Beads, tassels and more at Singapore’s Peranakan Museum
As you may have realised if you follow me on Instagram, I was in Singapore for a few days’ holiday recently. Although I’d been there a few times, the last time was 2007 and I’d never been there as a solo traveller. This time, I had the freedom to do whatever I liked… which included nerding out on galleries and museums that a travel companion may not necessarily enjoy. One of these was the Peranakan Museum, which a travel companion who was not into intricate, time consuming embroidery and beading would have found especially irritating.* But if you’re reading this blog, I assume you enjoy crazy-level crafty stuff, so feast your eyes on these!
I happened to be at the museum while the Nyonya Needlework exhibition was on, which is where most of these photos are from. It’s hard to believe, but the items here are nearly all made up of hundreds and thousands of glass beads. Or in the case of this tablecloth, more than a million. I’m guessing this wasn’t what the family spread over their breakfast table for their daily dose of congee … woe betide anyone who spilt sloppy wet rice on it!
The definition of Peranakan can vary slightly, but it’s usually used to mean locally- (ie Singapore and the Malay archipelago) born and raised Chinese and their descendants. It can also include other groups such as Indians but I think most of the pieces in the exhibition (and indeed in the permanent exhibitions at the museum) are from ethnically Chinese families. You might be familiar with the kebaya which was the traditional dress of the Peranakan Chinese women (known as nyonyas – the men are called babas) and is still popular today as it can look quite contemporary when worn with jeans etc. This is one of the beautiful examples on display.
Peranakan culture is intrinsically about mixing the customs and aesthetics of different groups, so although some of the items are obviously influenced by mainland Chinese tastes, there’s a fair bit of European influence in the designs too. Also, they seem to like squirrels. (These are contemporary men’s slippers, by the way!)
From what I could tell, these people traditionally left practically no surface unbeaded or unembroidered, whether it was a small personal possession such as a wallet (which just happens to look like a mobile phone cover depicting a courtesan remonstrating with a stunted giraffe, as they were wont to do) …
… curtain ties (at least I think that’s what this was? So.. many.. beaded.. objects.. ) …
… vases …
… and even mats that go over food covers. Because why would you leave a decorative food cover undecorated?
While many of the items were purely – and somewhat insanely – decorative and may not have much place in today’s world (although I really would love a beaded phone cover!) I think this is one object worthy of revival.
It’s instantly recognisable as a screen… but why is it so small? Ah, that would be because it’s a desk screen. Those old-time Peranakans had the right idea about privacy. Wouldn’t you love one of these to hide behind in the office? Then you could get your crochet/colouring in/beading/napping done in peace and look fancy at the same time. Which is, of course, all that any self-respecting crafter wants.
*They may also have found my lack of willpower irritating when it comes to refraining from making puns. But when I saw this statue on the building’s steps, I couldn’t help thinking that there must be a special name for cats belonging to nyonyas and babas – Purr-anakans.
And now you know why I always end up travelling alone.