Elegant Products of Cultural Blend

Story and pictures by Alan Teh Leam Seng and New Straits Times.

Flipping through the in-flight magazine as plane slowly taxis towards the runway, I come across an interesting article about a cobbler in Malacca who is still making Peranakan shoes the traditional way. I just cannot keep my eyes off the photographs featuring the dainty slippers. The designs are so intricate and I am amazed at how the skilled artisan can patiently thread together the brightly coloured manik individually to form stunning images of goldfish, phoenix and even dragon. These beaded footwear produced by Tan Kok Oo are indeed works of art.

A pair of men’s slippers. Photo by Alan Teh Leam Seng.

I am so fascinated with the article that throughout the entire short flight down to Singapore, I find myself returning to it just to look at the shoes. There and then, I make up my mind to make a trip to Penang in the near future to check out the shop at Armenian Street. Then, just as the plane is about to make its final approach towards it designated runway at Changi, I come across a small but useful piece of information in the same magazine.

The Peranakan Museum Singapore located at Armenian Street is having an embroidery exhibition. Talk about coincidence. Evidently, the Armenian Streets in both Penang and Singapore have something in common – they both feature Peranakan culture. What a stroke of luck to discover this exhibition. I was just wondering what I am going to do after I arrive. My work itinerary starts only tomorrow and I have the entire afternoon all to myself.

The Peranakan Museum building used to be home to the Tao Nan School. Photo by Alan Teh Leam Seng.

The museum is just a short walk from the City Hall MRT station. The large standalone building used to be the Tao Nan School. Construction was completed in 1912 with the funds generously donated by sugar baron Oei Tiong Ham. In 1916, Tao Nan School became the first school in Singapore to teach in Mandarin. Their educators regarded the language as a unifier among the diverse dialect speaking Chinese in the colony at that time.

Stepping inside, I find out that the interior does not resemble a modern day school layout. I enter a spacious lobby with a pair of intricately carved wooden stairs on both sides leading upstairs. Although I am tempted to go straight up to the upper floors to view the special embroidery exhibits, I am advised by the ticketing clerk to explore the ground floor galleries to learn more about the origins of this special group of people called the Peranakans.

A typical Straits Chinese kitchen will look something like this. Photo by Alan Teh Leam Seng.

The ‘Introductory Room’ is filled with photographs of modern day Singaporean Peranakans. At a glance, they just look like an ordinary person on the street. Studying the large and easy to read inscription boards, I begin to understand their unique origins.

Traders from all over the ancient world came to South East Asia to exchange their goods for the exotic items found here. Those who chose to remain here permanently began to assimilate themselves with the local culture by marrying local women. Their descendants are what we know today as the ancestors of the Peranakans.

Jawi Peranakans are found mostly in Penang. Photo by Alan Teh Leam Seng.

As I read on I am surprised to know that there is no single origin for the Peranakans. As a matter of fact, many different communities are recognised as Peranakans today. The Jawi Peranakans descended from the Indian Muslims, the Chitty Melaka community came from the Hindu traders and the Baba community was formed when the Chinese immigrants married into the local population when they arrived in South East Asia a long time ago.

The origins of the Baba community in Malacca can be traced back as early as the 17th century when the Portuguese was in control of the entreport. Later, during British rule, these enterprising businessmen moved to the new colonies of Singapore and Penang. As a result the Baba community in Malacca, Penang and Singapore became a wider Peranakan community called the Straits Chinese or Straits-born Chinese.

The basic needlework equipment used by Straits Chinese women during the early part of the 20th century. Photo by Alan Teh Leam Seng.

Having better understood the origins of this diverse and culturally rich society, I head up the stairs to marvel at the beautiful artifacts that were once common items in a Peranakan household. The museum is filled to the brim with wonderful items, each one well displayed and the inscriptions at the side help me to understand their function.

Words cannot describe the beauty of the items I see. The Peranakans seem to value beauty in the things they use. Blackwood furniture are intricately carved and also richly decorated with mother of pearl inlay. After some time I begin to realise that symmetry plays an important role in the Peranakan design. I see symmetry in shoes, handkerchiefs, table cloth and clothes. What astounds me further is that even the cloth draping a mock coffin in a secluded room at the far end of the first floor has balanced motifs.

Most of the colourful pieces were imported from China during the early 20th century. Photo by Alan Teh Leam Seng.

The Straits Chinese porcelain are displayed on the first floor. While most sport a multitude of colours, I particularly like the ‘tok panjang’ dinnerware setup. The long table can sit up to twelve guests and all the displayed ceramics have a light pink hue. The Peranakans were treated to many new porcelain designs and forms during the early republican period. This Min Guo period which stretches from 1912 to 1930 enabled the Peranakans to acquire cosmetic boxes, coffee pots and cups and other novel items that reflect their new taste and lifestyles.

I must admit I stood in front of this piece for at least 10 minutes, admiring the detailed needlework. Photo by Alan Teh Leam Seng.

Finally I reach the section showcasing the Nyonya Needlework exhibits. Again, the items on display take my breath away. I occasionally find myself standing at the far end of the hall taking time to fully digest the items on display. These complex embroidery and beadwork pieces must have taken the ladies countless days or weeks to complete. The glass beads used back then were miniscule, much smaller than the modern beads. I am sure a lot of perseverance, patience and concentration must have been invested before these astounding items can be produced.

This exhibition, which runs until 26 March 2017, explores the richness and diversity of Peranakan Chinese art. I recommend spending at least two hours in this section alone to fully appreciate the intricate details and immaculate workmanship to produce each piece on display.

I do not mind having such intricately designed purses. Photo by Alan Teh Leam Seng.

Surprisingly I notice a large number of items displayed originate from Penang and Malacca. I learn that the close family and economic ties between the Peranakan Chinese in Malacca and Singapore are reflected in the close similarities in their embroidery styles. The pieces originating from these places usually have small and delicate designs and the figures, if any, are usually not made to scale.

A large part of the needlework displays from Penang are those made specifically for the wedding chamber. Originating from the early 20th century when Penang was experiencing her golden age, these richly plaited three-dimensional embroideries help to convey to everyone the wealth of the nuptial families.

A stunning screen made using the smallest Japanese glass beads to create motifs of birds, deer and flowers. Photo by Alan Teh Leam Seng.

I leave the exhibition filled with the utmost respect and admiration of the Peranakan culture and head over to the museum gift shop to see if there is anything that fits my budget. There is so much to see at the True Blue Shop. Its shelves are crammed to the brim with original as well as well-made replica Peranakan inspired items. One word of advice though, do tread carefully as the shop space can accommodate not more than half a dozen adults. With all the ceramics lying around do be mindful that things once broken will be considered sold!

Before leaving I learn from the helpful sale assistant that the owner of the gift shop has a Peranakan restaurant just two doors away. Glancing at her watch, she tells me that it is too early and the restaurant is yet to open for business. Fortunately, she says that I can still go in to have a quick look.

The interior of True Blue Cuisine. Photo by Alan Teh Leam Seng.

I decide to walk over to have a look since I am already so fascinated with the Peranakan culture. True Blue Cuisine is less than 100m away from the museum. It has the only shop front that is bedecked with potted plants. Visitors do not even need to see the shop sign to recognise it. The interior is decorated with many Peranakan antiques. I tell myself that if the food is as good as the antique collection then I just cannot wait for chef owner Benjamin Seck to cook up a storm for me before I leave Singapore.

Read more articles: