Foo Su Ling (National University of Singapore Museum) on the NUS Baba House
The NUS Baba House is a three-storey shophouse on Neil Road, and is a significant historic landmark in Singapore. We met with curator Foo Su Ling at the house and when conversation turned to which artefact in the Baba House she’d like to speak on, Su Ling proposed that we approach the entire house as an object lesson. This approach raises interesting questions around how we can dissect what used to be a domestic space, and how we can listen to what the building has to say.
Foo Su Ling is a curator at the National University of Singapore Museum. Her research interests are in Southeast Asian arts, and the social and cultural history of the region. Her curatorial projects include “you have to lose your way to find yourself in the right place” | Selected Works by Gilles Massot (2019), Yeo Shih Yun: Diaries, Marking Time and Other Preoccupations (2018), From the Ashes: Reviving Myanmar Celadon Ceramics (2017), and Archaeology Library (2015). She was a co-writer of the book Inherited & Salvaged: Family Portraits from the NUS Museum Straits Chinese Collection (2015) and NUS Baba House: Architecture and Artefacts of a Straits Chinese Home (2016).
The House that Many Hands Built
Foo Su Ling (FSL): The NUS Baba House was built in the last decade of the nineteenth century, around 1896. The land in this neighbourhood used to be used for huge plantations, and the land was eventually divided into smaller allotments. These smaller lots were sold, and a few houses were built on each lot. When this particular unit was first built, the houses were numbered according to their lot numbers. This unit was accorded the number 56-13 Neil Road. Sometime in the 1920s, the Municipal did a renumbering exercise in order to standardise the various house addresses. That was how we got the house’s current day address of 157 Neil Road.
The first owner of the house that we managed to trace was a man by the name of Tan Kim Chuan. We’re not sure how long he owned this house for, but he sold the house in 1896 to a businessman named Lim Ho Puah. Two years later, Lim sold the house to a lady by the name of Yap Koon Neo. Mdm Yap owned the property for close to four years, and she probably lived in it. When she sold the house in 1902, there was an auction of domestic items such as ebony and teak furniture, metal bed frames, large mirrors, lamps, glassware, crockery and so on. After Mdm Yap, a man by the name of Oh Kee Chuan bought the house. He owned it until 1910. He may have moved out by the end of 1907, because we know there was yet another auction of an even larger number of items held in December 1907. In 1908, the property was put up for auction. It wasn’t until 1910 that the house was purchased by the Wee family. The Wee family owned the property for the longest time, until they sold it to the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 2006.
As far as the house is concerned, it was first built as a structure with two storeys. In 1910 when the Wee family moved in, they constructed the house’s third storey. At the rear of the property, what we see today is a very spacious back lane. When these houses were first built, they were built back to back. This row would have been backed up against the row at Everton Road. We have house plans from 1941 that showed the sort of back lanes the Municipal planned to construct here, but the former owner of the house recalls these plans being executed much later in the 1950s. It was likely that these plans were interrupted due to the Second World War.
The Building and its Spaces as Object Lessons
FSL: Besides telling stories through artefacts, I think the spaces in a house can also hold some rather interesting stories. One example that I’d bring up is the verandah and the front courtyard of the house. One of the previous owners of the house, Mr Wee Lin, who lived here whilst he was growing up, reveals that the front of the house was a very busy area. He and his rambunctious group of friends often played in the verandah, and created their own games there as well. Wee’s next door neighbour was an Indian man who sold comic books. This man tapped on the Wee family’s electricity supply to run his comic book store, and as a way of reciprocating, he allowed the young Mr Wee to read the comics in his store for free. We have also spoken to other families who had houses in this neighbourhood. When there were weddings, the tables for guests would often spill out into the front of the house. So I think of the front courtyard as an incredibly interesting space.
Today if you look at the front of this house, you’ll see traces of a corridor that used to run through the whole row of houses. Even though each house had its own private courtyard, the erected of this common corridor was stipulated by a bylaw. Over time, each unit started to block off the corridor entrance to their own courtyard and that leads us to this speculation around the neighbourly relations at the time. Perhaps all the commotion from daily activities and festive occasions exerted a strain on neighbourly relations? It is interesting to consider why these openings were sealed up in the first place.
The NUS Baba House is constantly undergoing conservation and renovation processes, and our approach to this is something that we’re still fine-tuning. We do have expertise in Singapore for these projects, but it’s definitely not enough. We do have architects and consultants based in Singapore, but it still is difficult to come by craftsmen and tradesmen with the necessary skills. Recently, we conducted a workshop on lime as plaster for the building. We started by working with students from the Architecture department, and talked to them about how lime is mined and prepared. We wanted the students to experiment with mixing the lime themselves, the different proportions, and the varying conditions under which the lime can be applied to the wall. We applied a couple of test patches of the lime, and had them settle there for close to a year so as to see which composition of lime worked best. Another project that we’re constantly working on is the conservation of the house’s murals. These murals are exposed to open air, so their surfaces are always wearing off. In order to counter this, we have used modern waterproofing sealant to see if we can slow down biological growth and the appearance of cracks.
