Fifty remarkable Peranakans on show

Fifty remarkable Peranakans on show
A portrait of the swearing-in of former prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

Shipping magnate Tan Kim Tian, school founder Gan Eng Seng, classical music pioneer Goh Soon Tioe and bridal designer Sylvia Kho may not seem to have much in common, but there is a strong cultural link among them.

The influential personalities are all Peranakan and they will be featured alongside 46 others in the Peranakan Museum's newest exhibition, Great Peranakans - Fifty Remarkable Lives, which opens on Saturday.

There will be more than 200 objects on display in the exhibition, including furnishings, rare portraits, handwritten letters and personal belongings such as the austere white cheongsam the late Madam Kwa Geok Choo wore on the day her son Lee Hsien Loong was sworn in as Prime Minister.

Madam Kwa and her husband, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, both Peranakans, are featured in the exhibition.

Dr Alan Chong, director of the Asian Civilisations Museum and Peranakan Museum, says: "Over the centuries, Peranakans have played major roles as community leaders, philanthropists and statesmen. We have chosen 50 remarkable Peranakans from different walks of life as our contribution to the jubilee year."

While some of the people featured are well-known, including Singapore's second chief minister Lim Yew Hock and opium king Cheang Hong Lim, the exhibition also sheds light on some lesser- known members of the community.

For example, there are several photographs of Lee Choo Neo, who became the first female physician here after she studied at the King Edward VII Medical School in Singapore and qualified in 1920.

Dr Chong says: "Some of them are well-known, while others were famous in their time, but are now forgotten. The range is remarkable - from politicians spanning several different political parties, to educators and entertainers."

Entertainers among them include Koh Hoon Teck, who sang and played the violin, and Malay-language theatre impresario Cheong Koon Seng. Both were active in the first few decades of the 20th century.

With this exhibition, the museum is not only looking back at the Peranakan contribution to Singapore, but also peering into the virtual sphere as well.

Come July, this will be the first National Heritage Board exhibition to be featured on Google Cultural Institute, although the board has put up individual pictures on the site before.

Google Cultural Institute is an online collection of millions of artefacts from around the world. Users will be able to experience artefacts from the exhibition in a more interactive manner, such as being able to scroll around a photo of Tan Tock Seng Hospital for a more in- depth view.

The museum has developed a mobile application which narrates the stories of eight of the 50 people featured.

Exhibition co-curator Maria Khoo Joseph says: "The efforts of these Peranakans gained them respect in government and society. They formed lasting cultural associations, wrote widely in English, Chinese and Malay, and left legacies in art, education, social reform movements and entertainment.

"What makes the exhibition valuable are the insights that visitors can gain into the personal lives of these figures."

lting@sph.com.sg

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GREAT PERANAKANS - FIFTY REMARKABLE LIVES

Where: Peranakan Museum, 39 Armenian Street

When: Saturday to April 3, daily from 10am to 7pm, except Fridays, 10am to 9pm

Admission: $6, free for Singapore citizens and permanent residents

FIVE INTERESTING PERANAKANS FEATURED AT THE EXHIBITION

Tan Tock Seng (1798-1850)

He is primarily remembered for founding Singapore's first hospital for poor Chinese, which today stands near Novena.

The stone in the picture (right) is carved with his reasons for making the $7,000 donation needed to start the hospital. It says: "Ever since I started my business, in my heart I have always wanted to do something for the abandoned and the suffering."

Tan Kim Seng (1805-1864)

Tan was a leading merchant and philanthropist in Singapore and Malacca. He was appointed justice of the peace in 1850 and he donated $13,000 to improve Singapore's water supply in 1857.

Tan Jiak Kim (1859-1917)

The son of Tan Kim Seng, he was privately educated and fluent in English, Malay and Hokkien. He succeeded his father in leadership positions in the Chinese community. In 1900, he was one of the founders of the Straits Chinese British Association.

Oei Tiong Ham (1866-1924)

Oei took over his family business, Kian Gwan, a conglomerate of many trading activities. He owned opium monopolies and also acquired a large number of sugar cane plantations and mills. By 1900, his company was the leading producer of sugar in the Dutch East Indies.

Lee Choo Neo (1895-1947)

Lee was educated at Singapore Chinese Girls' School and Raffles Girls' School. She was the first Straits Chinese woman to obtain a Senior Cambridge Certificate in 1911. She was concerned with women's welfare and, in 1925, served on an official committee examining laws governing Chinese marriage in the Straits Settlements.


This article was first published on May 21, 2015.
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