Part of my adventures with the University of Canberra has included visiting two places dedicated to telling the narrative of the Peranakan ethnic group. It was an interesting comparison between the two methods of displaying the culture and history of the group.
Peranakan in Malay means ‘local born’, but in Singapore the word is used to describe the family and descendants of Chinese immigrants who married local Malay women. It’s an incredible cultural heritage, where the culture of both the Chinese and Malay blending together fairly harmoniously. To add to that blend, the Peranakan combined other facets of cultures that they appreciated into the mix. This resulted in a specific (almost eclectic) style and a different way of thinking compared to other ethnic groups.
The two locations that we visited to explore this culture was The Intan and Baba House. Both are houses, and both present the history of Peranakans in slightly different ways (although the core narrative is very similar). I’m glad that we visited both, because I feel like the two fleshed out the history quite well.
The Intan is owned and operated by a Peranakan descendant, Alvin Yapp. Alvin started collecting Peranakan artefacts and antiques from a young age, wanting to connect to and learn about his culture. The house belongs to him and the collection is entirely brought to life via the stories he tells. Downstairs, we were given tea and cakes that were made for us by his mother. Alvin is a very talented interpreter, and after giving us a briefing on how his collection and research started, he allowed us to pick his brains. What is Peranakan? Are people still Peranakan? What role does religion play in the culture? What is this thingy over here? It was great having a guide which allowed for just being curious. Upstairs is where all the very shiny and interesting things live, and I was bedazzled by the sheer number of Peranakan beaded shoes (a skill that now quite rare). The house is not exactly a museum, and it’s not exactly a heritage house, it somehow manages to straddle the two aspects well. It certainly is an impressive collection, and it is was wonderful to be given access to it so warmly.
Baba House is different entirely. Owned and operated by NUS university, it is very much both a heritage house and a museum combined (and also kind of separated out). Level 1 and 2 of the house are frozen in time in the year 1926, considered academically to the be the peak of Peranakan culture. The 3rd floor is a very impressive museum, in a surprisingly small space. The house is being restored/conserved by university students and academics, and I was surprised to hear that at least 40% of the furniture was from the original family that owned the house (which I thought was pretty impressive considering the house was empty when they took over the site). I picked the curators brain for a while on how choices were made about what was being added to the space, and I will be happily applying some of those thought processes when I get home again. I really loved the museum up the top of the house as well, talk about fitting something really diverse into a small space!
Peranakan culture is incredibly interesting, I’m so glad that we have spent this time learning about it. I had no idea that it existed before this trip was scheduled and I feel like it is a really fascinating example of multiculturalism. I really hope next time I am in Singapore the Peranakan Museum will be open again, so that I can have another view point added to my experiences.
Please note: For both locations, photography was severely limited, so I’m very sorry about the lack of substance in these images. I will say, in my very laid back vernacular though - the embroidery/beadwork at the Intan, and the language diagram in Baba House, are very awesome. Also, if you click on the photos, the full size will come up, which means Alvins head will come back into existence.
(Before I get fully started, please be aware that the photos below do have graphic representations of violence)
Yesterday, I travelled through the 10 courts of hell and survived to tell the tale. Welcome to Haw Par Villa, probably one of my absolute highlights from my trip so far! The cultural park is one of the most fascinating places I have ever had the pleasure of visiting.
Situated in Pasir Panjang, the parks origin story starts with Tiger Balm. What is Tiger Balm? Tiger Balm is an ointment you can buy in most countries that is rubbed onto sore joints and muscles to relieve pain. Two brothers, Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, inherited and grew their fathers apothecary shop, which led to the eventual success of Tiger Balm. The park was a built in 1937 as a gift from Boon Haw to Boon Par, and was originally called Tiger Balm Gardens. The brothers had a deep appreciation of Chinese mythology and lore, and created the gardens around a lavish villa they would live in. Boon Haw’s personal motto was “That which is derived from society, should be returned to society”, the park became part of that vision.
So what are you seeing in the photos below? It’s a combination of things: Chinese mythology, folk law, Confucian philosophy and a surprising number of turtles. The park contains over 1,000 statues, many of which are organised into dioramas that explore a certain park of the topic. Quite a few of the dioramas explain the scene (the panels for the Journey to the West were my favourites), but some are just left to the imagination to those who are unaware of the origin stories. The section covering the Ten Courts of Hell had very good signage, and I am disappointed that I am probably going to at least a couple of levels unless I up my game slightly. Apparently the park was used in the past by parents to educate children on why good behaviour is important.
What a wonderful cultural landscape! So many parks are pleasant to view, with a lovely wander through some flowering plants and probably a gazebo somewhere. A place to relax. Not this park, this park will invade your brain with stories, histories and a curiosity to work out exactly why those duck people sculptures are looking so angry. It’s colourful and loud and completely in your face. It shoves Chinese culture right into your personal space and leaves you with the impression that there is so much more to explore. This place is absolutely something to celebrate - if not from a place of faith, then from awe at incredible story building. Even from a place outside of faith, I can see how it can also be seen as a place of reflection. In particular, the area where you can try laying down in a coffin, certain makes you consider your own mortality. It has a rich history of how it was constructed and developed over the years, which is also well worth diving into.
It’s interesting that cultural or theme parks have not made it into many heritage lists so far. I think that people see them as being frivolous or designed to only make money, but these places do reflect culture and society. Places like Disney World, are deeply ingrained into our perception of what it is to be in a state of wonder or disconnected from reality and placed into stories. Are we just too serious and grown up to consider these places special?
Or maybe it’s simply that these parks may not want that heritage status anyway. After all, a heritage listing can seriously restrict a places ability to adapt and change, which is exactly what stories do. Imagine the way that the story of the Journey to the West has changed. From the original writings, to the Monkey Magic of my childhood to the newly created New Zealand version from last year. Stories should be adaptable to include new generations of participants.
It’s sad to see so many of the sculptural pieces of Haw Par Villa suffering from the ravage of weather and years. If I were much braver, and able to work in Singapore, I would absolutely choose this as a location of infinite opportunity for development. If you are visiting Singapore, you should pop it onto your list of places to visit. Key tips - make sure you have a couple of spare dollar coins in your pocket to feed the many turtles and the EFTPOS facilities weren’t great when I was there (but the staff were lovely). They also run tours which I would have loved to experience
I had a *lot* of fun yesterday, doing a practice section of cultural mapping in Waterloo Street. It was colourful, and fascinating, and basically compiled a bunch of the things that I like about working in museums into one handy location. It’s the hunt for data and information, that puts together a picture. I’m gushing, but it’s wonderful.
Waterloo Street stretches from Rocher road to Bras Basah Road in downtown Singapore. Our cultural mapping session included the space between Albert Street and Bencoolen Link. The space includes two amazing temples, Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple and Sri Krishna Temple. The street in front of the temples is crowded with incense and flower sellers, fortune readers and massage tents. The next section up takes a hard right and is almost all retail or clothes and Knick-knacks.
I decided to follow the sounds of the street. A fair amount of cultural mapping is focused on intangible heritage, and as a personal note I tend to identify places with the way the sound first when remembering. Plus, if you took the sounds away from this street, it would lose a significant amount of it’s cultural feel.
As you enter the street from the Sri Krishna Temple, there is the sound of the bells being rung on the front door. This bell is an important part of the process of entering the temple space, as they believe that it will make them more receptive to the experience inside. The bell is also associated being polite, and asking permission of the gods to enter the temple.
Just outside this temple, and I admit that this is going to sound odd, but you will likely hear a bit of flesh slapping. This is the sound of the massage practitioners working on clients. The massage places are all professing to have special healing properties and have signs up explaining ‘energy’ flows in peoples bodies. You will also start to have people approach you, looking to sell either flowers of incense that can be used in the temples. They don’t ask incessantly, just politely once. I came across a man without a nose, and wearing a placard that said “Diesel causes cancer”, speaking loudly to anyone who would listen in Mandarin.
Outside the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple, you will hear what is best described as the sound of shaking. The temple is devoted to Avalokitesvara, the Goddess of Mercy. Devotees believe that using fortune sticks (or divination) sticks will help to guide them. The process includes shaking a cylinder of these items, which when combined by the many others in the space performing the same ritual, creates a sound that can be easily heard on the street.
Moving down the street towards Bencoolen Link, shops have turned their music up to encourage visitation. Unlike China town, the music here is not sugary American pop, it’s chanting or religious in nature. All of it is in a language I can’t understand, but it is still quite effecting. The retail is mostly offerings, herbs, food and religious paraphernalia.
As you cross the Bencoolen Link, heading towards Albert Street, you reach more retail. Over here you will find people on megaphones selling clothes, knife sharpeners, and all manner of Knick-knacks. You will also be able to hear people bantering and bartering with stall keepers.
