A couple of months ago, I hadn’t even heard of a Peranakan. Little did I know, I was about to find out my best friend is Peranakan. After getting tips on things to do in Singapore, my BFF mentioned a museum I should visit. For me, museums in foreign countries lack any form of excitement. I spent a few days in Frankfurt, Germany going to every museum in town, and a lot of it was text heavy and light on the visuals. Unfortunately, all of the text was in German, so I didn’t get a whole lot out of it.
Now, when your BFF says “go to this museum to learn about my heritage”, you don’t even hesitate. Not only was I willing to go, I was actually really excited to learn about her background. I arrived at the Peranakan Museum at 10:50am, and was quickly informed of a tour starting at 11:00am if I’d like to join. I have never, and I mean never, done a museum tour. I’ve always been a go at my own speed kind of person, but I felt really invested in getting the full experience.
At first, I was the only one in my group and thought wow, a personal tour. After my guide, Janet, introduced herself, a family showed up to join us. They were originally from Singapore, but had spent a few years living in Texas. Although they didn’t say so, I think they were taking their two young daughters to learn about their heritage. The girls grandma and grandpa were along for the journey, excited to share their story with their grandkids.
Asian children are the most well behaved children I have ever seen in the world, but even they have their limits when it comes to museum tours. Once the grandkids lost interest, I happily became their adopted pseudo family member. They were so happy to share their history with someone who was as interested in learning about it as I was. Between my amazing guide and the incredible family who took me under their wing, I can’t imagine having a better culturally educational experience.
So, what did I learn on this amazing museum tour? Let’s start with what a Peranakan is, or rather who. The definition I found online says they are “the descendants of Chinese immigrants who came to the Malay archipelago including British Malaya between the 15th and 17th centuries.” Basically, they are made up from a mix of Asian cultures that arrived via trade routes in and around what is now Singapore.
A large part of the museum was dedicated to showing the traditions of a Peranakan Wedding Ceremony. Now, I used to think India ruled the wedding industry as far as having an elaborate ceremony, but Singapore just came in for the win. The wedding is a twelve day ceremony. Yup, twelve days! The bride and groom were set up through an arranged marriage and wouldn’t even meet until the third day of the wedding.
The highlight of this for me was learning about the traditional tea ceremony, which I had the honor of watching my best friend partake in at her wedding last summer. I had known it was a Chinese tradition, but didn’t know what it stood for. Apparently, the bride would offer each male of the family a cup of tea. If he accepted, it meant he accepted her into his family. Prior to the match being made, the family would scout out the bride and make sure she was excellent at two things. She had to be an incredible cook and amazing at sewing. Lucky for my bff, that’s no longer the case (sorry Sharmaine). I feel it’s important to note here that although my bff (aka one of the few people who reads every post on here) can’t sew, I still love her.
We started to get into the standards of what “good sewing skills” and “good cooking” actually meant. My new Singapore grandma turned to me at this point and whispered, “I’d have never of gotten married” which made me laugh a little too loud. I studied fashion design, owned my own bridal line, and I can confidently say I wouldn’t have married either. The sample of what a women had to hand bead in order to marry was insane. It would have taken me three years to make that. One of the little girls in the group said, “they’d be too old to marry by the time they finished!” I swear, this family cracked me up.
Now onto cooking. Not only did you have to be able to sew a masterpiece, you also had to cook insanely well. Some mothers would whack their daughters with a hot spoon if they didn’t get a dish perfect. Janet, our guide, told us her mother was an exceptional cook for this very reason. It’s said that a mother-in-law could tell how good her new daughters cooking was based solely on the sound her mortar made while she ground herbs. A wife could tell if her cooking was good based on how clean or dirty a napkin was. If her husbands napkin was clean, it was said to mean the cooking needed some work. If the napkin was dirty, he thoroughly enjoyed his meal.
I also learned about all the auspicious symbols used in a wedding. For instance, the tea cups used in the tea ceremony were usually in pairs as twos were considered lucky. Flowers, insects, and birds represented fertility, wealth, and a long marriage. My favorite part, was the bridal precession. Following the bride and groom were women who were specially selected for being married for a long time and having living husbands.
After learning about many of the wedding traditions, we took a look at traditional clothing, fine china, furniture, and religion. The one hour tour was jam packed with information, but it was all really interesting. Hearing about a culture so different from my own by people who are so proud of their history was one of the highlights of my time in Singapore. Before going to the museum, I didn’t even think I’d mention it in a blog. It had such a strong impact that it ended up getting its own exclusive post.
What’s your favorite museum? Is there a culture that you’ve learned about that you just adored?
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Michelle Della Giovanna
Writer at Full Time Explorer
I’m just your average New Yorker who quit her job in the fashion industry to explore the world. Come find out what it’s like to trade in five-inch heels for squat toilets.