His Rose Cut Diamond
Alvin Yapp turned decades of collecting Peranakan antiques and artefacts into a shining example of preserving and promoting the Straits Chinese heritage.
By Joyce Huang
ake a walk along Joo Chiat Terrace and the first thing that might catch your eye is a row of lovingly conserved shophouses, their distinctive facade dominated by wooden window shutters and intricate motifs. But don’t stop just to admire these buildings, for the hidden gem of the street is only a few doors down, ensconced in house number 69. To the uninformed, the terrace unit might look like any other residential home, its little court-yard filled with potted plants hint only at the green fingers of its resident. Yet this is no ordinary house. This is The Intan, the private home museum of Alvin Yapp, a Peranakan (descendants of Chinese immigrants who married local Malay women from the Straits Settlement) and antique collector.
The Intan means ‘rose cut diamond’ in Bahasa Melayu. For Yapp, it is his living and breathing treasure trove, a culmination of close to 30 years of collecting Peranakan artefacts and preserving the distinct culture of his Straits Chinese heritage. Inside the 1,000 sq ft house, a majestic ancestral altar and a gleaming mother-of-pearl furniture set greet guests in the sitting area. Yapp’s array of colourful Nyonya porcelain ware and personalised silver sireh (betel leaf) boxes fill glorious showcases, while his prized collection of enamel tingkats (tiffin carriers) line a wooden staircase. The common hall of the second storey has been transformed into an elaborate Peranakan wedding chamber, where European-styled teak wardrobes adorned with gold- leaf Chinese designs are filled with intan diamond jewellery, finely embroidered kebayas (blouses), handpainted batik sarongs (skirts) and rows of intricate kasut manek (beaded slippers); and an ornate bridal day bed takes pride of place.
For visitors to this by-appointment-only museum, it is through these fascinating pieces, their histories and Yapp’s personal journey collecting them, that brings to life the rich heritage and journey of Singapore’s Peranakan Culture.
Collecting his heritage
Born in 1970 to parents of Peranakan heritage, Yapp’s earliest memories are of his family living in Toa Payoh, one of the oldest housing estates in Singapore. “We lived in a very humble and basic three-room flat. Both my parents were not very wealthy. We could not afford to travel and we did not have much entertainment apart from what was public.” He recalls weekend excursions to MacRitchie Reservoir and Botanic Gardens, swims at public pools, and having his dad bring him to trawl museums and antique shops.
At that young age, Yapp was still not fully aware of his Peranakan identity: “Dad would tell me that my mum owns Peranakan material and furniture, and Mum would tell me about various Peranakan practices during Chinese New Year. My parents would speak Baba Malay between themselves and we seemed to be eating a very different and complicated food. But there wasn’t a time where they specifically taught me what it means to be a Peranakan.”
It was only when Yapp caught a Peranakan play with his extended family at the age of 15 that he realised he came from a culture so rich and unique. He reminisces: “Called Menesyal, which means ‘regret’, it was a full-blown Peranakan culture play. The language, the costumes, the ceremonies, the furniture and props were all Peranakan. After I came out of the theatre, I told my parents that I’d like to learn more about this culture.” The play was about a widowed Peranakan matriarch, Bibi Bisu, living with her eldest son and his wife, who becomes jealous of Bibi’s preference for her other sons and grandchildren.
Yapp then made conscious efforts to learn Baba Malay and started collecting Peranakan artefacts, poring through classified ads and scouring garage sales and antique shops to pick up pieces, and learning about his heritage and his identity as a Peranakan each step of the way. Being only a student, Yapp would save up all his allowance and buy pieces he could afford at weekend garage sales. When something out of his financial reach caught his eye, he would persuade his father to invest in the piece. It was through this process that he realised there was inadequate documentation on Peranakan antiques. This spurred him to find out more, as much of this information had only been passed on orally.
After completing his education, Yapp’s first job was with Singapore Airlines as a station manager, during which he was posted overseas — in San Francisco, USA and in Dhaka, Bangladesh. While abroad, his collection was kept in storage in the garage of his parents’ condominium. The moment he came back for good in 2000 he took them all out and put them in his East Coast apartment, where he was then staying. “As a collector, I have this notion that things should not be stored, but displayed. So I utilised every nook and cranny possible, from the balcony to the toilets, to display my pieces.
“Somehow that became an interesting space for people to learn more about Peranakan culture, and friends and family would come to visit in small groups via arranged appointments” added Yapp. This gave birth to The Intan in 2003. Soon, Yapp’s private home tours became popular by word of mouth. The Intan subsequently received media publicity and became known island-wide, especially among the community living in Katong and Joo Chiat, housing areas known for their strong Peranakan heritage.
