When Alvin Yapp was 14 he saw a play in Singapore that changed his life. It was a Peranakan production that focused on the fraught and comic relationship between a mother and her daughter-in-law. It gave the teen a glimpse of his heritage, but as he didn’t speak Malay, he didn’t understand the witty repartee.
“Everyone was laughing their hearts out, but I was quite clueless,” said Yapp, an advertising director, who now runs his own Peranakan museum. “I was just fascinated by all the material objects on the stage.”
Those props were inspired by Peranakan objects, treasured items made specifically for the descendants of Chinese settlers who journeyed from the mainland to Southeast Asia and married Malay women between the 15th and 18th centuries.
Peranakan means “local born” in Malay, and they were a highly respected ethnic group who cultivated close ties with Malay royalty and colonial administrators.
Over time, their early Chinese influences blended with local and colonial cultures to create a distinct aesthetic that prized ornate objects handcrafted from fine materials – gold, porcelain – and commonly, wood.
Peranakans reached the height of their influence in the 19th century, but after World War II many in the community fell into poverty and were forced to sell their family heirlooms and estates.
It’s those heirlooms that Yapp is rediscovering and curating in the Intan, his museum modeled on a typical Peranakan-style home, nestled in Singapore’s heritage town, Joo Chiat.
A collector’s journey
After seeing the play as a teen, Yapp became obsessed with finding out more about Peranakan culture.
He said, at the time, elderly Singaporeans were either too embarrassed to admit they didn’t know much about it, or curious as to why he would ask. Yapp got the impression it was considered unimportant, an era that had passed and was not worthy of recall.
“I got angry and upset that I didn’t know about my culture so I started on this crazy journey to collect Peranakan antiques, because when people would show their pieces to me they would share their stories,” said Yapp.
He started scanning newspaper advertisements for Peranakan items posted for sale, and admits “pure insanity” drove him to collect more and more. Over three decades, Yapp has amassed everything from ornate lunch boxes and beaded slippers to golden jewelry and porcelain vases.
More than 5,000 objects created between 1890 to 1942 now sit inside his museum, neatly arranged to give visitors the feeling that they’re in an authentic Peranakan home.
“My aim is to make culture relevant today … (and) ask what we can learn from the Peranakan community,” said Yapp.
Yapp has given private tours of the Intan to everyone from the Singaporean deputy prime minister to dog whisperer Cesar Milan.
“Cesar Milan came and was so adorable. He said, ‘Alvin, I am the dog whisperer, but you are the Peranakan whisperer. You have a relationship with every single piece, you talk to the antiques.’”
On every tour, he explains how Chinese Peranakans cultivated and preserved Chinese traditions, while borrowing and reimagining elements of Indian, Dutch and British cultures. For example, in the lobby, Yapp gestured at a pair of wooden chairs encrusted with mother of pearl designs depicting Chinese aristocracy.
Such chairs, he said, would have been commissioned by a member of the wealthy elite and displayed in the entrance of their home to make visiting guests and dignitaries aware of their stature.
The rows of multicolored, beaded slippers that frame Yapp’s staircase boast European floral motifs, but were made with local beads by Peranakan artisans. While porcelains and clothing all feature intricate motifs and are alive with color, the jewelry takes inspiration from India and is mostly made of gold.
Strewn across the walls are embroidered batik altar cloths, made by tracing a design on fabric with wax. Yapp recalled how many people teased him for collecting altar cloths, saying instead that he should buy batik sarongs which are prized and marketable. “It’s OK to see the beauty in things that other people don’t see.”
Yapp didn’t inherit any family heirlooms and admitted to making some early mistakes.
“I bought a lot of junk, fakes and non-Peranakan vintage objects at the beginning,” he said. They included a planter’s chair with a slim coffee table.
Later, Yapp discovered the chair was not Peranakan, but a British-Indian-influenced item used in southeast Asia, which was a feature in many Peranakan households. It remains in the Intan and holds sentimental value for Yapp as it was the first piece he acquired.
As a young collector, Yapp initially found it difficult to distinguish fake Peranakan objects from real ones. Over time, he trained his eye by visiting antique shops, art fairs and museums. He recommends touching old objects that are known to be authentic to get an idea of everything about piece, from its design and form to its weight and level of craftsmanship.
He also follows basic guidelines to help him tell the difference between authentic and fake Peranakan objects.
For example he said, porcelain falls victim to forgers as they know the items fetch exorbitant prices at markets. In comparison, beaded slippers fetch lower prices as they are part of a niche market and take so long to make that there would be no point in faking them.
“Some fakes are easier to detect, others almost impossible with the naked eye,” said Yapp.
Redefining the museum space
Within the Intan, Yapp has carefully arranged all of the objects himself. Only the most valuable items are encased behind glass, the rest are laid out on open tables and shelves.
Yapp recognizes there are risks involved in leaving objects out in the open, but doesn’t want his collection locked up in a safe where nobody can see it. “We constantly push the boundaries of what a museum can and should be. We host wine parties, weddings and concerts,