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An insider’s guide to Singapore’s Peranakan Museum
Assistant curator Diane Chee's stories will make you appreciate and wander around its galleries even more
If you love going to museums and discovering different cultures, a trip to the newly refurbished and recently reopened Peranakan Museum in Singapore should be a no-brainer.
Don’t know what “Peranakan” means, or what Peranakan culture is all about? Good thing we have Asian Civilisations Museum and Peranakan Museum assistant curator Diane Chee to give us a brief introduction.
“Many people may not be aware that in Malay, ‘Peranakan’ has ‘anak’ or ‘child’ at its root, and means ‘locally born’,” she says.
“The term ‘Peranakan’ suggests someone who is locally born but has heritage from somewhere else – a mixture of cultures.
“Today, ‘Peranakan’ has taken on the status of cultural identity and refers to a range of mixed heritage communities,” she adds.
“Their unifying trait is the melding of ancestral cultures – Chinese, Indian, Arab, European and others – with the indigenous cultures of the Malay-Indonesian archipelago. Many names exist to refer to this array of cross-cultural combinations, including Chinese Peranakans, Chitty Melakans or Indian Peranakans, as well as Jawi and Arab Peranakans.
“Peranakan communities thus speak to the sort of cultural diversity and mixing inherent in Southeast Asian port cities such as Singapore. The Peranakan culture is a living and dynamic one that continues to evolve even today.”
And that’s just the beginning. You need to visit the museum to learn more (of course).
A virtual tour of sorts
Or more like a personal guide. If you can’t go to the Peranakan Museum just yet, Diane offers us a few teasers. She does this by revealing some of her favourite pieces, areas and tips.
Considering the museum has three floors and nine galleries that are all pretty much close to her heart, this is no mean feat.
“In the refreshed museum, visitors will get to find out more about Peranakan life through themes related to Origins, Home and Style as aspects of Peranakan identity,” she says.
“With a display of over 800 objects, ranging from newly acquired or generously donated objects to well-loved artefacts and set pieces, it’s difficult to choose. But if I had to, these artefacts would be my top picks.”
Can you spot them during your visit? (You can make it like a scavenger hunt for fun.)
Part I: Diane’s favourite pieces at the Peranakan Museum
#1 Portrait of Lie Pa-toe Nio
“In the Origins Gallery on Level One, visitors will be introduced to the diverse origins and evolution of Peranakan communities,” Diane explains.
“From hand-coloured photographs to photo walls, you will encounter portraits of past and present-day Peranakans. Contributed by various Peranakan communities, they show the diversity and richness of Peranakan cultural heritage.
“This gallery also features video interviews, where respondents share their thoughts and reflections on what ‘Peranakan’ means to them.”
#2 Group of monogrammed European tableware from an Arab Peranakan family, and Tok Panjang: Dinner service with the surname “Yap”
Look for the teapot, plate and goblet with the monogram of Syed Abdul Rahman bin Taha Alsagoff, aka Engku Aman (1836-1955), and this particular dinner service and set installation.
“Galleries on the second floor present objects related to family and community life, revealing a range of Peranakan customs, foods, languages and beliefs,” Diane describes.
“The galleries reunite furniture, portraits and furnishings that once shared the same home, in a new method of display that focuses on historical houses and architecture, many of which have since been demolished and are survived by the objects on view.
“The gallery dedicated to ceramics and food culture presents a refreshing take on the ceramics used by Peranakans and their diverse food culture. It features a floor-to-ceiling display of some of the best and rarest examples of Peranakan ‘nyonyaware’, as well as other types of ceramics used in Peranakan households.”
#3 Sarong kebaya costume and a necklace (addigai)
“Unified by the theme of Style, the third floor galleries feature an extensive collection of materials, from batik to needlework and jewellery to fashion,” she states.
“A wide range of fashion is displayed beyond the iconic sarong kebaya, including menswear, footwear, bags and accessories. With over 130 objects on display, the Fashion Gallery also highlights contemporary expressions to demonstrate how fashion of the Peranakans is diverse, reflects hybrid influences, and evolved over centuries.
“Likewise, the newly dedicated Jewellery Gallery presents more than 180 pieces of jewellery across various stages of life and occasions, tracing its chronological development and evolution in response to changing dress fashions and hybrid influences.”
But that’s not all
Which parts of the museum did Diane find herself spending the most time in, because she was so immersed and interested in them?
I ask this because this happens to me a lot. I can’t seem to move from one area because I have so many questions swirling in my head.
Are you the same? Diane goes on to share her favourite stops and the reasons behind them.
