Story of Our Museums

The Tao Nan School Building

The architectural plans of Tao Nan School at 39 Armenian Street were drawn up and approved by the Municipal Engineer's Office in 1910. Construction of the building itself was completed in March 1912. The Tao Nan building was designed in the "Eclectic Classical" style. The fluted columns and the symmetry of the building are characteristic of Classical architecture while the balconies fronting the façade suggest a colonial or tropical style. The layout of the building is also based on Straits Settlements bungalows with rooms arranged around a common central hall and toilets and kitchens outside the principal building.

The old Tao Nan Building began life as Daonan Xuexiao (Tao Nan School) where lessons were taught in Hokkien, a Chinese dialect and its syllabus focused on practical c ourses such as natural sciences, mathematics, drawing, singing and technical studies.

In 1916, Mandarin replaced Hokkien as the medium of instruction and the first non-Hokkien principal, Xiong Shangfu, a native of Hunan province, was hired to implement the Mandarin syllabus. Tao Nan was the first modern Chinese school in the Straits Settlements to effect the change from dialect to Mandarin. The twenties and thirties saw administrative as well as further educational changes in Tao Nan.

When World War II started, Tao Nan terminated its classes at the start of 1942. Similar to many Singapore schools during the war, the Tao Nan school building was occupied by the Japanese army, and it was heard that they used it as a military headquarters. Immediately after the war, the Hokkien Huay Kuan took charge of the repairs to the school and Tao Nan reopened in October 1945, two months after the Japanese surrendered.

The building façade looked fine but the facilities within the school suffered tremendously. However, enrolment at Tao Nan in the immediate post-war years was extremely high because students whose education was disrupted by the war returned to school along with those of the proper school age. The fifties and sixties saw a shift in emphasis from Mandarin syllabus to Malay, Chinese, Tamil and English languages and it became a government-aided school with a huge number of pupils.

In 1976, the Hokkien Huay Kuan decided that Tao Nan should move from the city to cater to the rising number of pupils in the suburbs, where a new school building could also provide better modern facilities. In 1982, Tao Nan surrendered its Armenian Street premises and relocated to Marine Parade.

Conversion to Museum

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Preparations for the inaugural exhibition of the Asian Civilisations Museum began in 1994. Storylines and themes were discussed, designers and construction companies appointed, artefacts selected and labels written.

Appropriately, for a building that was once converted from a Chinese school, the permanent exhibition of the Museum began with a focus on different aspects of Chinese culture and civilisation, ranging from architecture to the connoisseurship of the literati. Later, the permanent exhibition at ACM, Armenian Street focused on showcasing the rich material and cultural heritage of the Peranakans. The ACM closed at the end of 2005 to be redeveloped as a new museum to showcase the eclectic Peranakan culture.

Today, the old Tao Nan School has entered the latest and most colourful phase in its history – as the Peranakan Museum.

Over the 70-year occupation of the place, several changes were made to the building. Space was differently employed and some structures were added while others demolished. The biggest transformation is the conversion from a school to a museum.