Baba Bling in Paris

Singapore’s first major exhibition in a European museum wows visitors with its rich servings of Peranakan culture.
Visitors try out traditional Peranakan costumes, quite unlike theirs.

For them, Singapore was the gleaming, über-modern Switzerland of the East, where grey skyscrapers loom and cold, hard cash rules. What they weren’t expecting were the vibrant hues of pink, green, yellow, red and blue.

Or that they would be gawking at centuries-old artefacts of the most exquisite designs and craftsmanship born of a hybrid of Chinese, Malay and European traditions; and welcomed by chaleureux (warm) Singaporeans eager to share with them a slice of Peranakan, and of Singapore.

In that sense, the Baba Bling exhibition now showing in Paris “confounded expectations”, said Ms Barbara Fras, Assistant Director of Programmes at Singapore’s Peranakan Museum.

A children's beading workshop

“The French might initially have a certain view of Singapore, as a financial hub or perhaps a more staid culture,” she said.

“But when they come to the exhibition, there is wonderment and delight. It’s ‘Wow, there is colour. I wasn’t expecting this and now I want to bring my grandchildren here!’ ”

“We loved it,” Adeline Lacote, a supply chain manager, told Challenge. “We didn’t know anything about Peranakans, and now we know it’s a kind of a mixture between Eastern and Western cultures. Plus, the atmosphere is very gay and vibrant. That’s a nice change for a museum.”

Jointly organised by the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) and the Museum Quai Branly of Paris, Baba Bling showcases nearly 500 artefacts of the refined culture of the Peranakan Chinese in Singapore dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

An ancestral tablet
This is the first time Singapore is sending out such a major exhibition to a European museum.
ACM staff Raaj Kannu and Barbara Fras who planned Baba Bling's outreach programmes

“We enjoyed all the jewellery and textile exhibits. The furniture was very ornate. It was fabulous,” said Bridgette Blanchet, a bank employee.

Apart from viewing the objects on display, visitors to the show also got to experience Peranakan culture during nine days of activities in late October. Children revelled in face painting, batik painting and beading, and, through the process, learned about the meanings behind Peranakan motifs such as the dragon and the phoenix.

Adults had their share of fun, too, at cooking demonstrations – every session was “sold out” – where they picked up recipes for dishes such as chendol custard and curry ayam, and got a chance to savour the spicy, earthly flavours of Peranakan cooking. There was even a traditional Peranakan wedding procession staged at the museum, by The Main Wayang Company of Singapore.

Peranakan household exhibits

And at the end of the day, visitors got to take home a goody bag each containing Singapore souvenirs, plus the batik painted designs or clay handicrafts they had made during the crafts sessions.

“We want to leave a piece of Singapore with them,” said Mr Raaj Kannu, ACM’s Deputy Director of Programmes and Audience Development, who was jointly in charge of the programming with Ms Fras.

“The French visitors are very happy to be involved. During the wedding procession, you have huge crowds waiting, and when the performers invite them to dance, they all join in and have fun.”

A traditional Peranankan wedding staged by The Main Wayang Company

Fun it certainly was, but that did not distract visitors from the weightier themes that the exhibition explores.

“It shows how a fusion community was able to straddle different worlds – Malay, Chinese, European. In a sense, that’s a reflection of Singapore – the way we are also plugged in to the region and able to straddle between East and West, and at the same time create our own identity,” said Ms Tan Huism, the curator behind Baba Bling, and Deputy Director, Curation and Collections, of ACM.

“Also, what we don’t want is for visitors to leave the exhibition thinking that the culture of the Peranakans is something of the past, because the majority of what they see, i.e. the artefacts, are of the past,” she stressed.

A cooking workshop introducing spicy Peranakan flavours.

“The point is, there are Peranakans today, and the meanings of these objects and the culture has changed over time. These are issues explored in Chris Yap’s photography (exhibited in Baba Bling), so we thought Chris’s work was a fitting end to the exhibition. The exhibition itself, then, is not just about the Peranakans, but also about cultural identity, and how it is constructed.”

Thanks to Baba Bling, other statutory boards have grabbed the opportunity to promote other aspects of Singapore to the French public, too. The Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, for instance, came up with Festivarts, a festival showcasing the best of Singapore music, dance and theatre.

“It’s about how we maximise exposure – to let people think not just about Peranakans, but also about other aspects of multicultural Singapore,” observed Ms Tan.

“We’re trying to move away from the impression that museums are stuffy. Everybody can appreciate dance, music, drama and children’s crafts connected to the exhibits, so we make it fun and educational. The most important thing is for visitors to understand and appreciate the cultural elements of the exhibitions. When you understand each other’s cultures, you’ll have a better appreciation of the person’s beliefs and value systems. We do have a social role to play,” says Mr Raaj Kannu, ACM’s Deputy Director of Programmes and Audience Development.

Walk through a Peranakan home

The Baba Bling exhibition at Museum Quai Branly spans 2,000 sq m – four times the size of the Special Exhibitions space at the ACM in Singapore – with nearly 500 artefacts on display, double what ACM normally handles in its exhibitions. "The coordination was the challenge," said Ms Regine Aw, Assistant Director, Exhibition and Project Management, ACM.

"We must make sure the pieces are stable for display. We were extremely careful about how they were packed, and whether there were pieces that needed conservation work, which is very time-consuming. All this had to be done way in advance, so that the objects will be in time for sending (to Paris)."

"What visitors should look out for, aside from the beautiful objects, are the contextual settings. The exhibition design idea was to enable visitors to go through it, as if one was walking through a Peranakan home. For me, one of the most beautifully setup contextual settings is the wedding chamber," said Ms Tan Huism, Deputy Director, Curation and Collections, ACM.


Baba Bling which runs till January 30 is the result of the MOU between ACM and the Museum Quai Branly to intensify cultural exchange. Their second joint exhibition “Congo River: Arts of Central Africa” at the ACM ends on April 10, 2011.
    Jan 18, 2011
    Bernice Tang
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