After a lovely tour of the permanent galleries by volunteer docent Marjon de Winter and visiting the various other parts of the museum, I just had enough time for a whirlwind walk through the Amek Gambar exhibition. According to the write up, it “presents over a century of photographs, tracing the emergence, adoption and evolution of photography in Southeast Asia.”
I was fortunate enough to catch the tail end of a private, informal tour and this experience truly drove home the point that museum docents play an important role in helping visitors on their journey of discovery. For me, having the dots connected, deepened my appreciation of the images on display and the insight they afforded into the world of the Peranakans. More so, when the guide has first-hand knowledge on the subjects of the photographs and shares a bit a local gossip here and there!
The photographs range from the earliest photo of Singapore to crowd sourced digital images – capturing people, places and events to tell a story of the scene captured. A majority of photographs were donated by Mr and Mrs Lee Kip Lee. The tools of the trade – cameras, negatives, photo albums – are also given prominence. Visitors are given the opportunity to see the photographs as they would have been kept, used or displayed in their time – framed for hanging or displayed on table tops, in albums, within official documents as well as with their negatives, transparencies or slides.
Walking through the exhibition, you can also see the evolution from sepia to black and white; from colour prints to colour painted photographs. The change in photography techniques is paralleled by the variety of ways the Peranakans were captured by Western and Asian photographers as well as how they chose to depict/capture themselves.
With the portraits, you get to see the poses evolve from the formal pose to the more casual; locations shift from the studio to a formal setting in the subject’s home and later to a more casual outdoor setting. In some of the early photos, the costumes range from formal Peranakan wear to western costume to fashion of the day.
The use of camera “tricks” or creative development of the print from more than one negative appeared to be popular innovations. I rather enjoyed these photos that were in the exhibition. The gentleman in the photograph below, taken in Java in the 1930s, decided to portray himself in 3 poses.
The following photo that was taken in Ipoh in the 1920s features a woman in both traditional women’s wear as well as in the male colonial costume complete with cane and pith helmet! What were they trying to portray of themselves?
It appears cross dressing does not seem to be an issue with the Peranakans. The guide mentioned that these pictures were mainly for the promotion of a theatre show but who knows if they also are a manifestion of the baba’s interest in cross dressing! The photo of the baba in a kebaya shows him in impeccable form – reminding me of my grandmother who always said that it is important to ensure that one must always be properly turned out and present one’s best angle in pictures.
Given a chance, I would revisit Amek Gambar and spend more time going through the photos. They presented a people and culture that were familiar to me yet offered a refreshing at look the Peranakans.
Amek Gambar – Taking Pictures: Peranakans and Photography runs until 3 February 2019.
After a chatty and delicious lunch at Equilibrium Restaurant Capitol Plaza, a group of us museum volunteers made our way in the rain to the National Museum of Singapore. The gloomy weather could not dampen our excitement of the special tour organized for us, courtesy of the Friends of Museums. After being warmly greeted by two volunteer guides we were split into two groups; group was led by Sally McHale and she proceeded to guide us to the Singapore History Gallery at Level 1. This gallery narrated the development of our neighbouring country through 4 distinct eras: Singapura, Crown Colony, Shonan-to, and Post-War Singapore including the struggles in the road to self-government and independence, challenges of the future and the successful development of the country.
Before we entered the gallery, Sally, our guide, gave us a brief account of the building. Opened in 1887, the National Museum of Singapore, originally known as the Raffle’s Library and Museum, is the nation’s oldest museum and it celebrated its 130th anniversary in 2017.
First, we stood in front of a huge digital map the original of which was compiled by a Flemish cartographer, Abraham Ortelius, in 1570. Singapore was already on this map and known as “the land below the winds”. It was strategically located on the trade routes and was part of the Maritime Silk Road from before the British colonisers. Ships from China sailed here, traded and returned home blown by the monsoon winds. Right on cue, the image and sound effect of the seasonal monsoons came on to highlight the significance of the trade winds that were so vital for bringing the merchants to trade in the region.
