Peranakan culture is a distinctive part of Singapore’s heritage. The term Peranakan generally refers to Straits Chinese.
As early as the 15th century, Chinese traders sailed all the way from China to Malaya. They settled down here and married local Malay women. Peranakan or Straits Chinese are people of mixed Chinese and Malay heritage—the males are called the babas, and the females, nyonyas.
During the British colonial period, many of the Peranakans were appointed community and civic leaders as they received English education and spoke fluent English. Many Peranakan families have retained their Chinese religions and practice ancestor worship; some, on the other hand, adopted Christianity or Catholicism.
There is thus a fusion of Chinese, Malay and European elements in many Peranakan artefacts.
As Peranakan Chinese are rich, we make things that are more complicated—there are more carvings, more embroideries in our artefacts, which remind ourselves that we are Chinese.
The Intan: a Peranakan Home Museum
We were told that the Peranakans are more Chinese than the Chinese themselves.
A visit to The Intan—a two-storey terrace house at 69 Joo Chiat Terrace—proved this right.
Singapore’s Joo Chiat area, which is famous for its Peranakan-style architecture, is named after the late Chew Joo Chiat—a wealthy Chinese landowner who married a Peranakan lady. The area has been home to many Peranakan families since the early 20th century.
In Joo Chiat, be enthralled by the colourful two-storey shophouses and terrace houses, all with elaborate facades adorned with intricate Chinese-influenced motifs and fanciful European-inspired ceramic tiles.
The award-winning Peranakan home museum, The Intan, is not owned by an elderly man. Instead, to our surprise, the person who welcomed us on a Saturday morning was a young ‘baba’ dressed in Bermuda shorts.
Alvin Yapp is a Peranakan Chinese who converted his house into a private museum a few years ago. Called The Intan, which means rose-cut diamond in Malay, Yapp hopes that like its brilliant, multifaceted namesake, his museum will showcase multiple facets of Peranakan culture to its visitors.
The museum’s antiques are all Yapp’s personal collections, built up over the years.
From the Peranakan ancestral altar, beaded kueh containers, beaded slippers, wedding headdress, shoes and bed, costumes, jewellery to porcelain wares, there are traces of Chinese influence in all these antiques.
The carvings, motifs, and embroideries on these Peranakan artefacts are more myriad and fanciful than those on their Chinese counterparts.
The use of colours such as olive green, turquoise, fuschia and royal blue on Peranakan porcelain wares are similar to the colouring styles embraced during China’s Kangxi period, except that the colours used in Peranakan porcelain are bolder and brighter than those of Chinese porcelain wares.
The artefacts are adorned with motifs that are auspicious symbols for the Chinese—including the phoenix, crane, magpie, bat, lotus, and peony.
The majestic ancestral table in The Intan’s living room is particularly arresting. According to Yapp, the top altar is curved for a more aesthetic appearance, and it is much more expensive and complicated to make than a flat-top alter.
“As Peranakan Chinese are rich, we make things that are more complicated—there are more carvings, more embroideries in our artefacts, which remind ourselves that we are Chinese,” explains Yapp.
The carved wooden Chinese couplet hanging near the ancestral altar promotes the essences of traditional Chinese culture—the cultivation of virtue with an emphasis on benevolence and filial piety.
The couplet reads:
Yapp says, his face glowing with pride, “We are afraid to lose our Chinese roots. We retain our Chinese family names and celebrate Chinese New Year. Our furniture was always very Chinese, and in terms of celebrations, we celebrate Chinese festive occasions in more elaborate ways than the Chinese in China.”
“The most insulting thing you can say to a Peranakan Chinese is to tell them, ‘I think you are half-Chinese,’ ” he says.
Annual Concert and Peranakan Cuisine
Besides showcasing Peranakan artefacts to its visitors, The Intan also hosts art shows, charity concerts, and plays. During the concerts, expect to hear Peranakan songs being performed by a group of young children on the violin and piano.
As Peranakan Chinese are rich, we make things that are more complicated—there are more carvings, more embroideries in our artefacts, which remind ourselves that we are Chinese
Upon reservation and request, The Intan cooks for its guests too! These delicious Peranakan meals are usually prepared by Yapp’s mother.
