Shops, museums in Katong seek to preserve Peranakan culture

Mr Peter Wee, a fourth-generation Baba who owns Katong Antique House. Photo: Don Wong
Mr Alvin Yapp, founder and owner of The Intan, a Peranakan museum located at Joo Chiat. Photo: Don Wong
Published: 4:05 AM, August 9, 2014
Updated: 3:37 PM, August 10, 2014
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SINGAPORE — Mention Joo Chiat or Katong and Peranakan culture springs to mind for many. And while the culture evokes memories of the island’s storied past among the older generation, it is in danger of becoming irrelevant to modern Singapore — but not if people such as Mr Edmond Wong can help it.

The 31-year-old and his two brothers run Kim Choo Kueh Chang, a family business selling Nyonya rice dumplings at outlets in Joo Chiat Place and East Coast Road. Since Mr Wong rejoined the business in 2009, they have expanded it by opening a boutique gallery, giving talks, conducting in-house guided tours and collaborating with the arts community to produce Peranakan-inspired plays and art productions.

Mr Wong said his passion for Peranakan culture had begun when he was 12 years old and studying in Australia. Then, a Korean friend had asked him what Singaporean culture was about and he could not answer satisfactorily. “My friend was able to share everything about his culture, but I could offer only one or two details about mine,” he recounted.

After that, he began digging into his roots and eventually, in 2003, started writing blogs to spread the awareness of Peranakan culture.

Peranakan heritage dates back to the early 15th century when traders, largely from what are now the Fujian and Guangdong provinces in China, settled in the Malay Archipelago. Many of them married non-Muslim natives of the archipelago.

Today, there are Peranakans residing in Singapore, Malacca and Penang, as well as parts of Indonesia, with smaller communities in Thailand and Australia.

Prominent Singaporeans of Peranakan descent include Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father, the country’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, President Tony Tan and playwright Dick Lee.

Over time, the culture has been diluted, as few Peranakan parents educate their children about their heritage, owners of Peranakan businesses and museums in the Joo Chiat and Katong areas told TODAY. In 2008, interest in the culture surged, thanks to MediaCorp’s hit drama serial The Little Nyonya. However, the interest has since tapered off, they noted.

“This culture belongs to us. If we don’t embrace it, it’ll be very sad indeed,” said Mr Wong.

Another person who is doing his bit to preserve Peranakan heritage is Mr Peter Wee, 68, a fourth-generation Baba who owns Katong Antique House. The antique shop is filled with Peranakan items harking back to the old days, such as traditional Nyonya kebayas, furniture and crockery.

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