It is believed the island was already a substantially inhabited trading post even earlier than the 16th century as evidenced by the 3 metres wide and 3 metres high Singapore Stone. This is part of a sandstone boulder, dated between the 10th and 14th centuries, which once stood at the mouth of the Singapore River, near where the present day Fullerton and Merlion are located. Inscription on the boulder is written in Kawi script with some Sanskrit words but it has never been fully deciphered. Even Sir Stamford Raffles made rubbings of the inscription to decode its meaning but to no avail!
The earliest written record said Singapore was called Tamasik or Temasek in the late 14th century before it was called Singapura (City of the Lion in Sanskrit). Tales from Sejarah Melayu told of the first ruler Sang Nila Utama who landed on shores white as a sheet of cloth, spotted a strange lion-like animal, took it as an auspicious sign and named the island Singapura. Exhibits of Chinese coins and fishing hooks placed on the white sands of the 14th century (dug out from the Padang in front of the National Gallery where the first settlement was believed to be) brought to life the legend of Sang Nila Utama stepping on the fine white sand.
Five kings ruled here for 100 years and the last king, Iskandar Shah, fled from Singapura to Melaka and founded the Kingdom of Melaka. Exhibits uncovered on the forbidden hills where royalties resided included gold armlet and earrings, uncovered during the building of a reservoir in the 1920s. On the clasp of the amulet is the head of Kala, a protective deity. Alas, it did not offer much protection to the last king of Singapura as Iskandar Shah had to flee the island. Other trading exhibits displayed show that even after the disappearance of the royal families, trades still flourished along the Singapore River with the existence of Temenggong of Johor Sultanate.
Crown Colony (1819-1941)
Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore, was already familiar with this region before he arrived in Singapore in 1819 through his previous postings to Penang and Java. He signed a treaty with his handpicked Sultan of Johor to allow the British East India Company to establish a trade base here and, subsequently, Major William Farquhar opened the port to all nations free of duty thus making the island a springboard to be developed by 1850 into the centre of trade in South East Asia. We were also briefed on how Raffles managed to eliminate the Dutch influence from Singapore and helped to form the new Johor Sultanate in 1819. The first immigrants arrived in Singapore in 1850’s landing near today’s Lau Pa Sat Food Court (we dined there!), where many temples and mosques were built next to each other, giving diversity to the country’s culture. Many immigrants of various ethnicities (the Chinese, Indians and Malays) arrived here particularly after Singapore became a Crown Colony in 1867. Schools, churches and residential areas were built and segregated in accordance with the Jackson Plan promulgated by Raffles to bring order to the city of Singapore. Much of the Jackson Plan still exists today.
The population grew from 1,000 in the 1820’s to 60,000 in the 1850’s. The ratio of men to women was 14 to 1. Most men came alone, resulting in marriage with local women. One community arising from the interracial marriage was the Peranakan. From India, many Sepoy soldiers came in as the workforce of the British government and from 1826 onwards when it became the Straits Settlement, even convicts from the jails of Calcutta were brought in. Today Singapore’s population is composed of 70% Chinese, 15% Indians, and 15% Malays.
Stopping in front of a painting of Abu Bakar, the descendent of Temenggong–derived Sultan of Johor who made his fortune from rubber products, we were told of his interesting life. In England he was known as Albert Baker and was even a good friend of Queen Victoria!
During the 1860’s, huge changes took place with the opening of the Suez Canal and the appearance of steam ships which docked in Singapore. Changes included the increase in the number of Chinese opium addicts who sought temporary comfort to escape from daily hardships and backbreaking jobs. Even newspapers warned and illustrated how even industrious men fell victims to opium addiction. The British government was appealed to make the opium trade illegal, but to no avail, as it was the major source of income for them. It was not until the Japanese occupation that opium was outlawed completely.