In the 1990s, the URA designated a conservational status for this whole neighbourhood and its shophouses. Being a historic house, the NUS Baba House fits neatly into this area of heritage. It is a space that people can come into to learn about the history of the precinct. The Baba House has guided tours on weekdays, and guests are free to explore the place on their own on Saturday afternoons. We also host talks and programmes on Sundays in collaboration with the Peranakan Association of Singapore. These talks and workshops mostly relate to practices that the Peranakans today observe. We had a talk that explored the different incarnations of the Kitchen God, and we had another workshop for Chinese calligraphy and paper cutting. These are just some of the ways the Baba House has worked with the community and the surrounding neighbourhood.
Putting Together an Accurate yet Nuanced Historical Site
FSL: When we took over the house in 2006, there were two main curatorial decisions that had to be made. The first was the sort of visitor experience that the house would give, and the second was the time period within which we wanted to set the house in. In terms of visitor experience, we didn’t want visitors to step into the space thinking that this was a museum environment. Our strategy was to give visitors the ambience of a home that’s been lived in. This was sensitive to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA)’s zoning of this particular area. Creating the environment of a home meant displaying original artefacts, as many of them as possible, that the Wee family used in their daily lives. We selected the year of 1928 as the chronological reference point, and included furniture and photographs of the family to illustrate this. The year of 1928 was significant as Wee Eng Cheng, the patriarch who owned this unit, passed away. His death brought about big changes for the family, especially in relation to the family’s business. This also coincides with a time in which the Peranakans were incredibly prominent, both in the public and domestic realm. In public, Peranakans occupied important commercial and leadership positions; whilst in the domestic sphere, we still see elaborate cultural manifestations of the community being observed. Once we decided on the year of 1928, we began to source for artefacts from other families and antique shops as well. The house presents an oscillating narrative. It is both the home of the Wee family, and a more generic portrayal of what a Peranakan family’s home could look like.
The Peranakan identity can be difficult to pinpoint because there are many ideas laden within that single term. Identity involves political loyalties, ethnocultural affiliations, socioeconomic status, gender and even one’s occupation. There are so many facets that make up one’s identity, and the permutations are many. Despite this, labels are always accorded to groups of people for public administration and documentation. In the early to the late twentieth century, we begin to see the identifier “Straits Chinese” being used for a group of people who lived in the Straits Settlement. The discussions the Straits Chinese community were interested in related to political alignments, Confucianist revivalism, social progress for the community and social conduct. So if you look at the term “Straits Chinese”, it was used then as an identity marker for those sorts of things.
In the wake of independent Singapore, the notion of a Straits Chinese community did not feature as much in public discourse. It wasn’t until the late twentieth century that we see a renewal of interest in this group of people. This was spearheaded to different degrees by the various museums and the Singapore Tourism Board. The term “Peranakan Chinese” began to be, rightly or wrongly, used interchangeably with the term “Straits Chinese”. When this interest was revived, the focus was on the Peranakan domestic sphere. Particularly, attention was lavished on the Peranakan hybrid material culture, social activities and religious practices. What we understand today as constituting Peranakan identity would have been very different to what people then understood as being Peranakan.
The presentation of this house embodies the cultural aspects of being Peranakan Chinese, but we also emphasise this through our roster of temporary exhibitions, talks, conferences and other programmes. We are constantly trying to bring up and bring in other aspects of Peranakan identity as it evolves. We insert contemporary responses with our into a historic space with our exhibitions because it makes us more accessible to people who understand culture through contemporary art and not heritage. Contemporary art is very much a part of the modern cultural experience. Bringing it in then helps to locate the Peranakan culture, and discussions about the culture and community, in the present. It isn’t relegated to being a thing of the past. Contemporary art allows us to look at a whole range of things as well. Some of the works in our present exhibition, Glossaries of the Straits Chinese Homemaking, are based on research done into an antiques shop here in Singapore that specialises in Peranakan objects. In some ways, it also informs us about the enterprise and entrepreneurial work Peranakans engage in today.
What we want to do is to create more avenues through which discussions about the Peranakans can take place. There is still space for us to touch on the evolving ethnocultural identities of the Peranakans, especially in response to the political pressures of the time. Our interest in the domestic realm and its surrounding traditions inform our discussions of the Nyonya today. Perhaps this sort of discussion can be reexamined in the context of how these exact traditions and establishments inhibited her progress in spheres outside of the domestic. As far as I’m concerned, I see the strength of Baba House as being a centre of discussion for a wide variety of disciplines. This neighbourhood was one of the early urban centres in colonial Singapore. We could examine issues such as urban planning and social structures through the house. Another possibility is what we spoke about earlier — architectural conservation, and the use of traditional materials such as lime and wood. These are all very niche areas that would attract a select group of people. Nevertheless I think that if we could evolve into a centre that engages in capacity building and has know-how on architectural conservation, this would be the Baba House’s distinguishing feature.