Peranakan culture is one embedded within Singapore’s history books. It’s emblematic of the Singaporean identity — a melting pot of various cultural influences, complementing and contrasting characters, ultimately culminating in a population with a curious mix of traditions and customs.
So what is Peranakan culture? The word “Peranakan” can be literally translated to “locally born.” As waves of immigrants from China and India poured into Southeast Asia, the result was mixed marriages with local women; these locally born, or “peranakan” children, grew up with a similarly mixed heritage. Customs from both Chinese or Indian culture mixed with Malay and Indonesian traditions. Over time, Peranakan society became influential throughout the Straits settlements and were often tied to European trade routes. Many Peranakans today still live in Singapore, and the culture continues and adapts with the younger generation.
Today, the Peranakan Museum pays tribute to the colorful history of the Peranakans. The museum houses a collection of artifacts and interactive displays that showcase the lives of Peranakan families. I had the pleasure of talking with Ms. Jackie Yoong, one of the curators for the current exhibit “Nyonya Needlework: Embroidery and Beadwork in the Peranakan World,” and she shared some of her favorite pieces from the Peranakan Museum.
1) Sideboard Altar
One of these things is not like the other. Mother Mary, Joseph, an infant Jesus, and the Holy Spirit… framed by carved dragons and a heading of Chinese deities. The juxtaposition of the two seem incongruous; it’s a conversion to Western religion surrounded by Asian tradition. What clearer display could there be of two cultures coming together and, for the family who donated the altar, existing in the same space?
2) Peranakan Beadwork Tablecloth
Perhaps the largest example of Peranakan beadwork in existence. It looks like embroidery. A huge, turquoise tablecloth, complete with blooming flowers, frolicking birds, butterflies, rabbits, all vibrant with different colors that shimmer in the light. Upon closer examination, tiny beads can be seen in the detail of each feather, each petal. Every single, minuscule bead has been chosen for its specific color and the way that it fits in with the whole piece. I hear stories of old Peranakan women, bibiks, going blind from the strain of stitching each bead by hand. The glitter of the cloth is a product of the Penang style of beadwork, where facets of the beads are turned to reflect the light. European motifs are scattered and expressed through Peranakan artwork, created by Asian hands and composed of Venetian beads.
3) Ancestral Altar
“We use vanilla ice cream to honor our ancestors.”
The museum houses an ancestral altar with a table attached, which is for offerings to the family’s ancestors. Food is piled on silver dishes arranged in specific rows and positions. Each row has a specific function, a certain food to hold, and it is slightly different for each family. For the particular family who donated the table, vanilla ice cream was substituted for soup because of an ancestor’s affinity for the decadent treat — Ms. Yoong tells me that many of the items in the museum have their individual stories that are unique to specific families. Rather than Peranakan culture having set traditions, each family adapted the tradition for their own use and according to their families preferences.
4) Sarong Kebaya Display
Leah Metzelaar is the Prada of Peranakan traditional wear. Metzelaar was a Dutch-Eurasian who handmade sarong kebaya specifically for Peranakans. The sarong kebaya consists of a long, wraparound skirt (“sarong“) and an embroidered, long-sleeved top (“kebaya“). Each one was unique, a work of art, and there is an example of her work on display in the Peranakan Museum, along with other samples of this traditional Peranakan dress as it evolved through the years. The display of sarong kebaya portrays the progression of Peranakan traditional wear, from the original baju panjang to the modern-day kebaya.
5) Wedding Chamber
The peculiarity of different families. This display is special. Most of the furniture comes from a single family, and, as we have seen before, families change traditions to their own personal use. Ms. Yoong tells me that some visitors exclaimed that curtains across the bed were actually meant to be used on the family doors. She laughs, “Well, that’s how this family decided to use them! I have photos for proof!” So ,were the curtains used for doorframes instead? Perhaps. But this family used them in this particular way. Traditions are adaptable to the families that practice them.
6) Tok Panjang
Tok panjang means “long table.” The dining table of Peranakan families. In the Peranakan museum, this “semi-contextual display” is completed by porcelain dishes, painted both inside and outside, displaying swirling motifs of butterflies and a bright pink hue. The Yap family name is stamped on the rim of the bowl; portraits of the family’s matriarch and patriarch approve silently in frames attached to the wall above the wooden table.
See these sights and more at the Peranakan Museum. For more information, check out the Peranakan Museum’s website at http://peranakanmuseum.org.sg/. All photos accompanying this article are courtesy of the Peranakan Museum or TimeOut Magazine.