Easily the most intimate museum experience one can have in Singapore is a visit to The Intan, a private home in the vibrant and picture-magnet Joo Chiat area. If you’ve flown Singapore Airlines and paid attention to its safety video, you’d have caught glimpses of its beauty and old world charm—and wondered if you can pay a visit.
The place is a treasure trove of Peranakan curiosities, clothing and objets d’art collected in the last 30 or so years by Alvin Yapp who runs the museum and describes himself as “100 percent Peranakan, 100 percent Chinese, 100 percent Singaporean and 100 percent Catholic.” If you’ve heard, or even tasted Peranakan food—which is popular in Singapore—Yapp’s little two-story kingdom is another way to immerse yourself more in the Peranakan culture.
Before Yapp tours us around the house, the ex-Singapore Airlines station manager briefs us first on how the Peranakans came to be as we sit on a pair of black chairs with mother-of-pearl inlay—a very Peranakan piece of furniture, according to Yapp. Two hundred years ago, when China wasn’t very rich, its men were told to find work elsewhere, he says. Those who came to Southeast Asia landed specifically in Singapore and parts of Malaysia.
“They didn’t want to live here,” adds Yapp. “They came only for work and send money back home.” But the guys started liking their new environs, the climate was not as cold, and the women were pretty. So they stayed a little longer and married locals. These Chinese men and Malay women became the early Peranakans—they represented a blending of Chinese and Malay cultures with a bit of European thrown in, Singapore being a British colony at that time.
While born to Peranakan parents, Yapp was unaware of this culture as a child. Singapore then was very different—it was focused on nation-building and creating job opportunities, not exactly on teaching it’s children about their heritage. So the boy grew up speaking Chinese in school, watching American movies at home, and listening to BBC in the radio. He noted there was a difference between him and his friends, “and that made me very angry and shy,” he tells us. “How is it I don’t know my own culture?”
It was when he started buying antiques that he was ushered into the Peranakan past. Antique sellers would tell him stories about the objects and a world would open up to Yapp. He never meant to begin a collection before this, and he didn’t intend on putting a museum together at all. But people started dropping in and his mother—a very good cook just like most Peranakan women—would prepare a snack which Yapp’s father would serve.
One day, there was a knock on his door. The Singapore government has heard of his home and his collection and told him “we want you to be a museum.” That was in 2010. The next year, the government came knocking again, this time bearing happy news: The Intan won Best Overall Experience at the NHB Museum Roundtable Awards.
Yapp has been running his Peranakan museum for two decades now. Apart from the usual tours, The Intan experience can also feature a tea ceremony, a workshop, even magic shows and a masterclass where Yapp shares his life growing up, complete with pictures and other visual aids. One can also book a private lunch or dinner which his mother, now 80, prepares.
Yapp moved the museum to its present address in the early 2010s, in this house that’s 50 to 60 years old and originally didn’t have a second floor—until it’s previous owners decided to add one. The flooring, walls and beams are original to the structure. Like most Peranakan homes, it has a narrow in front—during the Dutch rule, houses with bigger windows were taxed higher—and the kitchen is located way in the back. Outside it European, says Yapp, inside it’s East Asia.
The pair of black chairs with mother of pearl inlay sets the tone for the rest of the attractions inside. The chairs are not Malay nor are they strictly European. They’re Chinese. “It’s important for the Peranakan to tell you they are Chinese,” says Yapp. When they commission a piece of furniture from a local carpenter, they usually want it European in structure but bearing Chinese motifs, like peonies and phoenixes.
Beautiful enamel lunchboxes as well as spittoons (for the practice of betel nut chewing) dot the stairs that lead the visitor to the second floor—which might evoke a Peranakan woman’s dressing room. It takes an hour to put a Peranakan women’s hair into a bun, Yapp tells us, and only when her father or husband dies can she wear her hair down. But make no mistake: the woman is a very strong figure in Peranakan culture. “Fierce,” adds Yapp. “She has to control the family as a business, just like any rich family, like Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria.”
Apart from vintage photographs and an imposing, intricate matrimonial bed, one finds on the second floor ladies’ traditional kebaya garments, like tunics in Swiss voile, batik sarongs, and embroidered camisoles. And a wealth of beautiful slip-ons. When Yapp started collecting Peranakan antiques, people were still so into porcelain which was too expensive for his means then, so Yapp shifted his eye to footwear. He now boasts of “the largest collection of beaded and embroidered shoes” in Singapore.
Yapp’s mother used to have her own Peranakan treasures herself but some have already been sold, because new houses in Singapore allow only for a small space and the antiques entail a lot of cleaning. Every piece of garment, statue, tableware in The Intan was “collected by me,” says Yapp, so everything has a story.
To book a visit and their experiences, visit their website. https://the-intan.com