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Our Journey to CausewayEXchange@George Town Festival 2013

“So do you want to exhibit your shots in Malaysia?” the festival director asked. “Right, so what do you think would be a good theme to shoot around?” I mused. “Why not the Babas?” came the reply.

And this started the journey that took us 3 months to plan and complete. “The culture that binds nations – The Peranakans” is the theme that was given to me and I share the exposure with the rest of the photography groups that  I am managing and/or helping out with (Singapore Photography Interest Network and Singapore Digital Photographers – Meet Up Group). The call for participants was initiated and there was a good response to the project. The main aim was of course to shoot photos but the ultimate goal is to allow enthusiast to finally show their work to the international audience.

For the longest time I have seen good photographers showing off their photos on the social networks but lately there was this sense that a good photograph needed to be heavily photoshopped before it can see the light of day. I wanted to give positive affirmation that a good photo need not be solely due to the use of Photoshop. Yes there are limitation to a digital picture but they are only at the aesthetic level. What I would want to achieve and inculcate, is the thinking and vision behind the photos. The ability to tell the story, to show a place and to educate the viewer via light and shadow, elements of composition, placement of subjects, the attention to details. Such skills can be achieved without the need to know Photoshop and to maximise the camera is to me, a skill that is more important in photography.

What more can one train to see details than to shoot the Peranakan culture? The artifacts from the Peranakans display colours and intricate designs of phoenix and peonies on their home-wares, furniture and their traditional garb, the Kebaya. Even their homesteads are a feast for the eyes. To say there is nothing to shoot is guilty of being blind to the beauty of the craftsmanship being employed.

The Journey Starts @ Singapore

The easiest place to start would be Singapore. Open to the public would be the streets of Singapore namely the Peranakan enclaves of Emerald Hill and Joo Chiat / Katong area. And of course there is the Peranakan Museum where we have an understanding of the origin of the sub culture that is so unique to this part of the world.

Our initial group photo. We have people from Singapore, Malaysia, India, Indonesia, Europeans. And some of them are from Peranakan descent. Shot at Emerald Hill.

Getting into the action.

Sabine Fink well decked out to shoot both film and digital.

Emerald Hill in the midst of development. Are we losing our heritage?

Orchard Road seeing a lot of changes while the old world charm of Emerald Hill stands firm.

The Peranakan Museum

Shooting on the streets and the museum isn’t my idea of the a culture immersion program and through help from the festival director, I got in touch with Mr Alvin Yapp of The Intan and got a very insightful introduction to the culture with its artifacts.

Talking Peranakan get Alvin Yapp all worked up

Clicking moments at The Intan Singapore

The Peranakan Wares. Practical Beauty.

The beaded shoes. Intricate handiwork.

All things Peranakan

@The Intan

The Journey Continues – Malacca

The next stop in our journey would be Malacca or Melaka. A UNESCO Heritage Site, Melaka is a historically rich place to visit and with the Peranakans, the town is full of opportunities to shoot. The main road where most Peranakans lived are along Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock or its old name, Heeren Street.  Running parallel to it would be Jalan Hang Jebat, commonly known as Jonker Street. We put up at Puri Hotel, an establishment that was built within the confines of the old Peranakan homes and it is just next to The Straits Chinese Jewellery Museum and further down the road would be the Baba-Nyonya Heritage Museum.

At the museums, we got a taste of what a typical Peranakan household would look like from the receiving hall, the ancestral hall, the kitchen and the main bedrooms. Being able to bridge the Western community  and the Chinese proved to be a blessing both in terms of their place in society as well as the wealth they accumulated through lucrative business dealings. It shows very prominently the influences of both East and West in the way they decorated their town houses from intricate mother of pearl rose wood furniture, jewelry to western elements of architecture such as Greco-Roman columns. It is at once strangely familiar in a very homely setting.  Many thanks to The Straits Chinese Jewellery Museum for allowing us to capture the essence of the Peranakan home while we are there.

Had some fun with the double exposure on the X-E1. The house is converted to a bird nest harvesting centre

Outside Colour Beads the place to get Peranakan Beaded Shoes in Melaka

The beaded shoes. Again the hard work the Nyonyas subject themselves to show the best to the world.

Pocket watches. Oh so British!

Resting in the Jewellery Museum. Some of the furniture belongs to Mr Peter Wee’s mother, owner of Katong Antique House Singapore. The Guru of all things Peranakan.

Puri Hotel along Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock.

Inside Puri Hotel

Shooting at the Stadthuys

Street shooting in Malacca along Jonker Street/Jalan Hang Jebat

Kueys at Baba Charlie

My basket full of Kueys! The Q…oh my…

Peranakan Food!

The Pork dish is superb!

Many thanks to Nyonya Amy for her delicious food at Amy Heritage Nyonya Cuisine Restaurant. The wait is worth it!

The Last Location: Penang

Penang is the last location for the whole project. Penang, along with Malacca and Singapore made up the Straits Settlements that eventually became the Crown Colonies, a status given to important locales of the British Empire. And where the British went, so did the Peranakans. So it is not surprising that the Peranakans have businesses that made use of the 3 ports such as shipping. In Penang is where we see the largest Peranakan house at the Pinang Peranakan Mansion. Unlike Malacca, the Peranakan influenced locations are more scattered and it do take some walking to get from one place to another (taxi? what taxi? Trishaws yes…). This time we stayed at another Peranakan House turned into Hotel @ Chongtian 1881.

The best breakfast in ages…road side dark and thick kopi…

…well toasted kaya bread with charcoal (the difference between electric grill and charcoal is huge)…

…and the cheap and yummy Nasi Lemak!

Where to eat? Here…

The chendol.

Airwells…needed in all houses in the tropics, not just in Peranakan houses.

Penang is the new street art capital of South East Asia. Do it in Singapore you say? You’d better talk to our sticker lady.

Going up Penang Hill on the first cable car ride of the day to catch the sun rise.

The Sunrise…worth every effort!

Shooting at the Pinang Peranakan Mansion. Showcasing the beauty of the Kebaya!

The bridal room

Datuk Seri and Datin Seri Khoo.

It really was a hectic schedule and what was not shown are the shots taken at Baba House. After some deliberation, the photos are chosen for the exhibition called “The Peranakans” at CausewayEXchange during the George Town Festival. There are a lot to be thankful for especially when it comes to good weather and no mishaps. There are also lots of people to thank during the Journey and also the photographers who put in the effort, energy, time to put up the exhibition. I hope the experience would push them to greater heights in their photographic pursuits.

The people and organisations I would like to thank to enable us to capture the essence of the Peranakans:


Mr Peter Wee of Katong Antique Shop

Mr Alvin Yapp of The Intan

Ms Lalwani Poonam of NUS Baba House

Mr Raymond Wong of Rumah Kim Choo


Ms Lillian Tong and the management of The Pinang Peranakan Mansion

The Straits Chinese Jewellery Museum in Melaka

Puri Hotel Melaka

Chongtian 1881 Penang

Amy Heritage Nyonya Cuisine Melaka

Nyonya Baba Cuisine Penang

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