Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Playing Truant

It is thrilling. Honestly. Not a trace of compunction bothered me as I left work early to finish up some work that couldn't be postponed (or they'd chuck me out of Singapore)- I had to get my work permit renewed, and it is funny that with just a few weeks left, I should have to go through the entire process again- they won't let people work on a tourist visa, do they?

The 'playing truant' part follows- it was actually just about an hour. I knocked off work two hours early, and by the time I finished up at the MoM office, it was over half past one- doesn't make sense travelling from the Riverwalk back to Harbour Front when your shift ends at 2.30. So I just picked out the most interesting looking exit, which took me over Elgin Bridge over the rippling brown waters of the Singapore River, hit an intersection, took the road more travelled (though I'd never been there earlier), and went on straight- aimlessly. I wanted to get lost. Unfortunately, some convolution of fate took me past the heard-of Funan Mall, and in moments, I was in sight of the majestic white spire of St. Andrews' Cathedral. Sigh. Back at City Hall. No matter how hard I try to see different parts of the city, all roads seem to lead to City Hall. I avoided the trappings and temptations of Raffles City and turned left into Stamford Road. Oh, that lovely building- it houses some really classy galleries and shops which display a good bit of European influence. Wandering on, I hit the Armenian Street, and I came across an intersection with a signboard pointing to the Peranakan Museum. I had a choice- to turn left and lose myself in a bit of culture and history, or to walk straight on to Fort Canning Road and lose myself in another maze of traffic.

The museum won hands down.

Peranakan is the term used to refer to the descendants of the unions of foreign settlers such as the Indians and the Chinese, with people of the local communities. These inter-racial marriages led to a fusion of languages and traditions, and 'Peranakan' is indeed quite an adjective in itself now. It is housed in an impressive building constructed in 1910, originally a school and given up in the mid-nineties as the school moved to the suburbs to cater to larger numbers of students. Exhibits include clothes (sarongs, baju kebaya and other traditional outfits), jewellery, the finery and dowries at weddings (a whole section on a 12-day Peranakan wedding!), a coffin (depicting the death rituals), religious figurines and a model kitchen.

The sections depicting the lives of nonyas and babas (Peranakan women and men) are a real insight into Peranakan ways of life. The girls were traditionally brought up to be good wives and trained in household chores from early on. They were pressured to have sons, and a painting at the museum depicts it all so poignantly- a dejected-looking woman sitting down with her daughters around her- yet another example of how women were viewed as little more than instruments of procreation. The consummation of the wedding itself was accompanied by a ceremony- again, aimed at testing the purity of the bride, who could be rejected by the mother-in-law if she was not a virgin. How women themselves can turn against their own kind will remain a baffling mystery.

The section on cuisine had some interesting, colourful displays of crockery, and descriptions of the kinds of food eaten. All this while, I'd just heard of nasi lemak and sambal belacan- now I know what they actually are.

Baba Bling is a temporary exhibit at the museum- Peranakan-inspired jewellery. Hairpins, broooches, necklaces and bracelets encrusted with diamonds, pearls and jade were on display. They are all the more sought after now for the increasing rarity of genuine Peranakan jewellery in the market. There seem to have been quite a few wealthy Peranakans around!


The afternoon could have ended after a quiet browse through the museum's souvenir shop (which, incidentally, is so strategically placed that most people enter it before they go into the museum itself). But no, I wanted more out of this promising afternoon. And true to the feeling that had been in my bones all morning, I got it.

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