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Shops, museums in Katong seek to preserve Peranakan culture

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.

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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.

“This is my way of preserving the past. Let me be the history,” said Mr Wee, gesturing to the ancestral portraits that line the stairs leading to the second floor of his shophouse. “A culture must always undergo change. The younger generation can reinvent Peranakan culture for the future.”

To some extent, Singaporeans today may find it easier to learn about aspects of the culture, given the efforts of some to keep it alive.

Ms Bebe Seet, 64, owner of Rumah Bebe Peranakan Heritage Shophouse along East Coast Road, recalled that she had hardly been exposed to the Peranakan culture during her childhood. When she became interested in Peranakan beaded shoes in 1995, she had problems finding people to teach her beading.

“Beading saw a bit of revival in the late 1980s, but interest soon dwindled. No one was holding classes. It was something the older Nyonyas used to do and most of them were already in their 70s or 80s. They didn’t pass it on to their children or grandchildren,” she said.

Ms Seet lamented that some of the old beading techniques used in traditional Peranakan beadwork had been lost. To preserve the art for future generations, she holds beading classes twice a week and has published a book on beading techniques, Peranakan Beadwork: My Heritage.

Mr Alvin Yapp, 44, owner and curator of The Intan in Joo Chiat, also had to discover the culture on his own. He started collecting Peranakan items about three decades ago. Now, all these items — ranging from colourful tiffin carriers to batik cloths and Peranakan furniture — are on display at his two-storey museum, which is open to the public strictly by appointment.

“People interested in their Peranakan heritage can ask me questions that they may be hesitant to ask elsewhere, say, at a formal museum. The Intan is a place for the young and old alike to learn more about their roots,” he said.

The business and museum owners stressed the need for the artefacts, food and fashion to serve as conduits for younger generations to find out more about Peranakan culture.

Ms Seet noted a revival of interest in Peranakan food and beaded shoes, for example.

“But I think the culture is fading … It’s a shame — Peranakan culture is unique to South-east Asia and is right at our doorstep,” she said.

Mr Wee added: “We may see the visible or material (aspect of) culture, such as fashion, but we should also question how it came about. It is extremely relevant in today’s fast-changing world — if we ask this type of question, we will get to know our ancestry in depth, which is most important in establishing our unique identity.”

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