The Intan is an independent cultural and social space in Singapore, serving as an open platform for examining and promoting Peranakan culture and connecting people.
The Intan Hot
Cozy Peranakan Experience
I joined a photography group to visit The Intan for a Peranakan project. The host, Alvin Yapp, who is himself a Peranakan, had graciously agreed to give a guided tour in his museum and also provide a tea treat for all of us.
When I arrived at the 'museum', I was shocked to find that the location was actually a residential home! And entirely self-funded! As the museum is the size of a two-storey home, the artefacts are arranged closely together. Visitors carrying bags, especially backpacks or haversacks were requested to deposit their bags under the dining table before the tour begins.
Before the tour started, Alvin first gave a background on the Peranakans, with a focus on the Chinese Peranakans. The Chinese had immigrated to Southeast Asia as early as the Ming Dynasty, probably together with the Muslim eunuch Zheng He's naval expeditions in the 15th century. As during that period in China, only the men could travel overseas because women were supposed to stay at home, the Chinese men who had decided to settle down in Southeast Asia, namely Malacca, had to marry the locals instead. Peranakan means 'locally born', and most people had the mistaken notion that Chinese Peranakan means intermarriage of immigrant Chinese with local Malays. However, in the past, the Malay archipelago was populated by the local tribes like the Dayak and Bataks rather than Malays, hence the term Peranakan means intermarriage with locals rather than Malays.
When we first stepped into the home museum, the first room we entered was the living room, which was furnished with typical Peranakan furniture--chairs and tables made of blackwood inlaid with mother-of-pearl, ancestral altar and European-inspired display cabinet. The Chinese Peranakan were mainly businessmen, and they were staunch in maintaining their culture in a strange land (probably to remember that they were still Chinese no matter where they reside). One can observe the Chinese influence like phoenix motifs, blackwood furniture of Chinese design and ancestral altars. Although staunchly Chinese, the Peranakans readily absorb local influences, as in food like betel nut chewing and attire like the sarong. The Peranakans were mainly businesspeople, and they served as middlemen between the Europeans and the locals, hence European influence was also strong in Peranakan culture, e.g. display cabinets and adoption of Christianity as one of their religions. One interesting tidbit: Malacca, the origin of the Peranakans, used to be a Dutch colony, and the Dutch taxed the people based on the number of windows in their homes. The assumption was that the wealthy had more windows in their homes than the poor. Hence the Peranakan homes (i.e. the shophouses) tend to be narrow and long--narrow to fit only two windows to the outside, and long enough to accomodate at least two rooms--the living or reception room and the private ancestral hall. This influence had spread from Malacca to Singapore when the Peranakans migrated here.
The stairs to the upper-storey were lined with colourful spittoons and Peranakan food containers. One cannot help noticing that many things associated with the Peranakans tend to be very colourful.
The area on the second storey showcases artefacts related to the Peranakan wedding and beautiful nonya (Peranakan ladies) accessories like colourful beaded slippers, kebaya (blouse) and jewellery.
The tour ended with a tea break of very yummy and colourful kuehs prepared by Alvin's mother.
It was evident that Alvin had spent a fortune in amassing his vintage Peranakan collection, and that he did it for love of his own culture. Being so open to outside influences and endowed with an adaptability to move with the times, it is not surprising that many young Peranakans have lost touch with their ancestors' culture. I am glad that there are enthusiasts like Alvin who have the passion to keep part of Singapore's history and culture alive, helping to educate ignorants like me!
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Get up close and personal with Peranakan culture
I've always counted it a blessing to have a very well-connected cousin - it's always landed me on some of the most interesting family excursions, and a visit to The Intan shortly after its opening was one of them.
It was hard not to keep our breath held as we entered the traditional-styled terrace house-museum – with intricately designed and carefully preserved furniture and ornaments at almost every corner, the place was brimming with a rich cultural flavour that made us feel as though time had come to a standstill. Under the warm and hospitable guidance of the museum owner, Alvin (whom we were surprised to know actually lived in this house-museum), we were taken on an eye-opening tour through the history and cultural heritage of the Peranakans, and were even treated to some delightful homemade traditional Nyonya kuehs, which made a most satisfying round-up to our time there.
Though it’s been a while since I’ve last been to the place, the rich and immersive experience I had there was definitely one that was hard to forget, and one I would recommend for all who wish to come up close and personal with Peranakan culture. Do note, though, that visits to the place are by appointment – so do remember to make an early arrangement before making a trip down!