The Peranakan Museum in Singapore is housed in an elegant 3-storey, colonial building that was the former Tao Nan Chinese School. From the 10 galleries exhibited in the museum, there is everything you would want to know about the Peranakan culture, from their origins, to religions, to food, to weddings and funeral.
On the ground floor, there is Gallery 1 with portraits of people of Peranakan origin – all with a big smile and have a little something to say about their unique culture. The history of Pernakan culture is also extensively elaborated at Gallery 1.
In a nutshell, Peranakans are the descendants of marriage between immigrant Chinese men and Malayan women. The men are known as “Baba” and women are known as “Nyonya”. The resulting culture is a fascination fusion of Chinese and Malayan.
Galleries 2-5 are dedicated to Weddings. The Peranakan Weddings follow predominantly Chinese rituals. Weddings are mostly match-made and start off with the matching of birthdays, known as “pek ji” written on red paper. Not only the specific auspicious day and time for the ceremony are chosen based on this, but the ceremonies before the wedding such as “lap chai” and “chiu thau” are also based on this. Weddings were traditionally a 12-day long celebration but it has been trimmed down to a day now, keeping important rituals like the tea ceremony.
Tea ceremonies occur in the living room. In this particular living room, it was a fashionable one during its time as it followed the straight line and geometric style that was popular in Europe in the 1920’s.
Before the wedding, the “lap chai” ceremony takes place, where the two families exchange gifts. The gifts from the groom includes an “ang pow” (red packet with money), fruits, jewelry, clothing for the bride-to-be, wine and pork. The bride accepts the gifts and a portion of the pork, and in return she prepares something for the groom-to-be, including clothing and the remainder pork.
The night before the wedding, the “chiu thau” ceremony takes place in both the bride and the groom’s family. The ceremony literally means “combing hair” which is carried out by the parents, signifying the commencement of adulthood.
When it’s time for the bride to meet the groom’s parents officially and pay respects to them, the groom leads a procession to pick up the bride from her house. The procession is a lovely one with the elaborately dressed bride, red umbrellas, lanterns, page girls, page boys and sometimes up to 50 relatives’ accompaniment.
The bride is often dressed as lavishly as she could, with an ornate headdress, and plenty of gold jewelry. Sometimes the bride’s family may not have so much gold but they solve this problem by borrowing from the wealthier Peranakan families.
Silverware are used during weddings and special occasions. The purity and the craftsmanship translate a family’s status. Alternatives such as brass, beadwork and porcelain are often used as well.
A wedding bed is prepared for the newly-weds. The bed is stunning with dragon and phoenix that signify unity and auspicious fertility symbols also represent a strong desire in a Peranakn family to continue their line.
Continuation of the family name is an important part of Peranakan culture. In due course, when babies arrive along the way, it is yet another precious event to be celebrated.
Gallery 6 is dedicated to “Nyonya” – where it showcases the daily aspects of Nyoyna ladies. We get to know the kind of dresses they wore – the gorgeous kebaya, and the splendid beadworks that they make.
Gallery 7 is dedicated to Religion. Before World War II, the Peranakans typically are Buddhists while also mixing in traditional folklore beliefs and way of life teachings including Confucianism and Taoism. With foreign influences after the war, many converted to Christians. Although having embraced Christianity, the Peranakans have not forgotten their traditional Chinese roots, worshiping Jesus Christ on a Chinese-styled altar.
Ancentral worship is a routine ritual practiced by the Peranakans.
The ritual is almost too comprehensive and well-explained to the extent that there is even a funeral setting with a coffin covered in a piece of brilliant cloth. It was a bit eerie for me because I never expected to see a coffin in a Peranakan Museum and it was a shock too because the setting was so realistic I thought for a second that I walked in on somebody’s funeral!
Gallery 9 is the fascinating exhibit of Food & Feasting. Up to this point, all the rituals and practices are predominantly Chinese but when it comes to food, it is the Nyonya that’s doing the cooking and hence she is the one with the creativity to fuse in local heavier flavors and spices into the food.
For all the sumptuous Nyonya food that are made, equally beautiful porcelain food carriers are used to keep them. They are brought by the Chinese and thought to first appear in mid 19th century, which coincided with the period of flourishing economy. The carriers have different names like “kam cheng” – a carrier with lid, and “teh kuan” – a cylindrical teapot.
The wealthier families commissioned their own Nyonyaware with a symbol that was uniquely theirs so it could be recognized which ones belongs to which family; sometimes the Nyonyawares were designed with special decorations and uncommon colors, making these the rarest and the most unique.
I am particularly impressed with this gorgeous set of pink Noynaware that once belonged to Yap Ah Loy – an important man of his time and one of the forefounders of Kuala Lumpur, who established the mining industry and governed trading activities. I am even more impressed that this set is exhibiting in Singapore and not Malaysia.
And lastly, Gallery 10 is the “Conversations” gallery that provide an insight on the future of modern Peranakans.
The Peranakan Museum has a decent amount of exhibits although not as vast as the Peranakan Mansion in Penang. But in terms of illustrating the Peranakan culture, the Pernakan museum has nailed the important aspects from A-Z, making it the ideal place to familiarize with a new kind of culture.
Peranakan Museum Official Website
Address: 39 Armenian Street, Singapore 179941
Opening hours: Mon: 1 -7 pm, Tue to Sun: 9 am – 7 pm (to 9 pm on Fridays)
Entrance Fee: SGD 6 for adult, SGD 3 for full-time student and National Serviceman