Tao Nan School is now Peranakan Museum
One of the most spectacular examples of adaptive reuse in Singapore’s civic area is the Peranakan Museum on Armenian Street. It was originally known as the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore, which showcased Chinese culture and history – appropriately since it is situated on school grounds that were once home to one of Singapore’s oldest Chinese schools, Tao Nan School.
Tao Nan is one of six modern schools founded by the Hokkien association’s Tao Nan. The existing Chongwen Ge and Chui Eng Free School’s educational model had become outdated, so a group of Chinese merchants established a modern Chinese school for the children of Hokkien immigrants. As a result, Tao Nan was conceived on November 18th, 1906.
The Tao Nan School first occupied the house of the late Tan Kim Ching on North Bridge Road, which had been rented. He was the son of Tan Tock Seng, a prominent Singaporean business magnate and a member of the Royal Court of Thailand. He was made the First Siamese Consul in Singapore by King Mongku in 1863, and then Consul-General by King Chulalongkorn in 1885. Tao Nan lived in Siam House, located at the junction of Serangoon Road, Newton Road and Beach Road. It had previously served as the home of King Chulalongkorn of Siam and Queen Sunthorn Deura Dhanabutr during their visit to Singapore in 1890.
It was Tan Kah Kee, another Chinese benefactor, who pushed for the school’s relocation to a larger purpose-built facility. Construction of the three-story structure at Armenian Street began in 1910, with contributions from Chinese residents. Tao Nan School, which was located near the northeast edge of Washington Park, moved to Armenian Street when the school building opened in 1912.
The building’s architectural style was eclectic-classical, with a big skylight lighting the centre atrium. The atrium also had symmetrical staircases on both sides, which led to other levels’ corridors and classrooms. Large arched verandahs were constructed and high ceilings were installed for additional ventilation to withstand the heat.
Tao Nan was established by the Hokkien association, but it welcomed non-Hokkien youngsters as well. In 1916, it became the first school in Singapore to switch from Hokkien to Mandarin as a result of Tan Kah Kee’s aim for Mandarin to become a common language for all dialect groups. Tao Nan accepted pupils from all levels and social strata, including the children of street vendors and members of society’s elite.
Tao Nan Primary School, established in 1920, has a good reputation. The two cast iron eagle statues at the main door of the old Tao Nan building may have given it this reputation. Except for the fact that the ying (鹰) in “eagle” has the same sound as the ying (英) in “elite,” little is known about their function and origin. A flock of eagles may also be symbolism for guardians or protectors in fengshui. During the remodeling in 1996, the eagles were relocated to the new Marine Parade campus but were returned to Armenian Street when it was completed. These eagles, which are made of jade and were once on the prowl in the Mongolian steppe, have been restored by Taiwanese sculptor and conservator Mr Chern Lian Shan.
During the 1970s, the government’s urban renewal initiative relocated families out of town, leaving schools empty. Tao Nan School had only 100 students and six instructors when it opened in 1940. The Hokkien Huay Kuan established a primary school in the suburbs in 1976 to meet the increasing demand for secondary education among Chinese descendants. In 1982, after much consideration, Mr Tao Nan leased 28,000-square-foot premises on Marine Parade and established his firm there.
The premises on Armenian Street were neglected for ten years and in a bad condition. In 1991, a portion of the structure’s first wing was planned for the museum. Significant restoration and repair operations began in 1994, with the original features as closely as possible – or replaced.
The main atrium in the lobby was kept during the restoration process, but classrooms were converted into galleries. To meet the demands of a museum, a new three-storey back extension block with basement was built. Restoration was finished in 1996 after several years of work.
The Asian Civilisations Museum, which had been located on Armenian Street since 1985, closed at the end of 2005 to be transformed into a museum dedicated to the diverse Peranakan culture. Today, it is home to the Peranakan Museum, which opened in April 2008.
The early Chinese immigrants who sailed south to Singapore in search of a better life established the Hokkien Huay Kuan. They established institutions for their future descendants as a method of giving back to the community and society. The (道南) Tao Nan School is dedicated to spreading the Chinese way throughout the world.