Amek Gambar

Peranakan Museum
05 May 2018 - 03 Feb 2019
Daily, 10am to 7pm | Fridays, 10am to 9pm
Amek Gambar

The first commercially viable form of photography may have been invented in France in 1839, but it quickly made its way to Southeast Asia. Peranakans were among the earliest subjects captured by the pioneer European photographers, such as a portrait of a Peranakan family taken between 1857 and 1858.

These photographers established the earliest commercial studios in Asia, and almost immediately enterprising Asians started their own studios. Peranakans were among those intrigued by this emerging technology, and with it they captured their own likeness and dress, their cities and rituals. The exhibition includes studio and amateur photographs of Peranakans across Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Myanmar. In celebration of a donation by Mr and Mrs Lee Kip Lee of more than 2,500 photographs to the Peranakan Museum, this exhibition explores the multifaceted role of photography in the lives of Peranakans.

 

Amek Gambar : Highlights Roll

Young Man with a Camera
Young Man with a Camera

Photographer: unknown
Straits Settlements or Indonesia, around 1920s
Silver gelatin print
Gift of Mr and Mrs Lee Kip Lee

The first camera that used a roll of film, the Kodak, was invented by the American George Eastman in 1888. It was revolutionary for being both easily portable, easy to use, and relatively inexpensive. This democratic form of picture-making heralded a new age of the amateur photographer.

This snapshot taken with a film camera of a Baba in chic tropical style – a drill cotton closed coat (baju tutop) and fedora – and holding a camera epitomises the excitement of modernity among young urbanites, including Peranakans, in Singapore and other modern Asian port cities.

 

Tan Kim Ching and Family
Tan Kim Ching and family

Fedor Jagor (1816–1900)
Singapore, 1857–58
Albumen stereoview print
Gift of Mr and Mrs Lee Kip Lee

Fedor Jagor, a German ethnologist, naturalist, and photographer, travelled in Southeast Asia in the late 1850s. In 1857 and 1858 he took many photographs of Singapore and its people. While here he met prominent Peranakan tycoon Tan Kim Ching. In the late 1860s, Jagor’s stereoview photographs of Singapore were published in Berlin.

Stereoviews were popular in the 19th century. Two photographs of the same image are taken at slightly different angles and placed side-by-side on a card. When looked at through a binocular viewer, they create an illusion of depth.

A note on the back indicates the photograph was taken in Singapore and that the subject is a rich Chinese merchant from Malacca “who has Malay blood through the women”. Although it does not specifically mention Tan Kim Ching, Jagor singles him out by name in his travelogue published in 1866. He also describes the Peranakan community at length, which altogether strongly suggests that the image is a portrait of Tan and his family.

This stereoview is the oldest photograph on paper in Singapore’s National Collection.

 

Studio portrait of a Peranakan couple

Keechun Studio
Penang, 1920
Silver gelatin print
Gift of Mr and Mrs Lee Kip Lee

Commercial studio photography took off in Singapore and in other towns of Southeast Asia in the early 1860s with the arrival of European photographers. Soon after, many Chinese studios opened, often Cantonese from China or Hong Kong. These were quickly followed by the arrival of Japanese-owned studios.

Peranakans numbered among the first patrons of these commercial studios. They commissioned portraits to memorialise important moments of Peranakan family life. Weddings were particularly popular themes.

Studio Portrait of a Peranakan Couple

Peranakan wedding photography evolved its own aesthetics and conventions. Modern technology was borrowed, but not its cultural influences, thus photography constitutes one remarkable aspect of modernity in otherwise traditional celebrations. From the ways the subjects are dressed and posed, to the choice of the studio settings, studio photography in Asia – despite its static structure – displays a diversity of cultural responses in image making.

In this photograph taken at Keechun Studio, the bride wears Penang-style Peranakan finery, which was a hybrid of Malay, Chinese, Indian, and Eurasian fashions. The groom is dressed in a rather informal jacket, with a light coloured shirt and tie, and long trousers. Although weddings ostensibly adhered to strict ritual protocol (often to ensure good fortune and fertility) such studio photographs also reveal the inconsistency and unpredictability of visual expression, such as the lack of strict dress codes. Modern photography reveals the paradoxes of Peranakan and Asian life: images that attempt to convey tradition often reveal so many unconventional elements.