Cultural Creativity in the Straits of Malacca

My husband and I before dining at a Peranakan restaurant in Singapore

Peranakan? I was not familiar with this ethnic community and was immediately curious to learn more about this unique culture on display in Singapore and Malaysia. Centuries of intermarriage between Malay and Chinese led to a delicious cuisine, unique dress, and distinctive architecture. Please place the accent on the second syllable of Peranakan!

As my husband and I travel in Southeast Asia prior to our next installment as Artistic Advisors to the Hanoi New Music Ensemble, we are meeting composers and musicians throughout the area. We began our current trip in a part of the world that became central to the world economy many centuries ago.

Most interesting to me is the mix of cultures in Singapore and Malaysia that resulted from international trade, predicting the world we now inhabit. Walking on any street, one encounters people of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Arab backgrounds. Fashion is mixed, with hijabs on women wearing jeans and running shoes, saris on both young and older women, Chinese traditional dress in anticipation of Chinese New Year, and batik shirts on Malay men. The Peranakan women wear batik sarongs with beautiful silk kebayas (fitted long sleeve tops) and elegant floral embroidery.

Despite special areas of town (Little India, Arab Street, Chinatown and Peranakan), everyone mixes easily. And, the food in each area is full of curries, noodles, rice and endless variations. My husband’s blog focuses often on food and I invite you to investigate the flavors of the Straits at The spice trade, rubber, and numerous other natural resources brought incredible development and riches to the port city of Malacca as well as the rest of Malaysia, Indonesia and eventually Singapore.

However, within the mix of cultures, each one creatively expresses their own identity in food, clothing and architecture. We began this trip in Malacca, Malaysia, with a walk around the historic center. The colonial city was controlled successively over four centuries by Portuguese, Dutch and British, but the Peranakan influence is everywhere.

Colorful facades marry colonial architecture with Chinese and Malay decorative arts
Peranakan arts on display inside a typical merchant’s residence
Much restoration work remains to be completed but…
the history of the Straits of Malacca shines in restored homes and storefronts.

On a prior trip to Kuala Lumpur and Georgetown in Malaysia, we also experienced Peranakan culture. Legends say that the Peranakan culture began with the marriage in 1459 of the Sultan of Malacca to a Chinese princess Hang Li Po who was sent as tribute by the Emperor of China. There are also smaller Peranakan communities in Indonesia, India, Cambodia and Burma.

Creativity finds expression in every culture. In the west, many people have a narrow view of the Muslim community. A visit to the Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur demonstrates the incredible artistic accomplishments of Muslims around the world.

Recreation of a historic mosque dome,
just one sample of illustrated Korans, and…
gorgeous weavings of rugs and wall hangings.

The Muslim community was the original settlement of Singapore and the port from which Southeast Asian Muslims departed by boat to the Hajj. Sultan Hussein was the ruler who negotiated with Stamford Raffles in founding modern Singapore. Although the Sultan Mosque is central to Arab Street, just one street away is one of the hippest streets in Singapore, Haji Lane, filled with fashion, food and art.

The Sultan Mosque on Arab Street,
hip Haji Lane closeby, and
art on the walls and in numerous galleries.

Throughout Singapore there is a vibrant mix of old and new. The reputation of Singapore is one of modernity, but in fact, the small island nation has done a marvelous job of preserving old building and converting some to internationally renowned museums and performance spaces.

Sculptures in Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum
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Victoria Concert Hall, home of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra

There are many wonderful neighborhoods filled with history. The Cultural Ministry has renovated old shop houses, brightly painted to highlight their repurposing for cultural programs and artist spaces.

Arts Centre in the Bugis District

Numerous noted architects have designed stunning modern buildings as well, especially in the arts district where there are performing arts academies for young students, specialty visual arts institutions such as NAFA, and the impressive facility for the LASALLE College of the Arts.

Central building of the LASALLE College of the Arts
Performance to welcoming incoming music students

The old shophouses in neighborhoods throughout Singapore are colorful and distinctive. They help relieve the overwhelming height of the numerous high-rise buildings and add color to the landscape.

A colorful corner of Little India
One of the row houses in a neighborhood close to downtown Singapore
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Detailed tilework on a row house
Another well-painted neighborhood

All of the communities show their creativity. Chinatown is preparing for the Year of the Pig, and there were decorations everywhere. The Temples, especially that of the Buddha Tooth Relic, show the limitless creativity found in Buddhism and China.

Street performance for Chinese New Year in Chinatown, next to a Hindu Temple.
Buddha Tooth Relic Temple

The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple also houses a spectacular museum on its upper floors as well as a garden and prayer wheel on the roof.

Example of art at the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum.
The largest cloisonné prayer wheel in the world!

One cannot leave out the Indian community when it comes to creative expression. The number of colors and types of curries and sauces, vibrant saris, and temple ornamentation reflects one of the oldest continuous civilizations on earth. Signs outside many Hindu temples welcome everyone to step inside (and leave their shoes at the door)! Often one will happen on musicians playing while the priests welcome worshippers.

Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple in Little India, Singapore
Inside the Temple

The joy of travel is the opportunity to experience other cultures and their creative expression. History is found walking down the street — viewing architecture, observing dress, and smelling the spices at street stalls. What is shared by everyone is the richness of each community that is open to anyone willing to observe and participate. Surrounded by inspiration from the past, the present finds paths to future creativity.

Wall mural in Little India

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