THE L I V I N G CULTURE TEST In the pink
A fascinating museum in Singapore focuses on the colourful Peranakan culture, reports Caroline Gladstone
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