Selamat Datang to the Peranakan Museum

May 9, 2008 at 10:42 am | Posted in itchy mouth | 4 Comments
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ItchyFingers followed many cheapo Singaporeans two weeks ago for a free visit to the newly opened Peranakan Museum, on the premise occupied by the former Asian Civilization Museum and Tao Nao School at Armenian Street. 

We were surprised that we had to queue up to enter the museum cos there weren’t any queue at other museums on the free museum days. Well, probably because it was a much smaller museum. Anyway, the queue moved pretty fast and soon it was our turn to enter. But I had to give up my place cos there was this enactment of a Peranakan wedding procession going on. Many others followed suit and I had a hard time squeezing through the crowd before getting this picture…:o

Donned in elaborate costume, the bride swayed from left to right as she walked past
the crowd, avoiding eye contacts as part of the custom…shy mah!

The first gallery on the ground floor features the origins of the Peranankans. For centuries, traders from South and East Asia came over to our parts of the word for business and some of those who remained behind, married local women. The term “Peranakans” in Malay refers to “locally born child”. The focus of the Peranankan Museum is on the Peranakan Chinese, who formed the largest group here in Southeast Asia. But there are also other communities of Peranakans such as the Jawi Peranakans (Indian Muslim) and the Chitty Melaka (Indian).

Gallery 2 to 5 feature the wedding rituals and it was there that we could see many intricate pieces of artwork like the famous beadworks, embroidery, wood carvings and also the fine jewelleries.

Beautiful beaded cushion cover….

There was this beaded table cloth with many birds and flowers on it. Absolutely stunning!

Part of the beaded table cloth with a Sulphur-crested cockatoo…

An anatomically accurate Silver Pheasant…

An unknown species of parrot..

And another parrot, probably a Scarlet Macaw! All within a table cloth
about one metre square big

An intricately beaded pouch! This was made into the world’s first
beaded stamp! Now available at Singapore Post

Not too sure what was this for, cos there were simply too many visitors and
I couldn’t find any labels for this.

Another beautiful beaded ornament that I couldn’t find any label to indicate
its usage. Possibly some sort of hanging ornament since there was
a hook at the top

If you think all beaded work are flat two-dimensional, this should be a pleasant surprise…

A beaded vase!

How could we leave out the famous beaded Peranakan shoes?

Beaded shoes/slippers made for petite dainty ladies. You can still find
handmade ones on sale in parts of Singapore ranging from $200 plus for a
simple design to over thousand for more elaborate ones!

This wooden frame called the pidangan, was used to secure fabric base
with thick string. Adjusted to the right tension ensured even sewing of stitches
or anchoring of glass beads on the slipper faces

Embroidery on slipper faces

To encourage interactivity, visitors were encouraged to touch certain exhibits. There was also “Family Treasures Stations” where visitors matched the meaning of things related to the Peranakans and stamped them on a card with the embossing gadgets provided. It was fun for the young and young at hearts, but the only thing was that the card was printed on too thick a paper stock for the embossed design to show up. In the end, many had to use all their available strength to press hard on the paper…A thinner stock would simply solve this problem and cut cost at the same time…

Maybe there were too many people in the small space, or maybe it was the presence of actors and actresses dressed specially in traditional Peranakan costumes that made it feel more like us being in a carnival than in a museum.

There were at least four or five of these drama queens trying very hard
to behave like typical Peranakan ladies, but their over-the-top flamboyant
acts and loud fake accents was in fact a bit contrived…Kudos for enlivening
the atmosphere anyway, sure made the museum experience less boring
for the visitors

Besides the drama queens and kings, I was also amused by the unintentional gender confusion created. The first one was when we were watching a touch screen video on betel nut chewing, a favourite past time among the Peranakans. What was shown on the video was clearly a man, with the label as “Baba xxx” (his name). But the way he was dressed looked like a woman, with bunned up hair and ear rings. I was confused for a moment but thought it was just their way of dressing in the past and I could have missed reading about the costume part due to the number of visitors around. So I thought it was only me and my ignorance, until some visitors looking from behind our shoulders also commented something like, “Er, isn’t this a man??? Why he dressed like that??” So gender confusion number one.

Gender confusion number two happened at the Religion gallery. I had just finished looking at the various god statue on display, wondering who were some of those seemingly familiar ones when suddenly from behind, a deep-throated voice said, “This is Toa Pey Gong….this is Bao Gong….this is…” then I looked back and saw a tall and skinny Peranakan “lady” with big bunned up hair, bright-red lip colour, shimmery jewelleries flipping through the exhibit guide while explaining to two elderly ladies. 

Wow lao leh, is this a ta bor or a char bor (man or woman)???”,  I said to myself, eyes pinned on the “lady” while sheepingly walked to Tisu Boy to show him what I saw…and he also showed a “Ta bor or Char bor??? I-can’t-believe-it” expression as well…incidentally, I also heard a boy asking the father the same question…but I din get to hear the answer…:p  I wonder what was behind the Museum’s mind when they got man dressed up as woman walking around in the museum…Maybe authentic nonyas are hard to come by these days? We just felt that it might give people the wrong impression of a cross-dressing culture, especially to foreign visitors who had never heard of the Peranakans prior their visit to the museum..

Other galleries feature food  and also prominent Peranakan public figures like Singapore pioneer Tan Kim Seng and former Cabinet Minister Lim Kim San.

The Peranakan may be an indigenous culture unique to our parts of the world but their interesting way of life and colourful heritage have not been systematically showcased until now. The many intricate artifacts can only be appreciated in real life – our photos would not have done full justice to them. So, if you have a free weekend afternoon to spend, we strongly recommend you to pay a visit to the new Peranakan Museum. Join in the opening festival this coming weekend. It is definitely well worth a visit. 😀

Also see related posts:
> Far from the Madding Crowd
> Miniature Art – A Rat’s Tale



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  1. Brilliant photos of the beadwork. The little aqua blue case is a cigarette case, and in my book of Peranakan beadwork, the hanging ornament is thought to have been used for storing fans.

  2. Thank you Jess for enlightening us!

  3. nice close ups esp. of the blue beadwork with birds!

    on cross-dressing, I believe it’s a ‘sub-culture’ (for lack of a better term) in the Peranakan community, particularly where it comes to theatre and drama, as in the old days, because it was thought improper for the ladies to appear on stage, the roles of matriarchs and nonyas were played by men. So personally I think it’s fine to have all those guys in ‘drag’, although some explanation about this part of the culture would have been helpful (maybe there is but I missed it).

  4. I would have guessed so, just like in the old days in Chinese Opera where the female leads were all played by men. Yes, it certainly would be much helpful if an explanation of this ‘cross-dressing’ practice was given somewhere in the museum. Probably there is but we all missed it. May need to revisit to check it out next time.

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