Peranakan Museum curator Jackie Yoong shares her personal journey of discovery.
INTERVIEW BY PAMELA HO
Published on 13 September 2016
INTERVIEW BY PAMELA HO
I FIRST JOINED THE PERANAKAN MUSEUM AS A DOCENT WHILE PURSUING MY MASTER’S IN HISTORY. I knew then that I was interested in art, and what I thought was a local form of art. But after eight years as a curator, the biggest revelation for me was how Peranakan art is really so cross-cultural and international.
When I studied in London and visited museums in Europe, I discovered that some of their museums hold quite a collection of Peranakan objects, likely due to British and Dutch colonial presence in Southeast Asia. They were probably collected as objects of exotica or souvenirs by people who once lived in the region.
As a curator, I tell stories about Peranakan art and community — specifically through Peranakan ceramics, textiles and fashion. The term ‘Peranakan art’ is very new. Peranakan objects were not studied as art previously, but as ethnographic objects. Peranakan art history scholarship is slowly evolving, though. From the 1990s, art historians Edmond Chin and Peter Lee advocated a distinct Peranakan aesthetic and art form, and how we should study its ties to global art scholarship.
Peranakans have been very creative in adapting to their environment: they draw from Chinese, European and Southeast Asian designs, techniques and art forms, and they put it together to create something that is uniquely theirs. So where possible, we highlight the comparisons. It’s only when you look at what they were influenced or inspired by, that you see just how creative they were!
In our travelling exhibition to Paris in 2010, we brought over a huge sideboard made of teak wood carved with Chinese deities. Teak roots it to Southeast Asia, but it’s created by Chinese craftsmen and has an image of the Christian Holy Family! This really appealed to the French, and that’s what we try to do with our travelling exhibitions: we tailor them to include objects that will have a particular connection with each audience.
Having said that, the Peranakan story resonates with a lot of people. As Peranakans largely trace their family tree from the point their ancestors came to Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, their stories are really about settling down somewhere, making the place home, and having their identity be a mix of where they are and where their ancestors are from. Many people can identify with this.
Our current exhibition, Nyonya Needlework, extends this story. New research on regional styles and techniques has led our lead curator Dr Cheah Hwei-Fen to make a convincing case that Peranakan needlework goes beyond beaded bags and shoes in Singapore and Malaysia. The exhibition features beadwork, silk thread embroidery, metal thread embroidery, and drawn thread embroidery, which is a complex, time-consuming and very rare technique previously not credited to the Peranakan-Chinese.
Our collection is still growing and we hope to represent the other Peranakan communities in time. Most people think ‘Peranakan’ is synonymous with Baba and Nyonya. Actually, Baba-Nyonya specifically refers to the Straits Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia. There are also the Eurasian-Peranakans and the Chitty Melaka or Indian-Peranakans. As such, our name, Peranakan Museum, was a very deliberate choice by our founding director Dr Kenson Kwok. It’s an all-encompassing term and reminds us that we have always wanted to do more.
JACKIE YOONG is curator of textiles and ceramics at the Peranakan Museum. Exhibitions she co-curated include the Museum’s first travelling exhibition Baba Bling (2010) at the Musée du quai Branly, Paris; The Peranakan World (2013) in the National Museum of Korea, Seoul; as well as Great Peranakans: Fifty Remarkable Lives (2015) and the ongoing Nyonya Needlework: Embroidery and Beadwork in the Peranakan World (2016) at the Museum.