Education also became a forefront of the country’s development. Locals began to influence the social and economic development of the country. A major benefactor of education was Tan Kah Kee, a billionaire who made his fortunes from rubber and pineapple trading. Eunos Abdullah, one of the few Malays educated at the Raffles Institution and the only Malay representative on the Straits Settlements Legislative Council, was an editor of Utusan Melayu, an influential Malay Paper.
A sense of nationalism was beginning to rise in the 1920s/30’s.The Malays started to question the right of the British rule as did the Chinese. The “Singapore Mutiny” led by Bengali-Muslim regiments showed that cracks were beginning to appear in the British Administration. The all-Muslim unit feared being sent to fight against their fellow Muslim Turks during World War I. 39 mutineers were executed in public, watched by 15,000 residents. However no one knew that an even worse “winter was coming”.
Shonan-to (“Island of the Light of the South” 1942-945)
In December 1941, Singapore was bombed by the Japanese and that was the start of World War II in Asia Pacific. After landing on the Peninsular of Malaya on 8th December 1941, they came down to Singapore by bicycles and defeated the British capturing Singapore and the Peninsular within 70 days. The British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill called the stunning defeat “the biggest calamity the British Empire has ever seen”. Japan is a country with scarce important resources such as oil, gold and coal, all of which however were abundant in Malaysia and Indonesia. The main purpose of their invasion was to take over the huge British naval base in Singapore and get access to these natural resources.
The chart comparing the might of the Japanese armed forces and artillery and that of the British brought home how well prepared and equipped the Japanese were. In terms of army planes, tank regiments and soldiers, the British were outnumbered completely. The pride of the British navy battle ships, the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, were sunk at early stage of the war. The British resources were stretched due to the war in Europe. Airplanes were obsolete and not suitable to tropical conditions. Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival was forced to surrender in February 1942 faced with the fact that 1 million people, soldiers and civilians were crammed in the heart of the island with the Japanese having taken control of the water and food supply.
After capturing the island, the Japanese immediately started the Sook Ching (Cleansing) Massacre. Chinese aged between 18-50 suspected of being involved in anti-Japanese activities, boycotting Japanese goods, sabotaging Japanese companies and sending money to the Chinese in China to support their fight against the Japanese were all screened. Once they were identified to be involved, confirmed or otherwise, they were sent to remote areas such as Changi Beach where they were never seen again. It was poignant seeing one of the blue doors of Changi prison behind where soldiers were held, rail man’s whistle, watches, doctor’s stethoscope, eye glasses, pens of the victims of Sook Ching which were uncovered during the 1960s when there were lots of building works in the city outskirts. The belongings suggested women were victims as well as men. The Japanese admitted to 5,000 deaths but excavations suggest 25,000 victims.
Post-war Singapore (1946-Present)
The British returned in 1945 after the war. The 1940’s and the early 1950’s were tough days because of shortage of food, necessities, jobs, schools, etc. There were also natural disasters such as floods. Many were left homeless. Trade unions were formed and riots occurred all of which were threats to the British government. To deal with these problems, David Marshall, the first Chief Minister and a lawyer, sought for more freedom and subsequently self-government for the people of Singapore. Although his goal was not successful in early stages, Singapore gradually attained full self-government, which was finally granted in 1958. In the 1959 election, the Peoples’ Action Party led by Lee Kuan Yew won the polls in a landslide victory and he became the first prime minister. In 1963, Singapore joined Malaysia to form the Federation of Malaysia. However, the merger was an uneasy one. We watched a video of an emotional Lee in tears when Singapore was kicked out of Malaysia in 1965 due to the conflict of policies adopted by two countries. Singapore became independent on 9 August of the same year, now celebrated as National Day.
