Kennie Ting, director of the Peranakan Museum, gives us a taste of the revamped heritage icon

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Peranakan Museum reopens with nine thematic galleries celebrating the evolving tastes and times of culturally diverse Peranakan communities. KENNIE TING of Asian Civilisations Museum and Peranakan Museum gives us an inside look.

Despite the popularity of Peranakan culture and food in Singapore, few know the origins of the word. Kennie Ting, director of the Peranakan Museum, says, “In Malay, the word ‘Peranakan’ has ‘anak’ (child) as its root and means ‘locally born’. It was an inclusive sort of word, used by Malay- Indonesian communities in Southeast Asia to refer to other communities that made a home in this region, and blended the rich local culture with their own proud heritage.”

It is this little-known, cross-cultural nature of Peranakan communities that grounds the refreshed narrative of the museum. The new and revamped galleries, with their recently acquired objects and contemporary artworks, have been curated through the lens of inclusivity, inviting visitors to explore the diverse Peranakan identity.

Ting, who is also a writer, historian and director of the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), tells us about the museum’s new curatorial approach.

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Kennie Ting, Director, Asian Civilisations Museum and Peranakan Museum

How did the revamp of the Peranakan Museum come about? The Peranakan Museum was officially opened in 2008. The museum displays had to be updated to cater to contemporary audiences and align with contemporary museological practices. A complete revamp of all permanent galleries with new displays and content allowed us to refresh the museum’s narrative and offerings, as well as enhance the visitor’s experience.

The museum is also housed in the former Tao Nan School, which is more than 100 years old and a National Monument to boot. It was necessary for us to safeguard the building against physical deterioration, and we restored it in accordance with guidelines set by the National Heritage Board.

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Walk us through the new museum.

The museum building has undergone major restoration works to return it to its former glory. The façade has been given a new coat of paint. Repair work has also been done to ornamental details. There is now a ramp entrance for wheelchair access and handrails on staircases outside and inside the building.

Design-wise, the former Peranakan Museum was described as a jewel. The new Peranakan Museum pushes this metaphor further. It was conceived to be a jewel box, and each of the museum’s brand-new permanent galleries has its own distinctive look and feel.

Curatorially, the former Peranakan Museum adopted an ethnographic approach to presenting Peranakan culture. Galleries were organised according to the life cycle of a Peranakan, from cradle to marriage to grave. The new museum is structured thematically, with galleries spotlighting specific aspects of Peranakan material culture. This new approach is multifaceted.

Through objects, the galleries present aspects of Peranakan heritage. They simultaneously explore how things were made, and dive into the roots of the “Peranakan aesthetic”. We have blended both ethnographic and historical approaches, in museological terms.

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Fashion gallery. Image courtesy of the Peranakan Museum.

Through video interviews and multimedia, the galleries also capture voices from the community and document aspects of intangible Peranakan cultural heritage, such as food and dress. Finally, each gallery also features works of art, fashion and design created by contemporary artists, artisans and designers, as well as those inspired by Peranakan traditions.

Why the change in approach? I would describe it as a return to the fundamentals. We used the etymology of “Peranakan” as a starting point. There were Peranakan Chinese, but also Peranakan Indians, Peranakan Arabs and Peranakan Europeans. The refreshed museum explores the diversity of Peranakan culture and communities as a given.

Singapore’s heritage as a cross-cultural port city is also another focal point. In this, the Peranakan Museum is aligned with ACM, which aims to re-present Asian history and culture through the lens of Singapore’s essence as a trading hub to provoke a deeper understanding of Singapore’s cultural identity.

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Sharifah Alwiyah Aljunied and her daughters. Image courtesy of the Peranakan Museum.

I like to use the twin concepts of routes and roots to explain our approach. We are interested in routes of trade and migration that brought various communities and cultures to the port cities of the Malay- Indonesian world (including Singapore), resulting in the emergence of hybrid, Peranakan cultures.

We are also interested in exploring and pinning down the roots of Peranakan culture within the cultures and traditions of the Malay-Indonesian world, China, India, the Middle East and Europe. The coming together and blending of these multiple roots of Peranakan culture was only made possible through trade and migration, so you see that routes and roots are closely intertwined.

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Origins gallery. Image courtesy of the Peranakan Museum.

How has the museum integrated this focus on diversity into the exhibits?

When most people think of Peranakan culture, they think of the Baba-Nyonya or Straits Chinese, specifically. These were the Peranakan Chinese communities of the Straits Settlements of Singapore, Melaka and Penang. The museum expands on this.

First, it includes Peranakan Chinese communities elsewhere, particularly in Indonesia. Secondly, it includes non- Chinese Peranakan communities such as the Chitty Melaka (Peranakan Indians), the Jawi Peranakans (Indian-Muslim Peranakans), the Arab Peranakans and, to a certain extent, also the Eurasian Peranakans, such as the Dutch Eurasians in Indonesia.

