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.
Museum working, game playing and dog loving geek. Tune in for musings about the GLAM sector, and generally geekiness.