Batik for Peranakan Altars: A Forgotten Art of South East Asia

Asia’s First Exhibition of Batik Altar Cloths Premiere at the Peranakan Museum

peranakan museum batik altar cloth
Altar cloth: bouquets and phoenixes Java, mid-20th century, Cotton (drawn batik), 105.8 x 109.5 cm The Three Stellar Gods of fortune (Fu), prosperity (Lu), and longevity (Shou) above a "oral motif commonly found on batik sarongs. The blue and white colour scheme suggests that the cloth was used in a funeral, as these are the customary mourning colours of Peranakans.
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By Richard Lim

“One expects to see the traditional Chinese symbols of prosperity and fortune on an altar cloth. But the attentive ones are rewarded with a pleasant surprise – on one altar cloth is the little Red Riding Hood with a lion instead of a wolf, and on another are riders holding flags of the old Republic of China.

Auspicious Designs: Batik for Peranakan Altars presented by the Peranakan museum is a spectacle of human creativity and cultural fusion. As Asia’s first large-scale exhibition of batik altar cloths, it presents some 36 colourful and imaginative altar cloths from early 20th century that are mostly found in the Peranakan community of Indonesia.

peranakan museum altar cloth
Altar cloth: Dutch East Indies coat of arms Java, early 20th century, Cotton (drawn batik) 102.8 x 103.8 cm The central medallion depicts a coat of arms of the Dutch East Indies, and is surrounded by six coiled phoenixes. The muted colours of this cloth are the result of natural dyes, signifying that it may be one of the earliest batik cloths in the exhibition.

Batik altar cloths, called tok wi in the language of the Peranakans, are textiles hung in front of Chinese altars during ceremonial occasions. Batik is derived from dyed Indian cotton traded with Southeast Asia, which then evolved into the characteristic textile of Java. It is often used in sarong and ceremonial decorations.

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The Peranakan Chinese of Java commissioned batik altar cloths to decorate their household altars during Chinese New Year, weddings, funerals, and ancestor ceremonies. In particular, these textiles are important in demarcating sacred spaces and in elevating the occasion of the day, as revealed by Maria Khoo Joseph, the curator of the exhibition.

These batik altar cloths illustrate local adaptations to cross-cultural influence. Even though they retain the shape, layout and certain elements of traditional Chinese altar cloths, many of them feature European and Islamic motifs as well as a distinct batik aesthetic that is popular on batik sarongs. For instance, one cloth features the coat of arms of the Dutch East Indies, and many designs are enhanced with traditional batik floral patterns. As Dr Alan Chong, Director of the Asian Civilisations Museum and Peranakan Museum, said, “Batik altar cloths blend several cultures and traditions, to form a distinctive new art form.”

The pieces in showcase are only a small portion of the 72-piece collection donated by collector Alvin Yapp to the museum.”

altar cloth
Altar cloth: phoenixes, dragons, and letters
Java, mid-20th century, Cotton (drawn batik)
106 x 103 cm

“Alvin began his collection seven years ago when he first received 10 pieces of such tok wi from a friend. He said, “The rich symbolism in these tok wi make them especially attractive in revealing more about the Peranakan ritual practice. As a Peranakan, it is my privilege to contribute these tok wi to the Peranakan Museum, adding to its finest and most comprehensive collection of Peranakan objects.”

This exhibition is intended to inspire in-depth study on the tok wi. It is part of the Peranakan Museum’s commitment to explore the multi-faceted heritage of the Peranakan community as well as to inspire the discovery of selves and others.

“This exhibition demonstrates how practices change and adapt over time and in different regions, as cultures borrow from each other. I hope this project shows peoples have connected and shared over the centuries. We are grateful to Matthew and Alice Yapp for generously donating their collection to the Peranakan Museum,” Dr Alan Chong said.

The exhibition is divided into five sections: Altar cloths in context, Early origins, Stylistic diversity, Motifs and designs: dragons and qilins, and Rituals and altar cloths. The batik cloths show the wide range of motifs and colours used in traditional Peranakan celebrations. Together with the furniture and household objects on display, they provide a glimpse of traditions are fast fading.”

Auspicious Designs: Batik for Peranakan Altars is running from 11 April to 28 December 2014 at the Peranakan Museum. All Sin- gapore citizens and permanent residents enjoy free admission to the exhibition. For more information on the exhibition, visit

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