Singapore pays tribute to Peranakan culture with new museum

A new Peranakan museum in Singapore showcases more than 1,200 items of Straits Chinese artefacts and tells the stories behind them.

MUSEUMS are much more than about items on display these days. They are about the stories behind the things as well.

Take the S$12mil (RM27.8mil) boutique Peranakan Museum, which opens this Saturday in what was once the Tao Nan School in Armenian Street. Work on it started just over two years ago.

The S$12mil(RM27.8mil)boutiquePeranakanMuseum, in whatwas once the TaoNan School inArmenian Street,Singapore.

The world’s most comprehensive collection of Straits Chinese, or Peranakan artefacts, it contains more than 1,200 items showcasing this unique South-East Asian culture.

The Peranakan community began with early Chinese immigrants in Malacca, Penang and Java adopting local customs and marrying local Malay women.

Peranakans, famed for sarong kebaya (embroidered blouse-and-batik ensemble), kueh (cake) and feisty bibik (matriarch), began to live a blend of Malay and Chinese lifestyles peppered with British and Dutch influences. The items on show reflect these influences and range from intricately beaded shoes to a grand wedding bed. Also on display is the largest Peranakan beadwork tablecloth, created using one million beads.

The treasures are often all the more precious for their “true blue” individual histories.

That is something Dr Kenson Kwok, director of the Asian Civilisations Museum which is developing and operating the Peranakan Museum project, can attest to.

Late 19th or early 20th century Peranakanbridal garment made of silk and goldthread.

About 10 years ago when a visitor from Penang walked into his office asking for him, Dr Kwok almost turned her away.

“She said her mother had all these nyonya things which she wanted to give to the museum,” he says. He adds with a laugh that he was not convinced and did not take her seriously at first.

At that time, the Asian Civilisations Museum had only a small section devoted to the Straits Chinese past. But the woman was persistent and urged him to fly to Penang to take a look at some of the work.

“I flew to Penang and the minute I saw the kamcheng (covered container which the Peranakans used to store and serve food, water or pickles), I knew we had something special.

“It was so precious that I hand-carried it back to Singapore. It weighs more than 5kg and I had it on my lap all through,” he says.

Today, the kamcheng, which dates back to the late 19th century and is worth over S$100,000 (RM230,000), occupies pride of place in the Food and Feasting Gallery of the Peranakan Museum – one of 10 themed galleries housed in the building. These are spread over a floor area of 4,000sqm with a display space of 1,500sqm.

Hairpins that were a part of Peranakanwedding jewellery.

Also in the Food and Feasting gallery is a set of eight dining chairs with English-style carving which would have been done by Chinese craftsmen, and which Dr Kwok found in a junk shop toilet. “We managed to find a full set and they were in pretty good condition,” he says.

However, the museum is not just about viewing displays, but having hands-on involvement as well. Some exhibits include interactive components. These include touchable displays at a Peranakan kitchen, wedding and beading activities, and a multimedia activity where children can dress up in Peranakan costume electronically.

The museum’s galleries range from one devoted to weddings to others that cover the process of growing up, religious beliefs, food and feasting, conversations and public life.

The Bim Poh Lenggang(ceremonialhandkerchief) used during the traditional12-day Peranakan wedding. The bride worethe handkerchief by wearing the ringaround the fourth finger of her left hand.

Visitors will get an insight into a traditional Peranakan wedding – an elaborate 12-day affair filled with rituals and ceremonies – and also of the chiu thau ceremony, a rite of purification and initiation into adulthood, for example.

The museum wants to engage people of all ages. Says curator Randall Ee: “We want people to live through those times.” – The Straits Times, Singapore / Asia News Network

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