The Baba and Nyonya Heritage Museum is in Melaka, on the road running parallel to Jonker Walk. It is situated in what seems to be a set of converted townhouses, and shows off some aspects of the Peranakan – or Baba Nyonya – culture. This is the name for the descendants of Chinese settlers who married Malay locals, mostly in the former Straits Settlements of Penang, Singapore and Melaka.
The houses were originally owned by a rubber planter named Chan Chang Siew, and portraits of him, his wife, their son, and his wife hang in the entrance hall where you pay your admission and either wait for a tour (no extra charge) or get started on your own with a little booklet. Sadly, you aren’t allowed to take any photos beyond the entrance hall, so you’ll have to rely on my memory and descriptions.
The house is beautiful throughout, with a pair of central open air courtyards, lovely tiles, carved wood, mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture and various displays of period pieces. I particularly liked the master bedroom with a spyhole to check who is calling; the kitchen with a retro ice cream maker – no refrigeration, no electricity, just kids’ own churning power; and the etched glass memorials to Chan Jr and his wife (late 20th century but still very attractive).
We also got lucky with our timing. I saw on my way in that Chan’s descendants (who own the house and opened the museum, as they live elsewhere now) return seven times a year to pray for their ancestors. I wondered if that meant the museum was closed on those days. It turns out not – it was one of those days, and the family is happy to carry out their prayers with an audience.
We had a chat with a few of the clan, who had put out a feast of offerings, including a roast duck, a roast chicken, dry fish, pork, curry, vegetables, fruit, and noodles. It’s most important to have the eyes of the food facing the altar to see the ancestors’ hungry ghosts. It might seem wasteful, but it turns out anything the ghosts don’t want, the family has for lunch.
It’s not the best Peranakan museum I have been to, which is that in Penang, but if you are in Melaka and want to find out more about some aspects of the lives of a little known people, it is worth the RM16 entrance fee. It is open from 10.00-13.00 and 14.00-17.00 every day, with tours each hour (mainly by appointment, though I think you could just join one as long as your group isn’t too big). On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays it stays open for another hour.
Address: 48 Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, 75200 Melaka