A treasure trove of early photos at Singapore's Peranakan Museum

  • Arts
  • Monday, 16 Jul 2018

By the 1860s, when the pioneer photo studios were established in Singapore, affluent Peranakans were among the first to have their photos taken. The more than 200 photos on display at Amek Gambar range from portraits of prominent Peranakans. Photo: Peranakan Museum Singapore

A section of a new exhibition at the Peranakan Museum in Singapore shows photos of a Baba wearing a sarong kebaya, a Nyonya dressed as a Baba and a man who probably spoke no Mandarin posing like a scholarly Chinese gentleman.

A Peranakan man is a Baba while a woman is a Nyonya.

“I call this the cosplay room,” says Peter Lee, Peranakan scholar and guest curator, during a tour of the exhibition.

Amek Gambar: Peranakans And Photography – its name means “taking pictures” – traces the evolution of photography in South-East Asia through the lens of the Peranakan community. The exhibition is on until February next year. It is the museum’s first historical photography exhibition.

The photos on display defy generalisations about the Peranakans – for instance, the view that they were all very traditional and conservative, says Lee, 55, who is the son of prominent Peranakan figure Lee Kip Lee. He is also the younger brother of Singaporean singer-songwriter Dick Lee.

Young man with a camera by an unknown photographer. This silver gelatin print photo taken in the Straits Settlements or Indonesia, around 1920s. Photo: Peranakan Museum Singapore

“They were experimental and improvised a lot ... They seemed confident and unabashed in how they presented themselves.”

Peranakan usually refers to the migrant Chinese communities who assimilated with the Malays over many generations, often through inter-marriage.

Practical photography was invented in Europe in 1839 and the technology arrived in South-East Asia in the 1840s. By the 1860s, when the pioneer photo studios were established in Singapore, affluent Peranakans were among the first to have their photos taken.

The more than 200 photos on display at Amek Gambar range from portraits of prominent Peranakans, such as Chinese-Indonesian businessman Oei Tiong Ham, to early 20th-century “selfies” that were taken with the help of mirrors.

Most of them came from a donation of more than 2,500 photos Lee’s parents made to the museum.

'Tan Kim Ching and Family' by German ethnologist, naturalist, and photographer Fedor Jagor (1816–1900). This Albumen stereoview print in Singapore circa 1857–58 is s the oldest photograph on paper in Singapore’s National Collection. Photo: Peranakan Museum Singapore

One aim of the exhibition is to draw a “connection between our popular culture today – our visual culture – and the birth of photography,” says Lee, who curated the exhibition with the museum’s assistant curator Dominic Low.

“How it became a part of life, how people were changed by photography.”

Early photography techniques are also on display. From Singapore’s National Collection is an 1844 daguerreotype of Boat Quay and the Singapore River from Government Hill (Fort Canning) – the oldest surviving photo of Singapore.

Albumen prints of prominent Peranakan tycoon Tan Kim Ching and family are also featured – these appear as a three-dimensional image when seen through a binocular viewer. They date back to 1857 or 1858 and are the National Collection’s oldest photographs on paper.

Many of the early photos at the exhibition would have survived in the albums of diplomats who returned to Europe, before being bought by dealers and resurfacing at photography fairs and on eBay.

Studio portrait of a Peranakan couple, Keechun Studio Penang (silver gelatin print, 1920). Photo: Peranakan Museum Singapore

Lee finds that the people in the photos often express “an easy acceptance” of what was then newfangled technology and an understanding of how to pose for a photo.

He points to one man in a photo of a Chinese family in Melaka who, looking askance at the camera with a sense of nonchalance, “seems to have some kind of attitude”.

Like many others in the exhibition, the image, captured by A. Sachtler & Co between 1863 and 1874, features a wealth of detail – from the mishmash of Asian and European influences in the photo to the blurred children who could not keep still for the few minutes needed for the photo to be taken.

John Teo, general manager of the Peranakan Museum, which marks its 10th anniversary this year, says the Lee family’s donation “fills a gap” in the museum’s collection, particularly in areas such as the Dutch East Indies which it did not have much of before.

Response to the Amek Gambar exhibition, which also features early cameras, a digital space and other media such as charcoal on paper, has been “quite encouraging”. It has attracted 2,000 visitors a week since it opened last month. – The Straits Times/Asia News Network

Amek Gambar: Peranakans And Photography exhibition is on at the Peranakan Museum in Singapore till Feb 3, 2019. For more info: www.peranakanmuseum.org.sg.

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