Many things such as new bank notes, national anthem and national service had to be created for the new nation to establish the identity of the Singaporeans. Economic and educational plans were also implemented, from establishing the Jurong Industrial Estate where multinational companies could invest in, to sending Singaporeans abroad for higher education. Our attention was drawn to an old Setron television set which stood as a symbol of success in transforming old industries to modern ones. The factory manufacturing the TV set was originally processing coffee beans from Indonesia. Supply was cut short due to Indonesia’s “unhappiness” with Singapore joining the Federation, thus forcing the factory to take a gamble to switch to manufacturing of electrical goods. An impressive feat was the social welfare systems such as house ownership scheme by the Housing Development Board, which built 10,000 units for the population within 5 years and improvement of infrastructures. Today Singapore is known as the City in a Garden with strong green policies of planting trees within specified distances contributing to the creation of images of a green city. Assisted by many capable men, Lee brought great success to the Singapore we see today.
We expressed our sincere gratitude to the two guides after the one and a half hour tour, which ended all too soon. The visit to the museum indeed gave us an insight to our neighbour country, Singapore.
National Museum of
The Encyclopedia of
Malaysia, Vol 16, The Rulers of Malaysia
History of Singapore https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Singapore
Level 2 has five galleries: Ancient Religion housed in two separate areas, Christian Art Gallery, Scholar Gallery, Islamic Art Gallery and Ancestors & Rituals Gallery. Both the Islamic Art and Ancestors & Rituals Galleries are under renovation, opening in December and early 2019 respectively. In addition, there are two galleries on Level 2 for event space and as a special exhibition gallery.
The Ancient Religion Galleries hold a large collection of Hindu and Buddhist sculptures from Asia. The displays found are from the second century up until the early twentieth century. It also features art objects from Jainism, the third great religion of India.
Hinduism and Buddhism from India spread widely outside India including to Southeast Asia. The development of Hinduism and Buddhism then evolved combining localized features and animistic beliefs. The concepts of the original religions took many forms. – some human, some divine with supernatural powers and some abstract. By the 7th century, the form of the images moved away from those found in India as sculptors started reflecting local characteristics. Hinduism and Buddhism were widely practiced at the royal courts. Kingships even took the form of Vishnu, adding merits to their power. The Srivijayan era in the 7th century saw beautiful objects created depicting kings and their gods. At the height of the Majapahit Empire, Java (13-15th century) developed its own traditions in art, merging two religions into one.
Buddhism became popular between the 8th to 15th century in Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. This influence lasts until today.
In China, Buddhism grew out of Indian beliefs and was practised alongside Confucius and Taoism. Here, the famous male Avalokitesvara was personified in the form of Goddess of Mercy or Guan Yin, and became a female. The virtue of a compassionate Guan Yin was more suited to a female than a male.
The Christian Art Gallery features collections of art from China, Japan, Middle East, Southeast Asia and other countries. Christianity was introduced by Catholic missionaries from Portugal and Spain, and later Dutch Protestants. The art objects took a different form merging western ideologies with Asian techniques and materials.
The Scholars Gallery showcases Chinese beliefs and philosophy, strongly depicting Confucius teachings and Taoism practiced by scholastic officials. Here are collections of paintings, furniture and objects used by Chinese scholars depicting their lifestyles and their education.
This Gallery, on the First Level of ACM (Asian Civilisations Museum), tells the story of trade through the Tang shipwreck. The story begins in the 9th century when it was already a part of an earlier era of globalization. So let’s learn more about this shipwreck.
The Tang Shipwreck, discovered off Belitung Island in Indonesia in 1998 has revolutionized the way we see the world in the 9th century. It provides an early evidence for the bulk trade between China, Southeast Asia and the Middle East during that period.
Trade was over land and sea, linking diverse parts of Asia. As ships could carry a much greater load than camels could, the maritime route from East Asia through Southeast Asia to South and West Asia became more important, with the Gulf serving as an important hub.
The sea trade made mass exports of heavy, fragile Chinese ceramics possible for the first time.
The ship itself was Arab by construction – an Arab dhow. It consisted of wooden planks sewn together with rope. The construction technique indicated that the ship may have been built on the Arabian Peninsula, in a Gulf port, or perhaps on the coast of Oman, where similar vessels were still being built in the twentieth century. It had sailed all the way from the Middle East to China and was on its way home when it sank in the Java Sea.
