Crossing Cultures

Ivan Ivanov and Tanya Todorova have made many friends in Singapore through their involvement in Project Intan.

Tatyana Todorova and Ivan Ivanov are Bulgarians who are intimately engaged in a Peranakan love affair through their involvement in a fund-raising charity gala, Project Intan.

By Swapna Mitter


roject Intan is an annual charity fund-raising gala with a theme revolving around the Peranakan culture, which is the result of inter-marriage between Malays, and Chinese, and Indian immigrants with the local community in the early 1800s. Organised by true-blue Peranakan Alvin Yapp, the gala takes place in his home, The Intan, which means “rose-cut diamond” in Malay. On the night of the event, the bibiks (Peranakan women) and babas (Peranakan men) descend in full force dressed in their traditional finery and gelek (groove) to Peranakan songs and dances.

But take a closer look at the source of the music and you will see not Peranakans, but two Europeans playing the traditional Peranakan melodies on the violin and other Western musical instruments such as the flute.

The two Bulgarians, Tatyana (or Tanya) Todorova and Ivan Ivanov, are a married couple who are also music teachers. Todorova is a violinist while Ivanov plays the flute, saxophone and clarinet.

Yapp got to know them when he studied the violin under Todorova.

When he started Project Intan in 2008, he approached them for help with organising the music and ever since, the Bulgarians have been leading an ensemble of adults and children, some of whom are their students, in playing and singing Peranakan songs during
the galas.


Even though they were trained in Western music and had little idea what Peranakan music or culture was about at the beginning, they agreed enthusiastically to help because they were keen to learn about a new genre of music and also wanted to give back to society, especially when they saw how dedicated Yapp was about charity work.

So Yapp took it upon himself to teach the Bulgarians about his culture, including the songs they were going to be playing, telling them the story behind the songs and the meaning of the lyrics.

Todorova, who had not heard Peranakan music before, found the songs somehow familiar, catchy and easy to pick up. “The songs are a combination of Portuguese, Malay and Indonesian languages. At rehearsals, after Alvin explains the origins of a song, I will teach my students to play it on the violin,” she says.

During the charity event, Todorova, Ivanov and all other performers wear Peranakan outfits to get into the spirit of the occasion. Says Todorova: “For the first two years, Alvin lent me a kebaya (traditional female Peranakan costume) to wear, but now he has given it to me. I love the kebaya. The first time I wore it, I felt very special.

“Every year, Alvin’s neighbours and the students’ mothers help me put it on; they also put flowers in my hair and lend me jewellery to wear. I really enjoy sharing photos of myself all dressed up with my family and friends in Bulgaria,” she adds.

Meanwhile, Ivanov and the boys wear batik shirts. “I have a few batik shirts which I like to wear even on other days,” says Ivanov.

Yapp serves as the emcee for the occasion, and also joins in on the piano, saxophone and violin. Money raised from the gala goes to charity. During the first five years of Project Intan, the funds raised went to St Assisi Hospice and ARC Children’s Centre (a daycare centre for children with terminal and serious illness). In 2013, Project Intan adopted the Singapore Children’s Society as its charity of choice, with Yapp as its current ambassador.

As the event gets bigger and attracts publicity, more donations are pouring in. “In 2013, we raised $150,000. In 2014, we were just shy of $300,000,” says Yapp.


Todorova came to Singapore in 2002 when she applied to be a violin teacher at a private school. Thirteen years on, she continues to teach at the school, Mandeville Conservatory of Music, heading the strings department.

She met Ivanov when she went back to Bulgaria in 2003. They got married and he followed her to Singapore and eventually started teaching at the same school.

The couple have since become Singapore permanent residents, and have adapted well to the way of life here. The family has even picked up a bit of Singlish! “With the taxi drivers and at wet markets, we would say something like ‘good lah, uncle’ and often, they are amazed that we speak like them,” says Todorova with a laugh.


“They (Tatyana Todorova and Ivan Ivanov) have become so familiar with Peranakan culture that they are able to introduce and share about our music and cuisine with others… . In fact, the Bulgarians have become ambassadors of both Singapore and the Peranakan culture.”

— Alvin Yapp, Founder of the Intan


Tanya Todorova rehearses with her students before the start of Project Intan.

“We take part in Chinese New Year (CNY) festivities with our Chinese friends and colleagues, exchanging mandarin oranges. Viktor, (the couple’s son) gets angpows (red packets filled with money given out during CNY) and we also give them to other children.”

