Not to be mistaken for purely Chinese

Not to be mistaken for purely Chinese

Helping my grandmother prepare ingredients for dinner and listening to stories about her childhood makes me feel Peranakan,” says Sheena Tan, a Hokkien Peranakan. Her statement written below her smiling portrait connects a visitor to the lives of the people from Peranakan community.

The contemporary pictures at the exhibition ‘The Peranakan World’ are hung on the blue walls of the National Museum. These are the descendents of the southern Chinese traders who settled in Southeast Asia and married local women centuries ago.

The photographs of these people are a mirror of the diversity of Singapore and Southeast Asia. It is this cross-cultural influence prevalent on the maritime silk route which is being explored in this exhibition. Peranakan comes from the Malay word ‘anak’ which means ‘child’ and refers to a person born of mixed heritage.

Probably for the first time ever, the walls of the museum are done in pink and blue colours. “Peranakans love colours,” says Ruchira Verma, a young museum professional, while pointing at the façade of a Perankan home stationed at the end of the exhibition area. “While the blue area could be a living room, the pink can be a dining room,” she adds.

While the Peranakan Chinese played a prominent role in commerce, politics and social affairs in Southeast Asia, their leadership skills don’t come to the front in this display. The traditions and cultures of Paranakas, however, take centerstage.

A classic example of this is the ‘Wedding portrait of Mr and Mrs Yeo Hock Beng in their home on Chin Swee Road, Singapore’. Taken in 1930, the picture shows the couple dressed in traditional Peranakan attire along with a young boy and girl.

Interestingly, the intricately embroidered handkerchief held by the young girl in this photograph has a lookalike on display at another show window in the exhibition. The huge set up of side tables, spittoon, betel set, etc is displayed along with the portraits of Mr and Mrs Tan Beng Wan.

Verma informs, “These portraits were taken soon after the marriage and kept aside. Only after the death of people where their framed pictures were pulled out, to be hung on the wall. In fa­ct, at a traditional Peranakan home, there used to be three altars – one each for the deity, ancestors and kitchen deity.”

The two other displays with altars (one of these has food too) in pink room shows what Verma tries to explain. In addition to this, the pink room has a display of garments, dishes, decorative articles and even jewellery.

A colourful display of embroidered hangings, bed covers and cushion covers represent how a wedding bed was decorated. Similarly, the utensils including Kamcheng (like an Indian handi) exhibit the craftsmanship of the Peran-­akans on porcelain. From Coral Red Spittoon to Salmon Pink Covered Bowl and the huge Wedding Basin, each has intricate motifs that make it difficult for one to imagine them as utensils!

The insect-shaped earrings and brooches capture attention of female visitors. A collection of mourning jewellery (comprising only silver and pearls – which represent tears) is an eye-opener to the culture that has been prevalent in a small yet significant way through ages.

Today the heavier Kero­sa­ngs (three-piece brooch set) have been replaced by diamo­nd-studded and lighter on­es. The Kebayas (inspired by Middle Eastern qaba) too ha­ve moved on from batik prints to fancy frilly ones. Yet, this display of rich heritage of the Peranakans, as presented by the Asian Civilisations Museum (Singapore) is worth appreciation.    

‘The Peranakan World’ is on display at the National Museum till March 25. 

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