A fas­ci­nat­ing mu­seum in Sin­ga­pore fo­cuses on the colour­ful Per­anakan cul­ture, re­ports Caro­line Glad­stone

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

ASIN­GA­PORE mu­seum de­voted to Per­anakan peo­ple and cul­ture is ap­pro­pri­ately colour­ful in­side and out. Ex­te­rior paint­work is such a sub­tle shade of aqua that it looks bril­liant white from a dis­tance. In­te­rior walls are lemon and pink and the crock­ery, cloth­ing and beaded ac­ces­sories on dis­play are a riot of colour, with pink the dom­i­nant shade.

Be­hind wrought-iron gates, the mu­seum oc­cu­pies the for­mer Tao Nan School on Ar­me­nian Street in Sin­ga­pore’s Civic district. It’s a grand three-level build­ing, con­structed in 1910 by three Per­anakan bene­fac­tors. The mu­seum opened early last year af­ter a two-year, $S12 mil­lion ren­o­va­tion.

The tra­di­tional cloth­ing on show takes my mem­ory back sev­eral decades to when it was trendy to wear a ke­baya, usu­ally picked up on a Bali beach hol­i­day. This soft, em­broi­dered blouse, usu­ally clasped with a brooch, is the sta­ple dress of Per­anakan women, teamed with a batik sarong.

Per­anakan means ‘‘ lo­cal born’’ in Malay and th­ese peo­ple are de­scen­dants of Chi­nese traders who first set­tled in Malacca and along the coasts of Java and Su­ma­tra in the 14th cen­tury.

The men mar­ried non-Mus­lim Malay women, spawn­ing a hy­brid cul­ture. Drawn by com­merce, they mi­grated in the 19th cen­tury to the bustling ports of Pe­nang and Sin­ga­pore, where many played a piv­otal role as in­ter­me­di­aries with the Por­tuguese, Dutch and Bri­tish colo­nial traders.

Sin­ga­pore’s present Per­anakan pop­u­la­tion could num­ber about 10,000, say mu­seum of­fi­cials, who ad­mit there are no firm statis­tics. The Per­anakan hey­day was in the late 19th and early 20th cen­turies, when the wealthy built elab­o­rate ter­race houses, in a style known as Chi­nese baroque, at Emer­ald Hill near Or­chard Road and in the east coast sub­urbs of Joo Chiat and Ka­tong.

About 1200 arte­facts are on dis­play in the mu­seum’s 10 gal­leries. In the Ori­gins gallery, I dis­cover more about the di­ver­sity of Per­anakan peo­ple.

As well as the Chi­nese Per­anakans, who form the ma­jor­ity within the Sin­ga­porean com­mu­nity, there are In­di­ans who set­tled in the Malacca Straits who also call them­selves Per­anakan.

Adding to the cul­tural melange, some of the In­di­ans are Hindu (the Chitty Me­laka) and some are Mus­lim (Jawi Per­anakans). There are also the Per­anakans who have mar­ried into Euro­pean fam­i­lies. The mu­seum in­tro­duces them all and hails their cos­mopoli­tan and tol­er­ant na­tures.

Gallery 7 is de­voted to re­li­gion and this is the most multi-lay­ered col­lec­tion. I am drawn to an amaz­ingly carved fam­ily shrine that was once Daoist but is now a Catholic al­tar, fol­low­ing the fam­ily’s con­ver­sion to the faith.

The Chi­nese Per­anakans are the dom­i­nant group on show: the men are called babas , the women are nonyas , and the older women, por­trayed as no-non­sense ma­tri­archs, are bibiks .

Their food is nonya and the porce­lain crock­ery is nonya -ware. The grand ban­quet set­ting in the Food and Feast­ing gallery is an ar­ray of 30 or so pink bowls, plates and tureens dec­o­rated with del­i­cate but­ter­flies, flow­ers, pea­cocks and myth­i­cal Chi­nese crea­tures.

Four gal­leries are de­voted to the wed­ding. The star piece is a wed­ding bed, topped with an or­nate canopy, on which a Pe­nang woman gave birth to the first seven of her 11 chil­dren. It is adorned with what look like fab­ric tas­sels but I dis­cover they are fer­til­ity sym­bols and good-luck charms.

My favourite among the gal­leries is the one ded­i­cated to the nonya : here are the lovely ke­bayas and beau­ti­ful beaded ac­ces­sories that the women still wear. There are dainty beaded evening shoes, hand­bags and even daun ni­pah cases for car­ry­ing to­bacco.

Liv­ing his­tory: Sin­ga­pore’s Per­anakan Mu­seum cel­e­brates a unique cul­ture

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