Singapore exhibits treasure trove of Peranakan history

SINGAPORE (Reuters Life!) - This is one exhibition literally studded with glittering nuggets of history.

"Baba Bling: The Peranakans & Their Jewellery," at one level, showcases the unique hybrid culture of the Peranakans, little known outside Southeast Asia, through more than 300 pieces of gold, diamond and even simple metal jewelry.

But the exhibition at Singapore's Peranakan Museum also chronicles the fortunes of these descendants of Chinese migrants, from the highs of the Industrial Revolution to the lows of World War Two.

"Peranakan jewelry, like many in many cultures served the same functions -- as a store of value, beauty, ornamentation, symbolism and a sign of wealth and status," Randall Ee, the exhibition's curator, told Reuters.

"The jewelry reflects the state of wealth of the community and the rise of the Peranakans in the late 19th to early 20th century and the subsequent decline of the fortunes of the Peranakans after World War Two."

The Peranakans, whose name means "local born" in Malay, are descendants of Chinese traders who settled in Malacca, Malaysia and around the coastal areas of Java and Sumatra in Indonesia, as early as the 14th century.

In the 19th century, the Peranakan Chinese, drawn by commerce, migrated to the bustling ports of Penang and Singapore.

Marrying local women, they formed a hybrid culture that mixed Chinese, Malay and European influences. These so-called Straits Chinese differentiated themselves from later waves of migrants from China with their unique language, arts, foods and dress.

In prosperous times, Peranakans wore gold hair pins, chunky gold belts and diamond studded brooches, or kerosangs, which were used to fasten the traditional tunics worn by women. But their declining fortunes can be seen through the plain metal jewelry, unadorned by gemstones, on display at the museum.

There are also pieces made from silver and pearl which were specifically used during periods of mourning.

"Baba Bling" also showcases the unique cultural influences on the Peranakans through different eras: their earlier pieces had more Chinese motifs such as butterflies, birds and flowers, but gradually under European colonial influence, they introduced more Western symbols such as unicorns.

"Traditionally, Peranakan women wore their jewelry as a sign of family wealth. The size and quality of a Peranakan lady's kerosang was a sign of her husband's wealth and status in the community during important functions," said Ee.

"Hairpins were traditionally used with a long tunic known as the baju panjang. Traditionally, Peranakan women wore their hair tied up in buns and secured with hairpins. A Peranakan lady's hair was never seen taken apart, unless during a funeral or the subsequent period of mourning."

Most of the jewelry -- sourced from families or from private collections -- was worn by Peranakan women, known as Nyonyas, although there's also a small section of watches, rings and chains worn by Peranakan men, or Babas.

"The distinctive feature about Peranakan Chinese jewelry is the strong fusion aspect of its pieces, drawn from Chinese, Indian, Malay and European influences," Ee said.

"Baba Bling" runs until December 13.

Singapore Peranakan Museum (

(Editing by Miral Fahmy)

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