Peranakans and Early Photography in Southeast Asia

Peranakan Museum’s first photography exhibition Amek Gambar: Peranakans and Photography showcases some of the rarest and earliest images of Peranakans. The historical and cultural exhibition runs from 5 May 2018 to 3 February 2019.

SINGAPORE, 2 May 2018. The Peranakan Museum’s exhibition, Amek Gambar (Taking Pictures): Peranakans and Photography, covers more than a century and a half of photography, tracing the emergence, adoption and evolution of photography in Southeast Asia, through the lens of the Peranakan community.

Early life of Peranakans documented through photographs at the Peranakan Museum

Early life of Peranakans documented through photographs at the Peranakan Museum

It consists of two main sections: firstly, the early history of photography in Europe, and its rapid spread to Southeast Asia through the establishment of immigrant (Western) and indigenous (Asian) studios across the region; and secondly, with the advent of portable cameras, how Peranakans chose to express and represent themselves outside of the studio, as early adopters of the technology. 

John Teo, General Manager of the Peranakan Museum, said: “Every photograph captures a moment in time, and tells a story. Today, we take photographs to mark important life events – births, marriages, deaths – but also the mundane, the ordinary, the everyday. The ‘photographs’ in Amek Gambar – from monochrome early images on metal plates, to dazzling digital displays – provide a fascinating insight, not only into the Peranakan world, but life in Southeast Asia and Singapore, from the mid-19th century to today.” 

“As we enter the museum’s 10th year, it is also timely to showcase our collection of photographs of Peranakans, one of the best in the world, in part through the generous donation of more than 2,500 photographs by Mr and Mrs Lee Kip Lee,” said Teo.

History and evolution of technology in photography 

The invention of photography led to a revolutionary way of understanding and seeing the world. Through different forms of photography, Amek Gambar parallels the introduction and development of photography from when it first reached the shores of Singapore from France in 1841.

The first section of the exhibition showcases early photography techniques, such as those taken in the 1840s and 50s in Singapore by European photographers. This includes the oldest photograph on paper, and of a Peranakan, in Singapore’s National Collection, an albumen print stereo card of a prominent Peranakan tycoon’s family, which would have appeared as a single three-dimensional image through a special viewer.

Another example is the earliest surviving image of Singapore, taken in 1844 on a daguerreotype – one of the first photographic processes, where the image is captured on a small metal plate. With the introduction of negative-positive photographic processes, multiple positive paper prints could be made from a master negative.

Learn how photography evolved over time at the Peranakan Museum

Learn how photography evolved over time at the Peranakan Museum

Photographers from studios such as the famous firm G. R. Lambert & Co. (established in 1867 by Gustave Richard Lambert from Dresden) produced large format original photographic prints of landscapes and people, often with captions etched onto the glass-plate negative.

Representation of Peranakan identity through photography 

he exhibition also provides insights into the universal issues of identity, sense of self and community, and connectedness, in the exploration of how Peranakans in Southeast Asia chose to present themselves to the world, through the medium of photography.

Photographs demonstrate the multiple possibilities in shaping identity vis-à-vis the cross-cultural exuberance of lives in colonial port cities, and the confluence of tradition and modernity in a time of emerging Western cultural influences.

Deliberately crafted moments for the camera, whether inside or outside the studio setting, and utilising props, costumes and posture, presented the myriad personas that they chose to be remembered by.

With the advent of more portable cameras that were simpler to operate, even more opportunities emerged for Peranakans to exercise active agency in how they would be represented, and amateur Peranakan photographers began to use the medium as a means of expressing their creativity and individuality. They were also able to capture more candid and intimate moments.

Teo also shared, “Besides snapping selfies in front of the more colourful or eye-catching contemporary pieces to post on Instagram, I hope every visitor to this exhibition will take some time to look closely at the wealth of detail in the earlier images, and also start to think about how they present themselves and their lives to the rest of the world in their own photographs, and how they hope to be remembered by future generations through their own digital photographic archive or records.”

Amek Gambar concludes with Space, Time, and Memories, a digital space which invites visitors to contemplate advancements in digital technology, and the reasons we use photography today. It is a thematic social campaign inviting visitors to contribute their photographs to be part of the exhibition’s photography collection and kick-starting the first series are contributions by various Peranakan communities in Singapore.

The exhibition will be accompanied by curator tours and a series of complementary programmes and workshops focusing on photography, alongside a contemporary site-specific installation inspired by the first camera – the camera obscura – by local artist Sarah Choo and Larry Kwa named ‘we stop to watch the world go by’.

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