Penang (also known as Pinang).

Many amassed great wealth, and when their settlements became British colonies in the mid 1800s, they adopted British and European customs.

Like playing polo.

And decorating Victorian-style dining tables with epergnes (ornate table centerpieces with containers to hold candles, sweetmeats or flowers).

The young girls and women, known as “Nyonas,” also made the most gorgeous beaded slippers and shoes, dozens of which are on display at the mansion museum.

“Baba” refers to a Peranakan male.

History of the Pinang Peranakan Mansion

Pinang Peranakan Mansion in George Town
Spend a couple of hours absorbing the Peranakan culture in the mansion

A Chinese tycoon by the name of Chung Keng Quee commissioned the building of the mansion in the 1890s.

He’d moved to Penang from China, and although he wasn’t a Peranakan, he wanted it built in the Peranakan style.

After he died in 1901, his family inherited it. But when they lost their riches during WW II, it was abandoned.

Much later in the 1990s, a native Peranakan architect, Peter Soon, took over the mansion.

He painted it the distinctive green color, filled it with his personal collection of over 1,000 antiques and opened it as a museum.

Gold container at Pinang Peranakan Mansion
Fancy owning this gold container? Just one of the antiques in the museum

More recently, the Peranakan Mansion has been the movie set for popular shows like The Amazing Race and The Little Nyonya (a Singapore drama).

Lots of bling at this Peranakan museum, Penang

A salon inside the Pinang Peranakan Mansion. Note the mother-of-pearl inlay furniture!
A salon inside the Pinang Peranakan Mansion – note the mother-of-pearl inlay furniture!

What else did we see at this Baba Nyonya museum ?

The beaded slippers that the young women made and wore are quite eye-popping.

Apparently, the slippers even delighted couture shoe designer Jimmy Choo when he visited the mansion. 

Beaded slippers at Pinang Peranakan Mansion, George Town, Malaysia
It’s amazing to think a young unmarried girl would have painstakingly beaded beautiful shoes like these about a century ago

The Peranakans also loved everything gold.

Indeed there’s enough gold at this museum to make King Midas drool!

We ogled a large gold belt, gold bowls, gold ear-cleaning picks, gold hair pins, gold ankle bracelets and more…

A large gold Peranakan belt on display at the Pinang Peranakan Museum
A large gold Peranakan belt on display

We also tried not to stare too obviously at the cute bridal couple posing for their wedding photos in one of the mansion’s salons.

The bride wore red, like the bride we saw on our groovy trishaw ride in Malacca.

Vivid scarlet (as worn by this bride) is a common color for wedding dresses in Malaysia
Vivid scarlet (as worn by this bride) is a common color for wedding dresses in Malaysia

And, yes, thank you for asking :-).

We did eventually make it back to our ship – dripping from the humidity, but in time for the latest lunch possible (and very happy with what we’d seen in George Town).

Pinang Peranakan Mansion - book by Lillian Tong
Lillian Tong, the Pinang Peranakan Mansion’s museum director, has written a book on the mansion’s collection of gold jewelry

Practical information about the Pinang Peranakan museum

There’s welcome air-conditioning in some salons.

The best way to see the Pinang Peranakan Mansion (or Penang Peranakan Mansion) is by complimentary guided tour. (We were lucky to join an English-speaking tour that had started minutes before we arrived.)

Call for details before you go: 60-4-264-2929. And check the website.

Experience more of Asia!

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China | Zhangjiajie is a hidden treasure if you love mountains, nature and hiking. Here’s a 4-day Zhangjiajie Avatar Mountains itinerary for luxury lovers.


Photo credits: 1, 6, 8 to 12 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 2, 4 Pinang Peranakan Mansion


About the authors:

Janice and George Mucalov

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George are the publishers of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents.

Find destination guides, global food-and-wine stories, luxury hotel reviews, articles on cultural explorations and soft adventure trips, cruise reviews and information, insanely useful travel tips and more!

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Frank

Sunday 9th of September 2018

Beautiful photos, we missed this place when passing through Penang earlier this year. And I can sympathize - it gets darn hot. We were there in May and every day it was high 30s with wicked humidity.

Janice and George

Wednesday 12th of September 2018

Yes, the humidity is what really does you in, eh? Maybe next time you'll get to pop into the Pinang Peranakan Mansion :-).

Carol

Sunday 5th of July 2015

I found George Town easy to get around on my own. I don't remember the mansion, though. The only issue I had with George Town was that somehow (long story) the management at my hotel thought I was er, a lady of the night, and when a strange man knocked on my door, I freaked. Needless to say I checked out the next day. Hm, maybe I should make that story into a blog one day.

Janice and George

Sunday 5th of July 2015

OMG, that would be scary. Hopefully the next hotel was a lot better :-).

Kathryn Burrington

Saturday 4th of July 2015

What a fabulous place to stumble across. The intricate embroidery and beadwork is fascinating.

Suze

Wednesday 1st of July 2015

Sounds like you had a lucky escape from the heat, we had to deal with it in Rome recently. Love the beaded slippers, and how nice that you got a shot of a bride and groom!

Adam

Tuesday 30th of June 2015

Well there's always room for another half croissant, isn't there? :-) Amazing pics as usual guys. I think my wife will like the first pair of shoes you showed, the time that must have gone into those.