Singapore Chinese put their bling on show in Paris

5th October 2010, Comments 0 comments

A major exhibition titled "Baba Bling" opened Tuesday in Paris showing how Singapore Chinese created a unique new culture by taking on board the Malay, British and Indian influences of their adopted city.

The Peranakan were the descendants of late 15th and 16th century Chinese and Indians who migrated to Southeast Asia and prospered, but the exhibition at the Musee du Quai Branly focuses on the Chinese variant who thrived in Singapore.

The term "Baba" means a Peranakan of Chinese origin, and the exhibition displays the "bling" that babas loved to acquire and display in their luxurious houses in the island city that lies at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula.

Hundreds of pieces of fine furniture, jewellery, clothing and other sundry household items display what curator Kenson Kwok calls the "interior signs of wealth in Singapore."

Most date from the late 19th or early 20th century, the golden age for the Peranakans who today number just a few thousand in the city state that is home to around five million people.

They are a concrete illustration of how the Peranakan -- the word means "born here" -- maintained strong links with their original Chinese culture but fused it with Malay, Indian and later British influences.

"The intercultural integration that lay behind Peranakan identity is a lesson in open-mindedness and tolerance, two subjects that have never been more relative today," said Kwok.

The exhibition, which runs until January 30 at the museum near the Eiffel Tower, opens as France is going through a heated debate on how to integrate its own large immigrant communities.

At one time only men were allowed to leave China, so when Chinese males arrived in the Malay peninsula they married local women, which gave rise to the mixed culture.

In the 19th century the colonising British relied heavily on the multilingual "Straits Chinese" to run their affairs.

The Babas had their own clubs, played billiards and drank brandy. But they dressed in Chinese clothes and respected Chinese traditional rituals when it came to marriages and funerals.

Kwok is the founding director of Singapore's Asian Civilisations Museum, from where most of the exhibits at the Musee du Quai Branly show come.

He said that cultural openness may be the key to the Peranakans' economic success.

The overseas Chinese, who today number tens of millions, "have always been very adaptable and that certainly has been maybe the secret or the reason why they've been successful," he told AFP.

And even more so for the Peranakans, he said, noting that they used to speak Baba Malay, a patois of Malay and the Chinese language Hokkien, and that their cuisine fused Chinese cooking with the herbs and spices of Southeast Asia.

One piece on display at the exhibition that sums up the Peranakan story for Kwok is the household Catholic altar with a picture of the Virgin Mary.

"In one piece of furniture you have that process of change made concrete. The altar is a Taoist altar, the design is English as well as Chinese, and it was made by Chinese craftsmen in Southeast Asia," he said.

World War II and the Japanese occupation of Singapore led to a rapid decline in Peranakan culture, and when the British finally pulled out in the 1950s the Babas melted into the wider population, with only around 10,000 left today.

But in recent years Singaporeans have started to regain their interest in this almost lost culture, particularly since the opening in 1997 of the Asian Civilisations Museum.

© 2010 AFP

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