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Jawi Peranakan family at their home in Telok Kurau. Image courtesy of the Peranakan Museum.

In the last four years, we’ve worked very closely with the various Peranakan communities locally and regionally to ensure representation in the new museum. In the galleries, we feature beloved objects and heirlooms from families across all communities, generously loaned and gifted by patrons and lenders here in Singapore and the region. The acquisition of artefacts from the lesser-known Peranakan communities is an active and ongoing process, and we hope to feature more objects from these communities in the coming years.

We also make sure to celebrate intangible cultural heritage across all communities through photographs, videos and interactive showcases, as well as other festivals, programmes and activities we undertake in partnership with the local Peranakan community associations. They include the Peranakan Association Singapore, the Arab Network @ Singapore, and the Peranakan Indian (Chitty Melaka) Association Singapore.

You’re a writer, historian and the director of both the Asian Civilisations Museum and Peranakan Museum. How do you channel your experience and passion for heritage and urban stories into your leadership of the Peranakan Museum?

As a writer and historian, my interest is specifically in the history, material culture, architecture and urban landscape of Asian port cities. I have brought this interest in port cities to my work at ACM and Peranakan Museum. The curatorial missions and foci of both museums have been majorly shifted in my time here to emphasis port cities – specifically Singapore’s own port city heritage – as a frame of reference by which to explore, re-experience and re-present Asian art, culture, heritage and design.

I don’t make these decisions lightly. As a writer and historian, I am interested in questions of identity – particularly in Singaporean identity, because I am Singaporean; and I think that “Singaporean-ness” is a particularly strange yet exhilarating kind of cultural identity. I feel like we have barely begun to scratch the surface of what “Singaporean” means – in terms of us being a cosmopolitan, cross-cultural, east-west, Asian port city; a “rojak” city.

It has been my goal at the museums, to ensure that in all that we do, particularly for our special exhibitions,  we encourage visitors to explore aspects of our cultural identity, but always in an unexpected and surprising fashion. I don’t like simple answers and stereotypes; I don’t like to be predictable. In order to avoid this, I like to go back to basics, to tease out complexities and nuances. You see this, for example, in how we have used the etymology of “Peranakan” to ground our overall curatorial approach – we have “close-read” (to borrow a term from literature) peranakan, in order to tease out its richness and relevance to today.

As a writer, I’m essentially a story-teller, and stories need people in them. I’m interested not just in history but also in people’s lives. It’s important to me that the museum is not just a space full of objects, but a home full of people. I couldn’t quite accomplish that at ACM earlier because I took over the museum mid-way through a major renovation, though you see this emphasis on people and communities in our recent exhibitions there. Happily, I think you can see that at Peranakan Museum – the new museum is full of stories of people. There are the stories of the hundreds of families whose portraits are on the ground floor; there are the stories of people who owned or made the hundreds of objects on display; there are the stories of the artists, artisans and designers whose creative work we feature; and above all, there are the stories of the people who work behind-the-scenes at the museum – our curators, back-of-house staff, our exhibition and lighting designers, our docents, even myself! – whose ideas, curatorial and aesthetic choices and hard work are fully on display everywhere in the museum. As an icing on the cake, we also encourage our visitors to leave their stories behind and to share their feedback, ideas, views, photographs, with us.

The museum is a book of stories.

How else can the public better immerse themselves in Peranakan culture? Peranakan communities form part of the rich tapestry of cultures and peoples that make up our “rojak”, port city, Singapore identity. I encourage everyone to head down to the Peranakan Museum to get a “Peranakan 101”, so to speak. Besides taking in the objects and stories that threads across the museum, the public can hear directly from members of our Peranakan communities by viewing the recipes and videos at the “Ceramics and Food Culture” Gallery, or by contributing their own photos and stories before leaving the “Origins” Gallery.

We will continue to organise and present programmes for people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to get to know our diverse Peranakan cultures and communities too, such as the Armenian Street Party which returned during our opening weekend in February. Do follow our social media pages for the latest updates (@PeranakanMuseum on Instagram, @PeranakanMuseumSingapore on Facebook).

Aside from the museum, there are many other things you can do in Singapore to immerse yourself in Peranakan culture. For starters, check out the other Peranakan museums in town: The Intan at Joo Chiat, and NUS Baba House (although the latter is closed for renovations at present). Joo Chiat and Katong are amazing districts to explore for Peranakan Chinese and Eurasian culture. Don’t miss the Eurasian Heritage Gallery at Ceylon Road. For Arab and Jawi Peranakan culture, go to Kampong Gelam – check out Wardah Books, owned by a 4th-generation Jawi Peranakan, Mr Ibrahim Tahir (whom we feature in our Origins Gallery). For Peranakan Indian culture, Little India and the Indian Heritage Centre are the places to go to for more – though it might take a little effort to find traces of this heritage.