Part II: Diane’s favourite areas at the Peranakan Museum
#1 The Origins Gallery
“Visitors are invited to trace the roots and routes that our diverse Peranakan communities took through an interactive display, and listen to 20 personal stories from Peranakan families who share what being Peranakan means to them,” Diane says.
“There are approximately 300 photographs of which 100 are on loan from Peranakan individuals, families and community groups. It was an honour to get to know them through the process of selecting images for display, and it was truly moving to be with them when they saw their family photographs in the gallery. There were more than a few tears!
“Our lenders welcomed us into their homes, shared their stories, and in true Peranakan fashion they very often fed us as well. I remember in particular a wonderful Chitty Melaka feast where we met a large Indian Peranakan family, snacked on homemade Apom Berkuah at the Gunong Sayang Association HQ in Marine Parade, and had addictive prawn sambal sandwiches at the home of one of our Eurasian lenders.”
#2 The Ceramics and Food Culture Gallery
Who can step away from anything related to food?
“At this gallery, we complement exquisite nyonyaware and other ceramics used in the homes of Peranakan families with videos celebrating Peranakan taste and cooking,” Diane says.
“Visitors can learn more about the customs and traditions of different Peranakan families through the dinnerware they use as well as their diverse food culture, as we introduce recipes such as Babi Buah Keluak, which is a favourite of Chinese Peranakan cook Malcolm Lee. Another dish that is featured is Lauk Pindang, which is demonstrated by Indian Peranakan cook Tanya Pillay-Nair.”
#3 Art by Sam Lo and Lavender Chang
“In recognition of the relevance of Peranakan culture and identity today, the museum commissioned artworks from contemporary artists Sam Lo and Lavender Chang,” Diane continues.
“I’ve had the pleasure to work with Sam Lo on their art installation Coming Home, which serves as a homecoming to welcome and celebrate the lives of generations of Peranakans, both near and far, in an effort to evoke feelings of pride and unity in the community. Working with Sam was a wonderfully collaborative process. Their clear vision and deep interest in Peranakan heritage was coupled with an openness as to what would work best in the space both from an artistic and technical perspective.
“The air well is not an easy spot in which to mount a complicated artwork and I thank Sam, their contractor Sean, and my exhibitions and estates colleagues for the wonderful end result.”
More than ready
If you haven’t noticed it by now, Diane believes the objects matter because of the stories attached to them.
And it doesn’t end there. “We were lucky to meet so many community members while curating the galleries, and their stories are what stay in our minds as we choose objects for display,” she admits.
“The journey continues now that we have opened the galleries. We were recently fortunate enough to meet members of the Tan family, who provided valuable oral history regarding the Tan Kim Seng ancestral altar which is displayed on Level Two.”
Since she’s properly primed us for a future visit, she gives us a couple of tips to maximise it.
Part III: Diane’s favourite tips for exploring the Peranakan Museum
#1 Keep an open mind
“It allows us to develop a greater appreciation of other cultures and communities, and broadens our perspective of the world,” she says.
“Even with the diversity of Peranakan cultures, we get the sense that we’re more alike than different. This is especially so after my experience working closely with the various Peranakan communities and associations for the refreshed museum.
“It is also inspiring to see how the Peranakan story is a port city story that is integral to Singapore, and how this still resonates with us living in this modern world.”
#2 Start from the bottom and work your way up
“I’d say not to miss the Origins Gallery on the ground floor, and then to follow the flow upwards to the third floor.”
#3 Set aside at least half a day
“Take your time to truly immerse yourself in the museum experience,” she urges.
“There’s so much to see and it’s important not to rush through the galleries to take in the wonderful and intricate details of each and every artefact displayed, as well as to explore the many layers and aspects of Peranakan identity.”
But then you’re always welcome to stay longer. (If you’re like me, you probably will.)
Photos courtesy of the Peranakan Museum
How to spend your time at the Peranakan Museum
Or at any other museum, for that matter. These tips are mine.
#1 It’s okay to read every caption
Or sign, or plaque. I do. I always want to know the background of a particular piece. It makes me imagine what it was like back then.
(Just don’t take up too much space and stop other people from reading them.)
#2 Find a seat
And stare at the images. It’s like taking a break – an insightful and inspiring one, that is.
#3 Talk to the staff
I find that some usually roam around and are happy to answer questions and chat. At least those who I’ve come across do.
#4 Take pictures
If it’s allowed. I find that they can inspire you when you’re feeling creative (or even when you’re not) – like if you want to redecorate your room or organise your desk. The shapes, the colours, the details… they make great starting points for projects.