What was traded ?
Glass was brought from the Middle East, cotton from India, spices and wood from Southeast Asia, and ceramics and silk from China.
In the shipwreck, more than 60,000 glazed bowls, ewers, and other ceramic items were discovered – most from Changsha, as well as luxury objects made of gold and silver, bronze mirrors and ordinary objects belonging to the crew. Its contents were protected from erosion as they were packed in jars.
So let’s see some of these wares:
The ewer below was made in China, probably in the Gongxian kilns, around the 830s. It is, perhaps, the grandest ceramic piece found in the Tang Shipwreck. The lozenge with flowers is a design developed in the Abbasid Empire. Chinese artists adopted the pattern, probably to export to Middle East customers. The overall form of the ewer is based on objects made in metal, as is evident from the upturned rim of the base, and the thinness of the handle.
The vast majority of the Tang ship’s ceramic wares came from the kilns of Changsha, in the central southern province of Hunan: 55,000 Changsha bowls and 2,500 other wares.
These wares seem to have been popular in markets overseas as well as in China itself. The motifs were painted in brown, green, using iron and copper oxide based pigments. One of the bowls had an inscription mentioning a summer’s day in 826. Drinking tea was very popular during the Tang dynasty and, instead of cups, these bowls were used to drink tea.
Three white dishes with a blue design were found in the shipwreck. These are among the earliest known Chinese blue-and-white ware. The cobalt used was most likely an import from Arabia-Persia and the motifs – one or two lozenges surrounded by foliage – were of Abbasid design.
Thirty-nine Chinese bronze mirrors, designed for trade, were found in the shipwreck. Many of them had blackened but were originally silvery. One side was polished smooth to provide a reflective surface, the other side was decorated with different motifs, such as flowers or auspicious animals.
An interesting piece among the mirrors was one that was almost a thousand years old by the time the ship sailed; it dates from the Han era (206 BCE – 220 CE). Another antique piece dates from the Six Dynasties period (220–589 CE).
Many of us have already visited ACM once, twice, a half dozen times. NO MATTER!!!. It’s time to head down to Singapore to enjoy the newly renovated treasure trove whose freshly curated galleries are bursting with artifacts you probably have not seen before. Virtually all of ACM’s galleries tell stories shared by Malaysia and are sure to inspire our guiding.
In 2014 ACM announced an ambitious plan to build a modern new wing, develop a light filled entrance upon the Singapore River and create larger spaces where stories about artifacts and culture can flow into one another like the rivers and trade routes of South East Asia. These large and lovely new galleries opened in 2017.
For museum docents, the curatorial ambitions of the new spaces are even more exciting. In 2014 the initial vision was explained by Director Alan Chong:
“We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to present Asian art and culture in an interesting, new way. We thought it would be more interesting to reflect Singapore’s multiculturalism by looking at how these cultures connected, not only in the great port cities of Asia, but also how they interacted and blended, and communicated with each other, engaging in a cultural dialogue over thousands of year.” 1
The latest director Kennie Ting further developed the integrated approach and explained that the Museum is sifting from an ethnographic focus to one that pays more attention to art.
“What this means is not that we forget the cultural and historical significance of each object… but in the curation of the pieces here, we are also now focusing on the aesthetics, the elements of craftsmanship, design and tradition. In presenting only masterpieces from Asia, we say that in Asia, we have a very long tradition of excellent innovation and craftsmanship. We should be extremely proud of this heritage we have, particularly here in South-east Asia.”2
The practical realization of these curatorial visions are immediately apparent on each floor which are filled with artifacts and stories shared with Malaysia. The ground level flows through with the history and culture of South East Asian trade. The second floor shows how systems of faith and belief spread across South East Asia, with resulting cultural and aesthetic adaptions of religious art. In 2019 the third level will open focusing on the textile traditions of South East Asia, another shared focus. Subsequent write ups will share details of the treasures to be viewed.