The street is incredible. It’s so full of sounds that you normally wouldn’t hear together in Australia. I have to go back before the end of my trip to actually try the divination stick ritual. I had a lot of fun here, and i can’t wait for the next session with Ngee Ann Polytechinic students.
Friends, I love embroidery. I’m sure you have already picked that up. Yesterday, I went to an exhibition at the Asian Civilisation Exhibition on the work by Guo Pei that just sunk into my soul. That moment, where people talk about being emotionally moved by a piece of art, or music? That was me, in awe. The embroidery and beading work is beyond anything I have ever seen in person before. Beyond literally getting lost in the design of the works, the exhibition design is divine. And it has a fabulous education section. I was in heaven.
Guo Pei is China’s leading couturiere, creating not only incredible clothing for famous people, but also artistic pieces that are mind blowing. Having started sewing at the age of 2 (!), her career started in Tianma and then moved on to create Rose Studio in 1997. Gus’s dresses are designed to tell a story, through the medium of fabric and textiles. The entire outfit stitches together to tell a narrative. Her most famous work is most likely what the media started calling the ‘Omelette Dress’ (I believe it’s actual name is the Empress Dress), which was worn by Rihanna during the Met Gala in 2015.
The exhibition is beautifully designed, with lighting that highlights the dresses perfectly. The first section, has a minimalistic wardrobe feeling to it. The dresses are displayed next to either clothing or items from collections that form part of the inspiration behind the design. In the second section along, the dress on the mannequins have well placed mirrors around them, giving the impression that the wearable items are being admired by the wearer. When you move into the last section, which are highly sculptural artistic designs (only really worn for the runway) the mirrors disappear for the dresses to stand by themselves in the space. The interpretation is spot on. Short and easy to read panels, and the exhibition guide (in multiple languages) doesn’t just repeat exactly what is on the walls. There is soft music to set the feeling of the space, and benches to gaze upon the works.
I loved the education section of the exhibition as well, which is designed for both children and adults. The learning space is located well and truly on the other side of the exhibition, where the prized Empress Dress commands the space. There are a couple of really great reasons for the location: the noise of creating and having fun doesn’t leak into the other galleries, it’s outside of the paid section so it can tempt people in, and it a lovely well lit area. There is a reading area with books about art and design in fashion, a creation space for making clothes on mannequins and a great embroidery area that doesn’t include the risk of visitors stabbing themselves with sharp needles. It’s really just fabulous and inviting for anyone to touch, play and learn.
Go see this exhibition, it you can. It’s wonderful and inspiring, both as an embroidery geek and as a museum design/interpretation enthusiast. I am so glad I had the chance to see this. I left with a much great appreciation of Chinese art and fashion.
There have been very few buildings I’ve visited in Singapore so far that are still being used for their original purpose. Singapore is both old and new, with buildings being repurposed to fit into current requirements. I feel that this is probably better then knocking down lovely heritage buildings, but in the case of places like Haji Lane can be jarring or cause cultural clashes. Today we went to see the National Gallery, and I was pretty blown away by the changes to the two heritage buildings.
The National Gallery Singapore opened in 2015, which makes it a surprisingly young institution. It’s focus is on Singaporean art and culture, and works that explore Singapores global connections. The Gallery consists of two main buildings, which are connected via a glass atrium (which reminded me of other museums such as the British Museum and the National Museum of Singapore). The two main buildings are the original City Hall and Supreme Court. The two buildings are connected via the covered atrium and two link bridges at different levels.
I thought that the way the two buildings were treated was quite interesting. The City Hall side felt like a brand new building. Without having been told that it was a converted office area, I would not have guessed it’s origin at all. The area has been made into large long galleries, with an open air space plunging down the middle. At the lower level, there is a completely kick arse children's area, which I will hopefully get a chance to rave about a little later. It has a level of gallery noise, which is to be expected in a busy space. The art works within this space were in capsules, and cut off from a narrative linking them to each other.
The Supreme Court side is quite different, as there is an attempt to preserve some of the nature of the original building. The first thing that struck me, as I walked through the heavy doors, was the complete quiet of the space. The building had been designed to suppress noise inside, which when cut off from the noisy galleries, gave the space a somber quality. The galleries include hints of it’s previous life: a pulpit still in place, viewing areas in dark wood, spaces where judges would have sat. The art in the Supreme Court side had a very specific nation building narrative, with rooms leafing logically to each other. Significantly, the Chief Justices office is filled with nation effecting documents on display, such as the divorce papers from Malaysia.
