Pete Brown reviews The Paranakan Museum – a Cultural Kaleidoscope

The Paranakan Museum in Singapore is part of the Asian Civilizations Museum, managed by the National Heritage Board. In the Malay language, Paranakan means “child of” or “born” and is used to describe people of diverse ethnicity. The collections are exhibited in a handsome 1912 building that used to house the Tao Tan Chinese School.

Through a series of themed displays – Food and Feasting, Weddings, Public Life, Religion, Language and Fashion – the museum tells the story of the Paranakan peoples who settled in Singapore as a result of trading activity. The majority were Straits Chinese, but there were also Chitty Melaka (also known as Paranakan Indians) descended from Hindu merchants and local women, and Jawi Paranakans (the elite British-Malayan community in the 1800s).

The exhibits cover many aspects of Paranakan life, revealing their artistry, craftsmanship, entrepreneurship and society. The building is a pleasure too, with generous proportions and lots of natural light. To complement the interpretation for adults, there is a children’s ‘treasure trail’ that uses humour to stimulate questioning and discovery. Almost an entire floor is dedicated to weddings, reflecting the importance of marriage to the Paranakans. The remainder of this floor is set aside for temporary exhibitions. When I visited, the exhibition was a selection of batik altar cloths, many combining traditional Chinese symbols with European and South Asian influences.

The suggested route around the museum begins with a short and useful introductory video in a gallery called ‘Origins’. The gallery is walled with poster-sized photographs of Paranakans of all ages, each accompanied by a brief personal view of what it means to be Paranakan. This, together with the domestic scale of the building, sets the scene for an intimate journey through Paranakan culture.

The furniture, jewellery and other collections on display range from everyday objects to rare and precious heirlooms. Many are hand made and incredibly intricate, such as a stunning multi-coloured beadwork tablecloth decorated with flowers, birds and butterflies, created with over a million hand-stitched coloured glass beads. There is no shortage of objects, but the collections on display are given room to ‘breathe’ which makes them easy to appreciate as individual pieces. The Visitor Guide claims that the museum “showcases the world’s finest and most comprehensive collection of Paranakan art and objects”, and I have no reason to doubt it.

The museum offers curator- and volunteer-led guided tours as well as an inventive public programme. This includes accompanied visits for people with dementia who are from a Paranakan background, organised in partnership with mental health professionals. Trained guides use the displays to encourage a fresh discovery of once familiar objects, sharing thoughts and feelings with no pressure to remember or get the answer right.

A highlight of my visit, as I tagged along with one of the regular tours, was when the volunteer guide encouraged older Paranakans in the party to contribute their memories and experiences to his interpretation of the displays. Hearing their stories brought the exhibits to life for me in a way no label can.

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