Muzium Negara is filled with far more artifacts and displays than can be shared in one tour. It can be energizing to re think your route through the museum using new threads of emphasis. A few ideas: How might you structure a tour based on the ACM focus of aesthetics? Trade focus? Craftsmanship? Cultural and or religious adaption? Migrations of peoples?
If you are looking for some inspiration to change your tour, every corner of The Asian Civilizations Museum should provide enlightenment. The guides who visited just last month are already out of date. Since our tour the Islamic Galleries have opened and feature a magnificent Hornbill sculpture from Sarawak that the Docents of Muzium Negara are sure to appreciate.
The ongoing exhibition ‘Sunken Treasure: The Underwater Secret’ displays artefacts from eleven shipwrecks from around the waters of Malaysia. It ends on 31 October; do drop by the exhibition at Muzium Negara.
On display are a number of blue-and-white pieces from a collection of 24,000 recovered from The Diana. This ship belonged to an agency house based in Calcutta (Kolkata) owned by John Palmer. She was licensed to the East India Company and was used to make the trade run between India and China. Having delivered cotton and opium to China, she was on the journey back laden with ceramics, silk and tea when she hit some rocks and sank off the coast of Melaka. She was found on 21 December 1993, 178 years after sinking.
The Royal Nanhai, dating circa 1460, was discovered off the coast of Kuantan in 1995. Salvage of this 28-metre Southeast Asian vessel was completed in May 1998 yielding 21,000 pieces of ceramics. While most of the ceramics were from the Si Satchanalai kilns in Thailand, four Chinese and two Vietnamese blue-and-white pieces were found concealed below the floorboards.
The Desaru was a Chinese vessel dated to 1845 that sank off the coast of Johor, near Desaru. It was a narrow ship, 30 metres in length and 7 metres wide, made of pine and cedar. Salvage recovered Chinese ceramics with a large number of blue-and-white spoons.
The ancient town of Hoi An lies thirty kilometres southeast of the city of Da Nang, Vietnam, on the northern bank of the Thu Bon River in Quang Nam province. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, Hoi An was once an international port town where traders from China, Japan, Arabia, Persia and Southeast Asia came to trade during the Champa period (2nd – 15th century CE) and later, traders from Europe during the Dai Viet period (15th – 19th century CE). Today, the town remains intact with more than 1,000 well-preserved building structures comprising architectural monuments, commercial and domestic houses, pagodas and temples. Hoi An has a total area of 60 square kilometres with a population of around 90,000 people.
The Hoi An Museum is a building on its own with two floors of galleries housing artefacts, sketches and photographs from the pre and proto historic periods (ancient times to the 2nd century CE), the Champa period (2nd – 15th century CE), Dai Viet period (15th – 19th century CE), and the Resistance War against the Americans (1955 – 1975).
There are two galleries on the first level of the museum. One gallery displays numerous burial jars and urns in various sizes dating back 2,000 years while the other gallery has a collection of bronze bells and Vietnamese blue-and-white ceramics from the Champa period. It is believed that the Champa people founded Hoi An, which was originally called ‘Lam Ap Pho’ or Champa City. The Kingdom of Champa in Vietnam is considered the oldest in the Malay world dating to the 2nd century CE as the people practiced Malay culture and spoke Malayo-Polynesian language originally while the Cham language became the official language later. Hoi An was a very wealthy port between the 7th – 10th centuries CE, trading in spice and silk, exporting aloe and ivory.
The gallery at the top floor exhibits artefacts from the Resistance War with the Americans. Many types of weapons and machine guns, parts of planes, bombs, clothing, torture instruments and even a trap of iron spikes can be seen here, supplemented by photos and information boards in Vietnamese.
The topmost floor of the Hoi An museum is where visitors have the opportunity to get a bird’s-eye view of the city from above. The outdoor environment also provides a picturesque scenery for visitors should they want to snap a few pictures of the ancient town in all its charm. The visit to the museum can be completed within an hour as the museum is quite small and as written on one of their information boards; ‘only some symbolic artifacts and photographs are shown’.