Malayan matchmaker and stories from the Sireh box

Emerald Hill was once home to the spice orchards after which Orchard Road derives its name

Long before William Cuppage, the Postmaster General of Singapore in the 1840s bought some land and converted Emerald Hill into residential area, this is where the legendary orchards were – primarily nutmeg, but also pepper, gambier and areca nut. (There is even a Nutmeg Street near Mount Elizabeth and Ion Orchard has duly paid a tribute to the orchards via a sculptural nutmeg art installation.)

The original residents in Emerald Hill came to Singapore from Guangdong and Fujian provinces in China. Industrious and full of potential, yet neglected by the emperors in the north they abandoned their motherland to travel south. Guided by the South Winds, the Nanyang or Southern Chinese were determined to make a life for themselves.

They travelled to Malacca, which was then the nucleus of the Malay Sultanate, and then to Singapore, adapting to local ways of living and yet being true to their Chinese heritage. They lived in kampungs; ate with their hands; intermixed languages; married the Javanese, Malay, Sumatrans and Indians; traded with the Portuguese and the Dutch; and spoke English.

Their mixed heritage became their identity. They were the Peranakans. Proud and fiercely protective of their culture, the Peranakans maintain their heritage via language, food and identity even today.

In the early days, Peranakans preferred to marry among themselves to continue their lineage. This is why a matchmaker was considered very important.

Tepak Sireh is a traditional box brass container that holds betel leaf, betel nut, cutters, lime and other condiments. Offering someone a betel leaf was an invitation to engage in a conversation (Photo courtesy:

Matchmaker, Matchmaker,
Make me a match,
Find me a find,
catch me a catch.

A matchmaker’s job was to get young Peranakan men and women married and make a living from it. This form of marriage brokering still exists in many parts of South and Southeast Asia, China and Japan. The real reward for any matchmaker is counting the number of marriages made possible.

And so, on a warm Saturday morning in April, a dozen of us Jane’s Tours participants, followed the footsteps of the matchmaker along the back alleys of Emerald Hill. Here, he/she would walk, overhearing conversations of the unmarried girls and listen to the rhythm created by pounding of the spices to gauge how ready they were to be betrothed. (The Peranakan spice mixes are zealously guarded and passed on from mother to daughter even today.)

pintu_pagar_chinese (2)
Pintu Pagar or is a half door is  a Malayan vernacular architectural feature that offers privacy and at the same time natural breeze to come into the house

The matchmaker would then enter the home from the Pintu Pagar or the modesty door at the front of the house to strike a deal between a prospective bride and groom. Most conversations would take place not over tea, but over a Sireh or a betel leaf concoction.

Wrapped with condiments such as lime paste, betel nut, anise seed, a few strands of saffron and pinned with a clove, the act of offering someone betel leaf parcel was an invitation to engage in a conversation.

The interested party would typically send betel leaf and betel nut as a symbol of proposal via the matchmaker. Betel leaf thus became a token of agreement for a marriage and signifies love and matrimony in many countries of Asia till today.

Betel leaf and betel nut are an important part of every Indian marriage ceremony, religious rituals and festivals. In Vietnam, the phrase, chuyện trầu cau, meaning matters of betel and areca is synonymous with love and marriage. (photo source: internet)

The Peranakans are a matriarchal society. In public, it was the husband who was seen to be the important person, however, at home, a Baba would submit to an uncompromising matriarch, usually the grandmother.

From an early age, the girls would come under the supervision of their mothers or the Nyonyas who taught them how to cook, sew, embroider and do bead work (kasut manek), and most importantly, manage a household.

The boys on the other hand, went to school and progressively adopted western ways such as wearing western attire, indulging in western pursuits such as playing tennis and joining a club, and some even adopting Christianity.

Once married, the Nyonya assumed the responsibility of playing the role of a matriarch and made important decisions for the family, such as managing budgets, administering cooks and cleaners, homeschooling the girls, dealing with the day-to-day problems and establishing her position within the household and in the society.

And when she would find a free moment, she would indulge in eating a sireh. Many wouldn’t dream of leaving home without their beloved Tepak sireh box and even today, old black & white photos show women carrying their portable Sireh set in hand – it was considered as a sign of elite.

From Dutch to Portuguese to Belgian and Japanese, the tiles became not only a part of Peranakan architecture, but also calling cards for the elite Englishmen who would immediately discern that the homes with glazed tiles belonged to the Peranakans.

Here in Emerald Hill, the orchards have long gone but the old shop houses and its back alleys still exist. Walking around in the heritage conservation area, you can appreciate the richness of the Peranakan culture and lifestyle.

The architecture is a curious mix of east and west. A typical Peranakan house would have French windows, Tang dynasty roof in bamboo tile decor, central light well, Palladian columns made from alabaster and decorated with flowers, fruits or geometric reliefs, wooden trellis that is typically seen in Malayan vernacular architecture, terracotta tiles on the 5-foot pathway and the inimitable glazed tiles that adorn its shop house exteriors.

As traders, Peranakans went to Europe and for the first time saw the glazed tiles which the Europeans used in their kitchens and bathrooms. They returned with these tiles and instead of using them inside their kitchens, proudly plastered them on the walls of their shop houses to show that they were well travelled.

The old Bukit Timah Railway Station (BTRS) that is currently being converted into an eco-corridor. After the establishment of Tanjong Pagar Railway station, BTRS was decommissioned.

Behind the Emerald Hill lay the train tracks and the train from Johor Bahru rattled its way to Bukit Timah Railway Station via Cuppage Road, transporting rubber and timber. After the construction of the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, the tracks were decommissioned, however, Peranakan culture still lives on in Singapore, in Malacca and in Penang – which in Malay, means betel nut.

From their exotic food and kuehs, kasut manek beaded slippers, the beautiful sarong kebaya, hybrid architecture, ceramic ware, as well as many successful businessmen, philanthropists, politicians, activists and nation builders (one of whom was the late MM Lee Kuan Yew), Pernakans continue to add colour and vibrancy to our society.

To view a photo gallery of Emerald Hill, please click on or you can view them on my blog site, World Without Compass. To book this tour, please visit Jane’s Tours.

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