Colourful History: Peranakan Museum Singapore

Published 03 June 2008   

Discover the vibrant culture and history of the Peranakans at Singapore’s latest museum.

Text by Melanie Lee

Who are the Peranakans?
The Peranakans date back to the 15th century, when Chinese and Indian traders doing business along the Maritime Silk Route settled down in South-East Asia in places such as Singapore, Malacca, Penang and certain parts of Java. They married local women, established families and created hybridized forms of rituals, clothes, food and language. Today, there are four main groups of Peranakans – the Peranakan Chinese, Chitty Melaka (Indian Peranakans), Kristang (Eurasian Peranakans) and Jawi Peranakans (Indian Muslim) across Southeast Asia.

Given this lively community’s cultural, social and political contributions in Singapore these past few centuries, it was only a matter of time that the National Heritage Board (NHB) here would establish the world’s most comprehensive collection of Peranakan artefacts housed in a restored school building built in 1912. Says Mr. Michael Koh, CEO of NHB, “We are delighted to unveil the Peranakan Museum, which is the newest member of NHB’s family of museums. Showcasing their charming culture, the museum presents a pan Southeast-Asian perspective of the world of Peranakans, covering their unique history, colourful fashion, distinctive traditions and aromatic cuisine…for visitors, it will present a refreshing view of the fascinating Peranakan culture and how its influence spread across the region over the decades.”

Kaleidoscope of Colours
Opened in April this year, the Peranakan Museum may seem deceptively muted upon entering the stark white building. However, its multicoloured building sign is the first clue of the rich hues of colours one can expect in its ten galleries. Combining bright greens and turquoises used in Malay ceremonies with the ornate motifs and red tones of Chinese culture – many Peranakan artefacts display stunning handiwork in the form of intricate beadwork and embroidery on their furnishings, accessories and sarong kebayas (Peranakan traditional dresses). Their dark wooden furniture is also not spared and contains bold splashes of gold on their elaborate carvings. In the Food Gallery, one is treated to a pretty pink porcelain spectacle of the Tok Panjang, a traditional feast held during weddings a special occasions. In the Wedding Gallery, one can see Peranakan handicraft in all its glory, including a tablecloth that has over one million beads sewn on it.

The Best of Every Culture
The focus of the Peranakan Museum is on the culture of the Peranakan Chinese community, and it is fascinating how Chinese-Malay assimilation has been fused so dynamically. The museum captures this by showing the adapted rituals and panels of the Peranakan vernacular, Baba Malay, which is a combination of the Malay language and the Chinese Hokkien dialect. A set of the wedding entourage at the Wedding Gallery shows the groom dressed like a Chinese Magistrate while the other members of his party are garbed in traditional Malay baju. Another striking example of cultural hybridity is in the Religion Gallery, where an evolved traditional Peranakan deity altar displays a picture of the Holy Family – evidence of many Peranakans’ conversion to Catholicism with Western education.

A Living, Interactive Gallery
While the sets and displays are riveting enough, the Peranakan Museum makes it a point to add multimedia and “touching” stations at various points of the gallery to ensure visitors get as much of a three-dimensional, in-depth perspective of these people. For example, the Chiu Tau (hair combing) ceremony that takes place at a set of an ancestral altar has two television screens depicting squabbling ancestors, giving an insider’s perspective of this ritual. Likewise, there are mini-documentary viewing stations and ambient sounds to give a real feel of the culture. Even children are taken into consideration in this layering of information, and there’s a section where they can play dressup with a Peranakan wedding couple by mixing and matching magnetic “costumes”.

A Worthwhile Visit
The Peranakan Museum is perfect to visit if one would like to immerse in some heritage but cannot spare the time to go to the more extensive National Museum. This community is one of the most distinguishing features of Singapore culture, as seen by how its traditional sarong kebaya was used as an inspiration for the Singapore Airlines uniform. However, the most compelling reason to pay a visit to the new Peranakan Museum in Singapore would be the fact that this unique people provide a wonderful blueprint of harmonious and beautiful cultural assimilation.

Peranakan Museum
39 Armenian Street
Singapore 179941
Tel: +65 6332 7591

Do You Know?
There are ten permanent galleries in the Peranakan Museum covering subjects such as the origins, the wedding ceremony, food, religion, the role of women and prominent Peranakans.
The male Peranakan is referred to as Baba and a female Peranakan is known as Nonya.
Peranakan families are matriarchal, though the nonya’s role is often seen as supportive to the husband – women are often expected to cook and sew well.
For a truly Peranakan experience, head down to True Blue Cuisine (47/49 Armenian Street, Tel: +65 6440 0449), an authentic Peranakan restaurant a stone’s throw away from the museum for a sumptuous meal.

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