Sometimes, I wish I’m Peranakan. Just because it is so exotic, with such rich culture and cherished tradition that still tries to strain above the mainstream cosmopolitan culture today. It is difficult to find one ethnic group so unified, so proud of their culture and so supportive of any effort to celebrate it that they willingly sponsor large amounts of money and even personal heirlooms to contribute to the cause.
Okay, maybe also because of the Little Nyonya.
I’m not one for stifling traditions and outmoded rituals that presume to run people’s lives. I’ve always imagined that rituals mostly came about because of some random ancestor’s inspired whim to do something a certain (troublesome) way. But I do have to concede to the fact that sometimes rituals fulfill a human need for constancy in the face of change, help us keep our bearings when advancements spin our world out of control. Oh and yes, control over the things we do. Rituals also unite ancestors and descendants in a singular method of doing that breaks down space and time but that’s a little abstract. Most times, I think we just do in a state of unseeing regimen. That explains the vacant eyes, I think.
But the point of this article is Baba Bling, the exhibition I was at The Peranakan Museum for. I can’t say I was particularly interested in the jewellery although I do appreciate the generosity of the individual sponsors in loaning their personal heirloom for the greater good of education. Most of the pieces are one-of-a-kind antique creations passed from mother to daughter, priceless and very precious. By even loaning them, the sponsors are putting them at risk of possible duplication. So as a precaution, the museum prohibits photography at the exhibition.
Jewels were jewels. But what really fascinated me were secrets the jewellery betrayed about their time, their owners and their society. Some are pretty obvious. Like how extremely wealthy the Peranakans were. Mainly because of their ability to communicate with the colonial masters at the time when they still wielded power over our region. Most Peranakans were English-schooled which put them at an advantage when it came to civil service jobs. Designs on some of their jewellery plainly showed how anglophilic Peranakans can get. As far as I know, the men worked for the British but even the womenfolk pledged their allegiance as ‘King’s subjects’. They guarded their distinction from other social classes very proudly because of their association with the Europeans. Western imperialism, don’t get me started.
But really, throughout the tour, I was largely preoccupied with men having multiple wives. This wasn’t exclusive to Peranakans but I know they practiced it to some degree as well. I couldn’t find any relevant information in the exhibition but wealth, obviously, affords it. Wealth affords men the ability to objectify women. Then, Chris reminded me that Peranakan families are ‘outwardly patriarchal and internally matriarchal’. Of course! Look at the Little Nyonya, scheming matrons obviously reigned over the households, pretending to be subservient to weak-minded husbands on the surface. Chris, who is Baba by the way and should be awarded some authority on the subject by way of relation, attests to the <fact> that the average Baba man are weaker than the Nyonya woman. Why, then, do Nyonya women willingly allow themselves to be objectified?
As the curator had pointed out, Baba men do not wear jewellery. Nyonya women, on the other hand, have jewellery heaped on them to make them walking displays of the family wealth. Never mind it inconveniences her: thick gold chains that weigh her neck down, heavy ‘korek koping’ pulling her hairline back and giving her headaches, gold belts that probably made her hips hurt, and earrings and rings and bangles and kerosangs. But the Nyonya takes pride in her jewellery, often taking them out of their hiding places within the folds of their garbs to show them off to relatives and friends. Not quite hegemony either, considering her matriarchal status in the household. And interestingly, because her jewellery is her security, her ‘financial independence’, if you will, a Nyonya lady’s jewellery is strictly out of bounds to her husband. Before she sleeps at night, she painstakingly stores them in tin cans and locks them in the drawers of her vanity table, hiding the key in her body, for fear her untrustworthy husband will take them out to be pawned or gambled away.
Maybe the Peranakan Museum should address this topic. The paradoxical roles of women in the Peranakan society.