I wondered why these two buildings felt so different. I wonder whether it is because the role of the Supreme Court is more relatable to visitors - what happened here? Law stuff happened here. It was probably important. Where as the city hall section is filled with the faceless people that help to make a government and country to run. Government workers rarely get wigs or robes to work in. I felt like I had a clearer connection to the heritage in the Supreme Court, where as City Hall honestly felt a little hidden.
Or it could just be that too much of the City Hall section was closed, awaiting the new exhibition that is opening on Saturday and taking up a substantial amount of the City Hall space.
I do really love that they have two (and a bit) exhibition spaces open that describe the history and transition of the buildings. Large panels describe the original purpose and designs, the archeology of what had been found on the site during digs and explanations on why choices had been made. Many of the panels included a small pin mark that explained where you could find the feature that was being discussed. I have seen a growing tend in embracing displaying works done within museums, and I think it is really fabulous.
I really liked what they have done to the space - it’s felt connected while still feeling modern and a bit slick. I don’t think that the heritage of the building it specifically lost, but it is more muted. It was a thoroughly enjoyable gallery to visit.
Some articles that I read while writing this blog post:
The Architecture of National Gallery Singapore
Design of the Year 2015
National Gallery Singapore
Today the group had planned tours at the National Museum of Singapore, Battlebox and the Bicentennial Experience at Fort Canning. All three were quite fascinating and had slightly different takes on important national narratives.
The National Museum was incredibly beautiful. The building was completed in 1887 as the Raffles Library and Museum and has been extended and renovated sympathetically multiple times. The building has a combination of British neo-classical styling, with slicker recent renovations. There are some *huge* audio visuals used inside galleries. The interpretation of the collection is fascinating, and shies away from going into grim or gritty details. Instead, it focuses primarily on the successes and future of Singapore as a country.
I was particularly struck by this in the Growing Up gallery. The Growing Up gallery focuses on Singaporean history between the 1950’s-1960’s, a particularly complex time for Singapore, but the exhibition mainly focuses on the introduction of education and industry to the country. This isn’t unreasonable, it’s just a tad jarring for this little museum nerd who finds pulling out the raw and ugly truth invigorating. Lesson for today was that maybe a little bit of lightness and pride can actually go a long way.
As a side note, being deeply in love with children and public programs, I had been deeply disappointed in the lack of interactivity in the galleries. Then I found the activities section and my mind was blown. I was also highly skeptic although about a children's activity book that included 116 pages - but it totally works! Super impressed.
Battlebox was quite different. The Battlebox started it’s life as the Headquarters Malaya Command Operations Bunker. More popularly, many will know of the bunker as the location where Commonwealth forces decided to surrender to the Japanese forces during WW2. It’s not where the surrender was signed. The rooms generally do not include original artefacts, as most were lost either during or just after the conflict. It is certainly quite a somber location.
I felt that the story of Singapore was a little lost in the tour. The history of the bunker is explained in length, and the conflicts crescendo builds as films portray the swift advance of Japan down the coast. But story revolves around the commanders that were placed in power, and only briefly touches on the effect of the conflict on Singapore as a country. Primarily, and unsurprisingly I suppose, the story revolves around the bunker and the people within it.
Which leads me to our last adventure of the day, the Bicentennial Experience. It was certainly an incredible experience. I never thought I would stand in the rain, under an umbrella, in a building with a roof. Or that I would watch actors playing historical figures while balancing on a conveyor belt. The best word I could honestly use is ‘intense’.
I was struck as just how completely earnest the production was. The narrative is really a call to arms, asking Singaporeans to see values in certain traits and to aspire to continue growing in the future. It something that I don’t think would work in Australia. I was pretty impressed through that this Experience at least did peer into some of the unhappier aspects of history.
All three are telling a part of the Singaporean story. I would argue that both the Museum and the Bicentennial Experience are telling stories that they hope will become rallying calls towards shared ideals and goals as a society. I think that the way they are telling those stories could spend a bit more time filling in the gaps in history, and not shying away from the messier parts. It felt a bit sugary at times, but they were fantastic places to visit.
Museum working, game playing and dog loving geek. Tune in for musings about the GLAM sector, and generally geekiness.