The Intan’s Experiential Crash Course In Peranakan Culture

Peranakans share a culture that is as engrossing as it is intricate, because of how they have been positioned in our society since as far back as the 15th century. The Baba and Nyonya so elegantly embody distinct Chinese, Malay and European ways of life, against the grain of time-tethered convention.

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Processed with VSCO with m2 presetLike many, I have been a stranger to the Straits-born Chinese who have gracefully assimilated into our society. Alvin Yapp is living proof that now’s as good a time as any to experience and embrace the Peranakan culture. As a Baba himself, he never quite uncovered the richness of his roots, until his ignorance became apparent to self during a family get-together in his early twenties. The rest is history (no pun intended).

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Now better informed and invested, the avid antique collector resides in The Intan (“Diamond” in Malay), which is really a home along Joo Chiat that is now recognised as an independent museum. His family creates and customises these experiential tours without funding from the government, and recently clinched the Best Tour Experience Award at this year’s Singapore Tourism Awards.

“Once a group of Japanese tourists were deeply intrigued by the traditional Kebaya and batik worn by Baba-Nyonya, so we put up a fashion show of sorts for them. Guests just have to let us know what aspect they are most interested in, and we’ll do up something special to our best ability.”

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The shophouse’s personality spills over and takes passersby captive, and I dive headfirst into one of the most memorable and novel experiences I’ve had right home in Singapore.

Processed with VSCO with k2 presetFor starters, Alvin has a small group of us visitors gather round, and gives us a candid backgrounder on this enclave of countless curio amassed over the years.

Processed with VSCO with m4 preset Processed with VSCO with k2 preset Processed with VSCO with k2 preset“It’s very humbling, because you don’t know what you don’t know,” he shares with regard to the hit-and-miss tendency of collecting antiques. “You could deliberate for weeks, pay ten thousand dollars for something beautiful, and be told the next day that it is a replica.”

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He addresses us by name constantly, welcomes questions and even identifies repeat visitors (their occupation, what they were wearing during their last visit) from years ago.

The next two hours or so is a comprehensive look into the matriarchal Peranakan culture, recounted in a lively, hilarious, occasionally self-deprecating personal recount. We are introduced to practices: hours spent in front of the dresser each day, arranged marriages in an era without Facebook, worship paraphernalia (three alters!) hybridised from other cultures.

Processed with VSCO with m2 preset Processed with VSCO with kk1 presetChinese-type worship, at a rectangular alter as with Western dining tables, adorned with locally designed porcelain

“80{6cc99c052a2fcd17af1df3eea710f6d0fda444a06dce88abadd382d47e285100} Chinese, 20{6cc99c052a2fcd17af1df3eea710f6d0fda444a06dce88abadd382d47e285100} Malay with strong European influence. You see this repeating itself over and over, in our food, our batik, jewelry and our behaviour,”

Alvin jokes about how Peranakans “want everything”, picking what they deem best about each culture and incorporating it as their own.

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And it works – the allure in their antics and relics is undeniable.

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“Chinese silks, European cutouts for a Malay Kebaya”.

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Processed with VSCO with m3 presetIn every picture depicting the woman of the house, unbound feet rest on a footstool, indicated a progressive society where ladies went forth, got educated and pursued glamorous professions ahead of their time. In that sense, their frame of mind was very European.

  Processed with VSCO with m4 preset Processed with VSCO with m4 presetThe strikingly diverse flavours of Nyonya (“Lady” as in the title, in Malay) food, its preparation and execution are underscored in every household. Alvin shares laughingly, “I asked my mom if she could prepare something for the guests and she said, ‘I can cook anything you want for them, as long as it’s complicated to make.”

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“Besides beadwork, sewing and painting, a woman’s calibre would be determined by how well they cook. That was like the Masters degree or PhD of their time.”

In true Nyonya fashion, the sweet and savoury bites and tea served by Alvin’s sister, Cheryl, are delectable. There are subtle visual hints (eg. the way Kuih Dadar is sliced) at authenticity.

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Cherki, a card game unique to Peranakans

It all culminates in a full-fledged jam as Alvin plays the piano and Cheryl leads us in traditional nostalgic songs hardly recalled in other settings. Knowing these English, Bahasa Melayu and Mandarin tunes word for word may induce a rediscovery of the dynamic place Singaporeans find themselves growing up in, and what a part Peranakans have had to play in it.

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Museum accolades and formalities aside, The Intan is first and foremost a home that generously shares its time-bending beauty with locals and tourists alike. I personally don’t think it is a cultural expedition one can put a price tag on, purely by virtue of the heart behind it, the sheer depth divulged in 90 short minutes, and the informed conversations I wouldn’t have had elsewhere. If you weren’t culture hungry prior, you will be after. Besides, who better to receive an engaging recount of Baba-Nyonya day-to-day reality from than the Peranakans themselves?

The Intan is located at 69 Joo Chiat Terrace, Singapore 427231. Visits are by appointment only. Admission is for:

$45/pax for a tour with tea after (minimum of six people) and an additional $135/pax for dinner after (minimum of 20 people). Prices are nett.

Book an appointment by calling +65 6440 114, or email them. More information on their Facebook Page and website.

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