Melting pot showcase

Nestled among the corrugated iron roofs and shipping containers of Jurong Port road is an understated beige-and-silver building, quietly humming away amid the industrial hubbub.

The six-storey complex is the National Heritage Board's Heritage Conservation Centre, which was established in 2000.

It is a one-stop shop for preservation, and houses everything from laboratories for material testing to large nitrogen-filled plastic bubbles for pest management of newly arrived artefacts.

Most importantly though, the centre is also home to more than 150,000 artefacts and artworks from the national collection, which are stored in 25 carefully climate-controlled vaults.

These include five artefacts under The Peranakan Museum's curatorial care, which are introduced to Life! by assistant curator of the museum Maria Khoo Joseph.

She has been working with the institution since late 2010.

The 25-year-old, who holds a bachelor's degree in history (Hons) from the National University of Singapore, was drawn to the job not just because of her love for history, but for personal reasons as well.

Peranakan blood flows through Ms Joseph's veins: Her mother is Chinese Peranakan, while her father is Indian.

She is also interested in the culture academically. Her final-year thesis at the university, which was about the Christian conversion of Peranakans in Singapore, was inspired by a display which she saw at the Peranakan museum.

She says: "I visited the museum as a student and I was particularly fascinated by an artefact in the religion gallery.

"It was a Catholic altar sideboard, but it looked like a Taoist sideboard - there were depictions of the three star gods on top, and the sides were carved with dragons and phoenixes. Yet, in the centre, was a painting of the Christian holy family.

"It was very interesting to read about how Peranakans felt that those visual aesthetics of the three star gods were an acknowledgement of who they were as Chinese individuals, and they were cultural, not religious."

Ms Joseph, whose speciality is early 20th-century history, says the blending of different cultural influences is one of the hallmarks of the Peranakans: "The Peranakan culture is one that has multiple cultural influences, and I feel that in all the objects that we've selected, you can see that cross-cultural blending."

As she says this, she points out her favourite artefact in the Peranakan Museum's collection: an early-20th- century wooden settee.

"It's not the world's finest piece of furniture, but it tells a very interesting story," she says. "The Peranakans always looked to European furniture for inspiration, particularly in the earlier 20th century, when they were closely associated with the colonial elite.

"So while you can see the 18th-century English aesthetics, the seat is made with rattan. Usually, the English would have thick cushions as seating, but it has been adapted to the local weather - rattan is like natural air-conditioning."

Altar Cloth

Indonesia, early 20th century, cotton batik

This blue-and-beige batik altar cloth is decorated with auspicious animals such as cranes and lions. It also features the Chinese character fu, which symbolises good fortune. Altar cloths were usually hung at the front of a Chinese altar during special occasions, and the majority, which were imported from China, were embroidered. Batik altar cloths, on the other hand, are found mainly in Indonesia.

Wedding Robe

Penang, early 20th century, silk, metallic thread, rabbit fur

This pink wedding robe from Penang is embroidered with auspicious birds and flowers, and would have been worn on one of the days of the typical 12-day Peranakan wedding.

Rabbit fur trim is common on Penang wedding robes, despite the tropical climate of the region as they are inspired by similar trims found on Chinese opera garments and northern Manchu winter court robes.


Indonesia, early 20th century, silk satin

This kebaya is embroidered with flower-filled baskets in blue, yellow and cream, and the intricate stitching extends from the waist of the kebaya all the way to its sleeves. The scalloped lapels of the kebaya top also feature flowers.

This particular kebaya is unusual as it is made of silk satin, while most were made of lace or white voile.


Straits Settlements (Singapore, Malacca and Penang), early 20th century, gilded teakwood, rattan The settee is a good example of the hybrid quality of many Peranakan objects.

In form, it is similar to the English Chippendale furniture of the 18th century, in particular the pierced back panels, carved scrolling foliage and the S-shaped curvature of the legs.

However, the wood is local teak and the woven cane seat of the settee, which has holes in it, is an adaptation to the warmer climate of South-east Asia.

Gilded wooden furniture of this type has come to be called "brown-and-gold", and gained popularity around the turn of the 20th century.


Singapore, mid or late 19th century, porcelain, gold

This blue-and-white gilded plate features qilins (mythical Chinese hooved creatures) and phoenixes. It is an important piece as it might have been commissioned by the family of Cheang Hong Lim, the businessman whom Hong Lim Park is named after. Cheang was also known as Wan Seng, and the back of the plate bears that name in Chinese. The philanthropist, who lived from 1825 to 1893, was highly regarded in the Singapore Hokkien Chinese and Peranakan communities.

In the Vault

Year of founding: The Peranakan Museum was founded in 2008 and stands in Armenian Street on the site of the former Tao Nan School.

Museum size: 4,000 sq m spread over three floors. It has a display space of 1,500 sq m.

Number of galleries: 10 permanent galleries and two special exhibition galleries with changing displays.

Museum visitorship last year: About 270,000 visitors.

Number of objects: 2,690 objects in the National Collection are under the curatorial care of the Peranakan Museum.

One of the largest objects on display: Beadwork tablecloth, Penang, early 20th century, glass beads, cotton.

The 1.6m by 1.6m tablecloth is the largest known example of Peranakan beadwork and contains more than a million beads.

Its motifs, such as roses, birds and butterflies, are heavily influenced by designs of the Victorian period, but the colours used are distinctly Peranakan.

One of the newest objects on display: Ivan Heng's performance poster from 2011, Singapore, 2011, paper

The poster is from a staging of Stella Kon's play, Emily Of Emerald Hill.

Ivan Heng, actor and artistic director of the Wild Rice theatre company, played a dominating Peranakan matriarch in the one-man show.