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Decorative textiles gallery. Image courtesy of the Peranakan Museum.

Nothing beats getting dressed up when it comes to immersing one’s self in the culture. So why not get yourself a kebaya or batik shirt to wear. When it comes to these, I recommend Kebaya by Ratianah or Toko Aljunied in Kampong Gelam for classic kebayas and batik shirts; or Rumah Kim Choo and Rumah Bebe in Joo Chiat for kebayas and batiks in the Baba-Nyonya style. Incidentally, we feature pieces by designers, Ratianah Tahir (Kebaya by Ratianah), Raymond Wong (Rumah Kim Choo), and Bebe Seet (Rumah Bebe) in our Fashion Galleries, too.

Finally, you gotta try the food. Today there are so many Peranakan restaurants in town, many of which are worth a try! The best of the best are the Michelin-starred Candlenut (at Dempsey) by chef Malcolm Lee, Rempapa (in Paya Lebar) by celebrity chef Damian D’Silva and, of course, chef Violet Oon’s restaurants across town – my favourite is the flagship at ION Orchard. [Aside: we feature Malcolm Lee and Damian D’Silva in our Ceramics and Food Culture Galleries, in videos where they talk about their favourite dishes!] True Blue Cuisine, just around the corner from Peranakan Museum, is also a must – it’s the perfect place for lunch or dinner, to cap off a visit at the Museum.

It’s not all about fine-dining though; you can also get Peranakan food in the community. One of my favourite places is Chendol Melaka, located in the kopitiam at the corner of Jalan Tua Kong and Upper East Coast Road. They are known for their namesake chendol, as well as their yummie-licious nasi ulam, which are fiendishly difficult dishes to make. Must try!

Recommend an itinerary for someone visiting the Peranakan Museum for the first time. The museum is quite small and intimate, and there really isn’t a particular itinerary I would recommend. It’s easy to take everything in – you only need about two hours to half a day. First-time visitors may just follow the flow upwards from the first to the third floor.

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Tok panjang display in the Ceramics gallery. Image courtesy of the Peranakan Museum.

My two favourite galleries are the Ceramics and Food Culture Gallery on the second-floor, where we have taken the greatest creative risk in the exhibition design, and gone for a controversially contemporary approach to display; and the Fashion Gallery on the third-floor, which is designed to feel like an intimate boutique at a fashion house, complete with glass showcases featuring shoes, bags, handkerchiefs and so much more, alongside kebaya and other forms of dress. I’d be interested to hear what readers think about these two galleries. And I’d strongly recommend these galleries if you’re in a rush.

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Coming Home by Sam Lo. Image courtesy of the Peranakan Museum.

Oh and also, one other thing you should look out for: when you are at the “garden” section of the second-floor HOME galleries, make sure to glance across the central skylight, past the hanging lanterns of Sam Lo’s contemporary installation, and through the open doors of the Family and Community Life Galleries, where we have strategically placed a traditional pintu pagar (or saloon door that would front traditional Peranakan homes). This is one of the most beautiful, cinematic sightlines / “frames” in the museum – it is the result of careful visioning and planning. Not to be missed, folks. Prepare your cameras and smartphones.

What do you wish for visitors to leave with? The refreshed Peranakan Museum challenges visitors to consider the questions “What is Peranakan?” and “How does Peranakan relate to me?”. In Malay, “Peranakan” means “locally born” or “born of the same womb”, so to a certain extent, “Peranakan” can refer to all of us: descendants of immigrants who came here to the Malay-Indonesian world, and adopted the rich culture in these parts here as integral parts of our own. In other words, to a certain extent, we can all be considered orang peranakan singapura. We hope to move beyond stereotypical conceptions of what “Peranakan” means and we also wish that visitors will keep an open mind to enjoy the best museum experience.

Another thing I hope visitors see is that the museum is living, dynamic and ever-changing; it is not a fixed and finished thing. Even now, we are tinkering with it, making enhancements and improvements to the displays, the captions, the experience in general. The idea is that each time a visitor returns to the museum, there is always something different, however small or subtle. We’ve received lots of good public feedback and ideas, and we are acting on quite a few of these. Keep the feedback and ideas coming.

Peranakan Museum, 39 Armenian Street, Singapore 179941. Head here for more info This story first appeared in the April issue of Prestige Singapore

The post Crossing Cultures: Kennie Ting, director of the Peranakan Museum, gives us a taste of the revamped heritage icon appeared first on Prestige Online – Singapore.

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