Peranakan Pleasures

Published on 27 October 2015

Discover the many facets of baba and nyonya culture in this first-ever arts festival.

BY DAPHNE ONG

When we talk about Peranakan culture, what often comes to mind are kebayas and loud matriarchs. However, there is so much more to this rich and unique culture. Go beyond the colourful stereotypes and discover your inner baba or nyonya at the Peranakan Arts Festival (PAF).

Spearheaded by The Peranakan Association Singapore (TPAS) in collaboration with arts company GenerAsia, the PAF is by no means the first time Peranakan culture has established its presence on the arts scene. In addition to its Straits Chinese-centric exhibits, the Peranakan Museum organises arts programmes every year. Peranakan artists and writers in Singapore have also produced significant amounts of works, the most famous being Stella Kon’s landmark play Emily of Emerald Hill, with the title character famously played at different times by Peranakan actors Ivan Heng and Margaret Chan.

However, this is the first time we’re seeing an entire festival dedicated to showcasing this unique culture birthed from a mix of two ethnic groups: Chinese and Malay. Taking place over five days in November, the festival features four exhibitions, three seminars, two theatre shows and a bazaar. It also goes hand-in-hand with the 28th Baba Nyonya Convention, to be attended by more than 400 regional delegates.

TPAS president Peter Wee explains the festival’s objective: “We are using the perspective of the arts to take our culture into the future and to reach out to a new-millennial younger generation.” Interest in Peranakan culture has indeed found footing in the current generation, and the popularity of MediaCorp’s 2008 television series The Little Nyonya has edged it into the foreground for non-Peranakans as well.

LOVE GAMBLE Pintu Pagar tells a tale of sweet longing, while Bibiks Behind Bars — Kena Again! is a musical comedy about the gambling habits of bibiks.

SO DRAMA

The highlights of the festival are the two theatre shows running concurrently. Written and directed by PAF festival director Richard Tan, Bibiks Behind Bars — Kena Again! is a colourful musical comedy which follows the antics of a group of gambling bibiks — the term for older Peranakan women. In this sequel to the original play Bibiks Behind Bars! staged in 2002, the bibiks are played by male actors, harking to the tradition of wayang Peranakan (Peranakan theatre). The cast of 12 includes Francis Hogan and Shirley Tay from the original 2002 ensemble, as well as guest star Koh Chieng Mun.

The other play, Pintu Pagar, is a heart-warming tale of love set amid all things Peranakan. Veteran actors Henry Heng and Nora Samosir team with newcomers Nicholas Bloodworth and Kimberly Chan to bring two families to life. Titled after the ornamental swinging doors of traditional Peranakan homes, the pintu pagar is an apt metaphor for the characters’ brush with longing and missed opportunities.

“I chose this image because the respective journeys of the two lovers never allow them the opportunity to formalise the feelings they have for each other,” says Pintu Pagar’s playwright and director Desmond Sim. “They swing pass each other in syncopation, never seeming to meet.”

VISUAL TREATS

The four exhibitions present four different expressions of what it is to be Peranakan. A stunning collection of vintage photographs from The Intan, a private Peranakan museum, lends a rare look into a bygone era. Three more exhibitions showcase the works of local visual artists Adeline Yeo, Desmond Sim and Carolyn Law.

Held at Empress Place, Cultural Interludes is a free public showcase of Peranakan music, dance and demonstrations. Look out for food, dancing and performances by artists from the Asia Pacific region, including Thailand and Malaysia.

BAZAAR BUYS

Take home a piece of Peranakan culture at the Ba-Bazaar, where books, jewellery, food, apparel and more vie for your attention. You might want to bring home Philip Chia’s new cookbook or Desmond Sim’s compilation of Peranakan plays.

For a truly nyonya and baba experience, check out the Peranakan Museum’s series of fun and creative workshops. Wield the needle like a true nyonya at the Sulam Embroidery Workshop, cook up a storm with the best baba chefs, or flex those vocal cords and learn a few Peranakan tunes.

HOT TOPIC

The festival’s three seminars, part of the 28th Baba Nyonya Convention, discusses, among other issues, what it means to be Peranakan today and how language and culture impact Peranakan arts. Seminar moderators include theatre veterans and Cultural Medallion recipients Ivan Heng and Alvin Tan.

Taken as a whole, the convention and the PAF are all about bringing Peranakan culture closer to the rest of the country and the world. Says festival director Joyce Lim, “We are all gifted with the power of artistic creativity and that creativity manifests at different levels in different forms. But what is intrinsic within us is this: we are in many ways more similar than we are different. Hence, with the PAF, our vision is to allow all Peranakans and non-Peranakans to share our stories, share our heritage and live in celebration of who we are.”

The Peranakan Arts Festival is on from 4-8 November. See www.peranakanfest.com and www.sistic.com for details.

DID YOU KNOW?

More facts about a fascinating culture in our midst.

  • Although the term Peranakan generally refers to people of mixed Chinese and Malay/Indonesian heritage, there are also Peranakans who are of non-Chinese heritage, such as the Peranakan Indians known as Chitty Melaka.
  • Famous Singapore Peranakans include former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, composer Dick Lee, philanthropist Tan Tock Seng and MediaCorp artist Jeanette Aw.
  • Baba Malay is a creole language which incorporates Malay and Hokkien.
  • Peranakan historical and cultural items can be viewed not only at the Peranakan Museum but also at specialty museums Baba House and The Intan.
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