Millennium Post

From the orient

The number of windows in a house determined the tax structure: the higher the number, the larger the tax amount. So the Peranakan Chinese settlers in Singapore constructed just two windows on the front but compensated it through sprawling courtyards! And the noodles they served on birthdays were big in size, for they believed that the longer its size, the better the longevity of family members. They also observed death with great solemnity by constructing ornate altars in homes where they venerated their ancestors alongside deities.

These are among the intriguing aspects of an exhibition on the life and culture of the Peranakan Chinese, currently underway at the National Museum on until March 25.

But the most defining aspect of their culture is hybridity. Opulent furniture intricately carved in the western style, Hollywood cartoon character Mickey Mouse adorning lady slippers, luxuriant bed sheets made of finest Indian textiles and a stunning array of jewellery - the Peranakan Chinese settlers in Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries adopted the best from everywhere that blossomed into a vibrant hybrid culture.

The 122-object exhibition, The Peranakan World - Cross-cultural Art of Singapore and the Straits of Malacca, provides an enchanting account of the Peranakan Chinese, a cash-rich trading community who migrated to Southeast Asia four-five centuries ago, married with locals, developed new hybrid forms and created a unique culture in their adopted countries.

“The Peranakan community mirrors the diversity of both Singapore and Southeast Asia. Among them are descendants of Singapore’s Peranakan Chinese, Peranakan Indians - both Hindu and Muslim, as well as more recent arrivals from Peranakan communities around the region,” said Venu Vasudevan, Director General of National Museum.

The exhibition, being held in India for the first time to commemorate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties between India and Singapore, reflects the diverse influences of cultural streams – Indian, Chinese, Malay and European – and how the Peranakan Chinese creatively adopted and reinterpreted them to produce a distinctive fusion style. Most of the objects date from the Peranakan golden era – the late 19th and early 20th century.

“The history of Peranakan culture is not simply the story of a local culture in Singapore and the Straits but also the history of a cultural network reaching throughout Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean,” said Alan Chong, Director of the Asian Civilisation Museum and Peranakan Museum which have lent the objects for the exhibition.

‘Peranakan’ comes from the Malay word anak (child), and implies a person born of mixed heritage.  The stamp of hybridity is deeply imprinted on the entire gamut of Peranakan Chinese traditions and way of life.

A typical Peranakan home would have three altars – dedicated to the household deity, the ancestors, and the kitchen god. The household deity altar was usually in the front hall, facing the main entrance.

The western influence can also be seen on Kerosang with monogrammed brooches, English-style teapot, ‘Irish’ carpet, brooch with lion and horse motifs, cigarette case and European tiles with pink flowers and leaves.

For Peranakans, jewellery is another fascinating component of the exhibition, which will conclude on March 25, is Batik work – drawing designs on cloth by applying molten wax and dyeing the areas covered. It was deeply influenced by textiles imported from Gujarat and the Coromandel Coast of India in the 17th-8th centuries.
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