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June 13, 2008

A Family's Impressions Of The Peranakan Museum, Singapore: Marriages, Mothers, Models, Medals And Much More

A Family’s Impressions of Peranakan Museum Singapore: Marriages, Mothers, Models, Medals And Much More

My family of five, who carry no known Peranakan genes, paid a recent visit to Singapore’s Peranakan Museum at 39 Armenian Street, for a Saturday afternoon of exploration and learning. This occurred after the hustle and bustle of its recent opening festivities had subsided. What I discovered was a lavish collection of Peranakan artefacts spread throughout ten entertaining galleries in an impressive three-level building. To my family, the memories in the Peranakan Museum seemed to revolve around makan, marriages, mothers, models, medals, mourners and much more.

The many exhibits that were supplemented with information boards and audiovisual aids at the Peranakan Museum overwhelmed us. I would have loved to put up photographic images of the Peranakan Museum exhibits to share but the Peranakan Museum website has a warning: “No images of the Museum or its collections may be reproduced, distributed in any media, including websites, without permission from ACM.” You can inspect the high quality images at their museum website over here.

Who is a Peranakan and how do you recognize one? For this and other questions, my family wandered into Gallery One on the ground floor of the Peranakan museum to check out the photographic models of present-day Peranakan faces smiling from three walls. An audiovisual presentation in the same room performed a brief introduction that I felt did not provide in-depth answers.

From the photographs, it was not possible to discern any distinguishing feature to identify a Peranakan. According to the Peranakan Museum A-Z guide, I quote: “the term ‘Peranakan’, meaning ‘child of’ or ‘born of’ in Malay, has come to refer to the descendents of traders who intermarried with local women in Southeast Asia. Over time, a distinctive culture that brought together Chinese, Malay, Indian, European and other influences, emerged.”

Of the Peranakan Museum’s ten galleries of exhibits, my family liked the gallery with the tok panjang (long dining table) laid with pingang mangkok (bowls and plates). We loved the large spread of exquisite bowls, plates and other crockery, designed with fine intricate motifs of butterflies, phoenixes, peonies and pink emblems on both surfaces of the crockery. Just based on these exquisite display sets, I could imagine all the aromatic goodies calling out to my nostrils to sample Peranakan cuisine. A wall display nearby filled with rows of kamcheng (porcelain pots) with their elaborately attractive designs captivated our attention as well.

The twelve-day Peranakan wedding ceremony galleries provided an eye-opening experience. The matrimonial bedroom easily earned our family’s 'best visual exhibit' accolade. Besides beautiful carvings on the bedposts, a curtain of fertility motifs and good-luck amulets added to the superstitious mystique surrounding this bed used in yesteryears. While it was considered one of the largest furniture pieces during its heyday, I would deem it a size too small, and a tad too ostentatious for minimalist-designed bedrooms of today.

Other aspects of the wedding gallery intrigued. The service of a young boy to bless the wedding bed in the hope of procreating a son as shown in the video screening brought out a question from one of my daughters on the reason for the biasness of the generations at that time. While the deployment of a cockerel and a hen under the matrimonial bed to determine the sex of a couple’s first born might be hailed as a ridiculous practice in the light of modern scientific knowledge, this practice was still considerably more elegant than flipping a coin.

My wife and children were awed by the hand-sewn beaded pieces of embroidery like the million-bead tablecloth as well as the figure-hugging kebaya collection. While they checked out the laces, styles and designer quirks, I was wondering how useful these priceless investments would be as a collector’s item to beat inflation. The museum’s other exhibits of gorgeous handiwork like beaded slippers, knee pads and handkerchiefs, plus the history of house confinement for girls above twelve years old to learning sewing, beading and cooking, showed a society that placed great emphasis on training for married life and motherhood.

above: 'medals' of museum entry sticker tickets

Elsewhere within the museum walls, I noticed several medals on display. There was a Darjah Utama Temasek (Order of Temasek) medal conferred on Mr Lim Kim San and an Order of the British Empire (1918) medal for Dr Lim Boon Keng, amongst the exhibits. These offered ignorant visitors like me some idea of the significant contributions of prominent Peranakans in the past. Along the same corridor of this gallery, you cannot miss the large portraits of Tan Tock Seng, Tan Kim Seng and Gan Eng Seng, wealthy Peranakans rightly recognized for their philanthropic far-sightedness.

above: stamping machine enchantment

My kids did not jump with thrill when I pointed out clothes on display at one of the galleries that Peranakan kids used to wear on special occasions. They thought it was not as fashionable or comfortable as their present-day all-purpose T-shirts. However, there was one item in almost all galleries that enchanted them. The stamping machine was their favourite “exhibit” at the Peranakan Museum and they expressed disappointment with a broken piece at one of the galleries.

It was obvious at the end of the tour that the extensive use of glass barriers in the galleries prevented close proximity to better appreciate details. Thus it was no surprise that my children enjoyed one of the galleries because of the old telephone exhibits. There were three reasons for that. The telephones were a novelty to them. They were allowed to handle and play with the telephones. They could listen to weird conversations by strange-sounding voices. The wall display holding three items (including a single kasut manek) that were encased with holes large enough for hands to reach the items was a letdown as my children preferred them to be more accessible, perhaps like those hand phones on sale in a shop with a wire chained to the item.

The mourners’ wail at a corner of the Religion Gallery was a rather morbid auditory experience. For those who are “pantang” or superstitious about such funerary displays, it is best to heed the warning signs posted at the door and skip this creepy section.

In a nutshell, a two-hour visit to the Peranakan Museum inclusive of a guided tour is insufficient time for a curious family with little prior background knowledge to truly appreciate all the exhibits and the stories behind them. To extract a better understanding from the visit, books like Peranakan Museum A-Z Guide (first published by the Asian Civilisations Musuem for the Pernakan Museum 2008) and Lim GS Catherine’s Gateway To Peranakan Culture (Asiapac Books 2007) helped me to patch up the gaps. As for my children, who had to tag along because I recommended it, they were able to find something to learn. Most importantly, they managed to enjoy the visit to the Peranakan Museum without being saddled with the feeling that museum visits were boring turn-offs.

[Latest Update as at 18 June 2008:]

I have obtained permission from Peranakan Museum to upload the photographs taken at the museum. Here is the link to Images Taken During My Family's Visit To Peranakan Museum: Published With Written Permission.

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