The Peranakan Museum – Singapore’s culture unveiled

The Peranakan Museum
I was recently given a personal tour of Singapore’s new Peranakan Museum by the curator himself, Randall Ee. I walked in with no idea what “Peranakan” meant, and walked out more than impressed with the culture, the museum, and the fascinating new history of Singapore.

I say “new history,” because Singapore is such a young country — they only became independent from Britain in 1965 — but the story of the Peranakans begins hundreds of years ago. Singapore, sometimes called “the Gateway to Asia,” has been a busy trading post for the entire continent for longer than anyone can remember. Merchants from all over the world would come to Singapore to buy and sell goods.

The markets were controlled by the women in Singapore, and what began to happen was that foreign merchants, both to keep themselves company and to improve their fortunes, would take Singaporean wives (many of them keeping their other families in their home countries and “loving the one you’re with,” so to speak). Some stayed — but during the fall of the Ming Dynasty in 1644, the unrest in China made going home look pretty bleak, and a whole new culture was born.

Peranakan is Malay for “child of,” and was coined to refer to the burgeoning new population of children born to local mothers and foreign fathers. The Chinese are not the only Peranakan fathers; there are several different groups of Indian Peranakans and more, but the Chinese are the largest group by far, and the group focused upon by the Peranakan Museum.

As in the other Peranakan communities, the Chinese Peranakans would marry their children to other children with the same heritage, so as to continue to pass down Chinese blood and traditions. In this way, the families became and remained true hybrids of their two worlds — for example, Peranakan food is similar to Malay food because the local mothers are the ones who did the cooking (Malaysia is next door), but the serving bowl might be Chinese.

The galleries at the Peranakan Museum include Origins, Religion, Food and Feasting, Public Life, Conversations, Nonyas (the term for girls) and an entire floor of Wedding rituals and artifacts. According to Ee, 95 percent of the items in the museum are locally sourced from private collections and are heirlooms of the wealthier families. “I tell everyone I’m a professional beggar. I go from home to home,” he joked.

I was fortunate enough to catch a special exhibition called Baba Bling (Babas is the term for boys), a breathtaking collection of over 400 pieces of unbelievably opulent jewelry, most borrowed from local homes. Ee says that the women actually helped him build the collection; telling him who had what piece that matched what. “Women never forget what other women have,” he said with a smile. Baba Bling will be running through December 2009.

I found the Peranakan Museum engaging, interesting and extremely informative about Singapore. If it weren’t so specific to the Chinese Peranakans, I’d recommend it over the National Museum of Singapore — but one ought to see that, too, to get a better idea of the whole of the country (be sure and visit the Photography portion of the Living Galleries; it’s not to be missed). Still, The Peranakan Museum taught me about a whole culture I didn’t even know existed. I’d tell anyone heading to Singapore to check it out within your first couple of days — it puts things in an insightful perspective.

This trip was paid for by the Singapore Board of Tourism, but the views expressed within the post are 100% my own.