“It was by chance that I found this place,” Yapp reveals of his Joo Chiat home, “I always thought it was befitting to live in Joo Chiat, especially since I’m Peranakan and an antique collector.” He bought the unit, did minimal touch ups and shifted all his pieces in. With the larger space, Yapp realised that The Intan could do more than just host visits and meals. “We pushed ourselves beyond the boundaries and explored things like art events, concerts, plays, and workshops.”
Evolution of The Intan
Together with his parents, Yapp curates and upkeeps the museum collection. The museum is Yapp’s living home, with a cordoned off area on the second storey kept as his private space, and it is this personal touch that has captured the heart of The Intan visitors. While Mr Yapp encourages people to visit the Peranakan Museum along Armenian Street before his home museum to better appreciate the value of certain artefacts, he acknowledges that people like The Intan because they then see and experience these same artefacts in a live setting, with Yapp expounding on their functions within Peranakan culture and sharing his collecting journey. “Everything here is in the open, there are no barriers. Guests can ask me all the questions they may have been afraid to ask in a museum, for example how much something is worth and how to tell a fake from the real,” Yapp notes.
Every nook and cranny of the Intan is used to display something Perankan.
Yapp engages help from volunteers to conceptualise and run awareness programmes and events at The Intan. One popular event held was The Collectors Sale, where fellow collectors of Peranakan antiques were invited to display their pieces and share their collecting journey with visitors and prospective buyers. Other programmes include children’s workshops that highlight Peranakan culture, site-specific plays and conservation clinics to help collectors care for their antiques.
The Intan’s signature event held annually is Project Intan. Marrying Yapp’s three loves in his life — Peranakan culture, music and charity —Project Intan sees the museum play host to a charity concert. Each year, Yapp gathers a group of young musicians and teaches them Peranakan songs on the violin. “I teach them the genre, meaning and how to interpret the song. Guests who come for the concert will also get to learn about the history, culture and significance behind these songs,” he explains. Over the last six years, Project Intan has raised more than $300,000 through pledges to support charity organisations such as the Assisi Hospice and Arc Children’s Centre. This year, Project Intan supports the Singapore Children’s Society, as it did last year.
For its contributions to making heritage relevant and exploring new ways to create awareness of the Peranakan culture, The Intan was approached in 2010 to be part of the Museum Round Table, a local association of small niche galleries and museums. In 2011, it was awarded the ‘Best Overall Experience’ in the inaugural Museum Roundtable Awards, Singapore’s first national accolade dedicated to celebrating shining examples of museum excellence.
In 2011, it was awarded the ‘Best Overall Experience’ in the inaugural Museum Roundtable Awards, Singapore’s first national accolade dedicated to celebrating shining examples of museum excellence.
Yapp has even gone on to represent Singapore in Croatia in 2012, in the international The Best in Heritage Event, where the European Heritage Association brings together an annual congregation of awarded museum, heritage and conservation projects. Yapp expounds: “Every year they handpick awardwinning museums around the world to share their best practices and that year, they picked The Intan. So on stage with my peers from London and Portugal, I shared my Peranakan culture.”
The Intan houses furniture and artefacts that Yapp had collected over the past 30 years.
Drawing on how the Peranakans were so adept at assimilating cultures seamlessly, Yapp believes that there is room to promote and adapt Peranakan culture in this modern age. “I see my role within the Straits Chinese community is to first and foremost, be Peranakan. Knowing that you are Peranakan is important, upon which then identify yourself as a Peranakan, be it by eating the food, knowing the language, opening up a cake shop, having Peranakan-inspired products in your range of merchandise or dedicating a corner in your house for Peranakan artefacts.
“I want to be able to share this culture in a very relevant way with youth who are searching for their Straits Chinese roots. One of my challenges is to share the culture with non-Peranakans, Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans alike.”
The Intan is still a passion project for Yapp, whose day-job is director of BusAds, a family-run enterprise specialising in large-format printing and outdoor advertising. Displaying his collection as a museum has its fair share of challenges — financing more artefact purchases, questioning pieces’ authenticity, up-keeping, drumming up support — but the biggest was getting comfortable to open up his private space to the public. “Then again having said all that, because I’m so in love with what I do, they don’t seem like challenges,” Yapp admits.
“The Intan is exactly where I want it to be today; an accessible place that I can upkeep with passion. We’ve been recognised locally and internationally, we’ve been responsible to our public and our Peranakan community.
“How I’d like to see us grow is not to have a bigger space or have more Intans, but through collaborations where we can continue to promote Peranakan culture and contribute back to society.”
Yapp points out a partnership with Golden Village, where The Intan loans an artefact to the Peranakan-inspired movie theatre at I12 Katong to showcase every year and share about Peranakan culture. “It is about how we try to convert movie-goers to museum-goers. I hope to collaborate with operators of public spaces like Changi Airport, hotels, organisations locally or overseas, and to expand The Intan experience out of the physical museum.”
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