Viktor, who has grown up in Singapore, is fluent in three languages — English, Bulgarian and Mandarin — and has no problems eating spicy food.

Bulgarian couple Tanya Todorova and Ivan Ivanov, who came to Singapore in 2002 to teach music, have been actively performing in Project Intan since 2008 to raise funds for the less privileged in Singapore. Alvin Yapp, the Peranakan with whom the couple works closely in this project, describes them as ambassadors of Singapore as well as of Peranakan culture.


The family also likes the multi-ethnic social fabric here, having made many friends of different races through Project Intan, work and other social gatherings. “We have attended weddings between people of different ethnic groups. Also, some of the younger Bulgarian girls we know have boyfriends from the local communities here,” says Todorova.

The relationship between the Bulgarians and Yapp has progressed from that of a student and teacher to one of friendship and mutual respect. Yapp says: “I have been an emcee for their school’s annual violin concerts. I have also learnt that Bulgarians are passionate about music and food. They now know so much about our music and they can sing Malay folk songs like Chan Mali Chan by heart.”

Says Todorova: “Alvin is much more than a student, he is a friend. We’re extremely fond of him and we know he’s always there for us if we need anything.”

The Bulgarians say they do not have any family here, but Yapp is almost like their family in Singapore.


Acknowledging their contributions to Project Intan for the past seven years, Yapp speaks fondly of the Bulgarian couple: “They have become so familiar with Peranakan culture that they are able to introduce and share about our music and cuisine with others. I call them my Intan ambassadors. In fact, the Bulgarians have become ambassadors of both Singapore and the Peranakan culture,” says Yapp.


“Alvin is much more than a student, he is a friend. We’re extremely fond of him and we know he’s always there for us if we need anything.”

— Tanya Todorova, a Bulgarian expatriate who teaches music in Singapore


He also speaks affectionately about Viktor, who also has been actively involved in Project Intan, just like his parents. The talented lad has played different instruments — from the violin to the flute and saxophone — in a duet with Yapp during one year.

“Project Intan has very much been part of Viktor’s growing up years in Singapore. He is very comfortable with things Peranakan — our music, costumes and our culture.”

He says that Viktor is a frequent visitor to his home, located in Singapore’s eastern suburb of Joo Chiat and which doubles as a museum exhibiting Yapp’s personal collection of Peranakan artefacts such as jewellery, clothes and furniture. “In fact, Viktor is more familiar with Peranakan artefacts than an average Singaporean who has yet to visit my museum.”

Yapp adds that more and more non-Asians are getting exposed to Peranakan culture and are fascinated by it. “Peranakan culture draws inspiration from many sources: its bead work is influenced by the Europeans whereas its batik carries Dutch motifs. It therefore appeals to many ethnic groups of the world, who feel a sense of familiarity with it.”

Viktor, the Bulgarian couple’s son, is also actively involved in Project Intan. Viktor has also become friends with Ryan, Yapp’s nephew. The two boys would meet and play together whenever Ryan visits Yapp during his holidays.

In fact, Yapp recently returned from Russia to promote Peranakan culture through a presentation and a cooking demonstration.

Given the opportunity, he would consider enlisting the help of Todorova and Ivanov to hold a Peranakan festival
in Bulgaria. “After all, they know so much about my culture that they can share about their intimate experiences of Project Intan in Singapore with their fellow Bulgarians.”


“Viktor is more familiar with Peranakan artefacts than an average Singaporean who has yet to visit my museum.”

— Alvin Yapp, Founder, Owner of the Intan



Apart from Project Intan, Todorova contributes her talent to a new initiative, a musical ensemble for children called Violin Stars that gives Singaporean children an opportunity to perform. She started the group in April 2011 and today, she has more than 40 participants, mainly her students. The majority are Singaporeans but some of them are Canadians and Americans from international schools.

The ensemble, led by Todorova, has performed abroad in Kuching, Malaysia, in 2013 and Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam,
last year.

The group is often invited to perform in neighbouring countries, adapting its repertoire to suit the local audience. For instance, if the group has a concert in Indonesia, it will include a few Peranakan songs in the set such as Bengawan Solo and Chan Mali Chan, which are also popular traditional Malay and Indonesian folk songs.

“I also teach Peranakan songs like Chan Mali Chan to my students,” says Todorova. “They like the catchy tune.”



Alvin Yapp (right) playing the saxophone at last year’s Project Intan.



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