In a country where tour guides refer to pre-1965 as “the very old days”, history is not usually the main draw for visitors to Singapore.
But in a quaint little house in the Joo Chiat district of this most modern of city states, Alvin Yapp is trying to change that. He is one of a number of Singaporeans who can claim Peranakan or “Straits Chinese” heritage – descended from Chinese settlers who came to Singapore 200 years ago, married local Malay women and lived under British colonial rule, speaking English.
To learn more about his roots, he turned his home into a museum of Peranakan artefacts, bursting with antiques, fabrics and photographs from this intriguing blended culture.
He shows us a mother-of-pearl chair in a classic Chinese style, contrasted with a British-styled rectangular dining table (unlike Chinese round ones) where Peranakans will eat with knives and forks, not chopsticks.
Over tea and Peranakan sweet treats (the more layers in the cake, the more revered the visitors), Alvin describes what makes Peranakan culture special and how it is of increasing interest to tourists.
The Intan (“rose-cut diamond” in Malay) has won a museum award and, though only 13 years old, is the fourth best-rated museum in Singapore on TripAdvisor.
Yapp does several tours of his home each week for guests and welcomes cruise passengers – such as those from Seabourn Encore, which has its naming ceremony in Singapore on the weekend of my visit.
He can also organise breakfast visits and dinners for groups and has recently created a “Twilight at The Intan” cocktail evening during which he will play the piano while his sister sings. The fam trip agents and I end up singing a rendition of Edelweiss during our own visit, which was a slightly surreal experience but great fun nevertheless.
The Singapore Tourism Board hopes to encourage more visitors to explore this lesser-known aspect of Singapore and has previously brought Yapp to the UK to showcase Peranakan heritage to the British market.
“Singapore is perceived as being so modern and futuristic, but it really has a unique and authentic culture,” Yapp insists. And though the Peranakan language is no longer taught in schools, Singaporeans themselves are showing more interest in tracing their roots to see if they too have an ancestor who was the offspring of an intermarriage 200 years ago.
“Some people might think that Peranakan culture is dead, but for me it is more alive than it has ever been,” Yapp concludes.