The National Museum of Korea (Director Kim Youngna) presents a special exhibition, “Peranakan, Cross-cultural Art from Singapore and the Straits,” for two months from March 19 to May 19, 2013 in the Special Exhibition Gallery. This show highlights the cultural diversity of Southeast Asia through the blended culture formed between the ethnic Chinese who settled in the Malay Peninsula and Indonesia, and the local, indigenous populations. The 230 items displayed in the exhibition are from the collections of the Asian Civilisations Museum and the Peranakan Museum in Singapore.
The countries of Southeast Asia have traditionally been influenced by Indian and Chinese cultures. They have also adopted elements of Western culture, mostly from Portugal, the Netherlands and England, since the Great Age of Exploration. Peranakan culture is a demonstration of the blending that is evident throughout much of Southeast Asia.
Peranakan is a Malay term derived from anak, meaning “child.” The term refers to the people born between male immigrants and local women. Sea trade was developed early, and a diverse Peranakan community composed of Arabs, Indians and Europeans was formed in that part of the world. At present, ethnic Chinese constitute a majority of the Peranakan community. Male Peranakans are called “baba,” and married female Peranakans “nyonya.”
The five-part exhibition shows how Chinese Peranakans who settled in Singapore incorporated different cultural elements and developed their own unique culture.
Visitors entering the exhibition hall are greeted by statues called “The Bride and Groom from Melaka” set up for Part One of the exhibition. The bridegroom is wearing a Chinese-style garment while the bride is dressed in a colorful ceremonial robe decorated with embroidery and glass beads. This section depicts scenes from the first day of the twelve-day-long Peranakan wedding ceremony.
Part Two, “The Peranakan Wedding Ceremony,” introduces the bedroom of the bride and groom, which is regarded as the segment of the wedding ceremony most deeply influenced by Chinese culture. Decorated with ornaments full of auspicious emblems, the bedroom is the essence of Peranakan handicrafts and the highlight of the exhibition.
Part Three, “Nyonya’s Fashion: Influence of Malay,” deals with Peranakan women’s fashion. Peranakan women used to wear sarongs and kebayas, the traditional clothing items of Malaysia, decorated with elaborate accessories called kerosang. Sarongs and kebayas embody the Peranakan identity and continue to inspire fashion designers even today.
Part Four, “Westernized Elites: European Influence,” demonstrates how Peranakans accommodated European culture. Peranakans, who were mostly traders and entrepreneurs, learned English, adopted Western-style dress, and played tennis and cricket. They flaunted their newly acquired social status by living in Western-style houses and driving European-made cars. Hanging their own portraits on the walls of their homes was a way of displaying social status, as shown by the portrait of Song Ong Siang (1871−1941), an early 20th century celebrity of Singapore. They were generally shown wearing suits with medals pinned to their chests and holding the Bible.
Part Five introduces Peranakan handicrafts in whose development women played a leading role. Parents expected their sons to marry women who lived up to the Chinese tradition—in other words, those who were adept at sewing and cooking. Peranakan women produced a great amount of exquisite embroidery and glass-bead accessories. Chinese porcelain for a bride was made to order and came to be called nyonyaware.
The exhibition will provide visitors to the National Museum of Korea with an opportunity to understand how Chinese Peranakans developed their own culture in Singapore, a globalized city-state. It also aims to convey a future-oriented message about a way of accommodating diverse cultures without prejudice.
Various educational and cultural programs in conjunction with the exhibition will be held during the exhibition period.