Some of the items on the menu include Kueh Pie Tee (pastry cup filled with turnip and topped with shrimp), Mackerel Otah in a Sandwich Bun, Ayam Masak Merah (chicken cooked with red curry paste), Nyonya Chap Chye, the sweet dessert Bubur Cha Cha as well as assorted Nyonya Kueh, served with thirst-quenching chin chow drink with longan.
To many people, The Intan is an unforgettable stop where one not just sees but experiences Peranakan life.
Without a doubt, The Intan is the rightful winner of Best Overall Experience at the Museum Roundtable Awards in 2011.
What sparked your interest in collecting Peranakan antiques?
I am a Peranakan descendant, and both of my parents are Peranakan. But I never knew what it is meant to be a Peranakan. I never knew my heritage, except that I was quite obviously different from my fellow classmates. I cannot speak Chinese and my way of thinking and my lifestyle are very different. Even at primary school age, I felt like I was a minority.
My family wasn’t very upfront in wanting to share Peranakan culture with me.
I picked it up along the way after realising that I was different. I went to museums and antique shops with my father. Gradually, I was captivated by this mix of Malay culture, Chinese culture and European influenced lifestyle. I was intrigued by old things and that kept me wanting to collect more antiques.
What are the differences between Chinese culture, Malay culture and Peranakan culture?
There are three types of Peranakan heritages in Singapore. While the term Peranakan is most commonly used to refer to Straits Chinese, there are also other smaller Peranakan communities, such as Indian Hindu Peranakans (Chitty)—Hindu men who married local women; and Arab/Indian Muslim Peranakans (Jawi Pekan)—Indian Muslim men who married local women.
Amongst the three types of Peranakan heritages, the Straits Chinese are the largest in number and also the most successful.
Chinese men are chauvinistic, so when it comes to festivals, celebrations, religion, and family names, we must follow the father’s side. And we adopt the Malay costume, food, languages and music from the mother’s side.
This is interesting because nowhere else in the world can you find a Chinese community that is so wealthy and protected to be as Chinese as we want to be, yet that has infused another culture to fit its own culture, and that has called it its own Peranakan culture.
Only in Peranakan culture will you find batik locally made but with Chinese motifs, and only in Peranakan cuisines can you taste food that is such a fusion of cultures.
There are many wealthy Peranakan graves at Bukit Brown Cemetery. Even though these Peranakans have never visited China nor speak any Chinese, they had Chinese characters engraved on their tombstones, indicting which village and province they came from in China.
Even in China, they don’t do that on their tombstones. But why was it important for a Peranakan man to do it? Because he felt that it was important to trace back to his ancestors—his roots.
It was said that the Peranakan Chinese are very often more Chinese than the Chinese themselves, and, at the same time, more English than the English themselves.
For Chinese New Year, we prepare our houses spick and span. On the first day of Chinese New Year, there is no sweeping, no knives and no scissors. But when I went to my friend’s house in Shanghai for a Chinese New Year eve dinner, they threw their bones on the floor, and to our surprise his mother swept the floor without observing this taboo.
Editor’s Note: Since the Chinese Communist Party came to power, it has caused tremendous damage to traditional Chinese culture through a series of state-sponsored movements. Today, traditional culture is no longer rooted in the Chinese people’s lives, but has instead become a beautiful yet untouchable ornament.
In your eyes, what is the most beautiful part of Peranakan culture?
I think it has to be: tolerance and harmony with various cultures.
We have Chinese, Malay, and European elements all in one. We assimilate easily and we are prepared to embrace local cultures. We don’t insist that it has to be the Chinese way, and we are prepared to learn from others.
When the English were here, we were very confident that by hanging around with them, it would not make us any less Chinese. We could hold our heads high, and be respectable Straits-born Chinese, serving individuals or communities.
What’s your favourite item in your collection?
I can buy everything with money, but not that pair of shoes given to me by my mother, which was sewed by her mother. I often tell others that when they inherit antiques form their family especially, they should try to keep them.
The Intan is a private Peranakan house and visits are strictly by appointments only. To contact The Intan, visit http://the-intan.com/.