Asia's melting ports

A new exhibition on port cities in the region shows how trade helped to create connected cultures and histories

A Japanese robe made from Indian chintz, a type of cotton dyed with floral patterns, at the exhibition Port Cities: Multicultural Emporiums Of Asia, 1500-1900.
A Japanese robe made from Indian chintz, a type of cotton dyed with floral patterns, at the exhibition Port Cities: Multicultural Emporiums Of Asia, 1500-1900. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

The question of whether the spicy noodle soup dish, laksa, is Malaysian or Singaporean may find an answer in a new exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum.

Port Cities: Multicultural Emporiums Of Asia, 1500-1900, shows how the movement of people and goods due to trade among port cities in Asia caused ideas and cultures to come together and evolve along the way to forge hybrid forms of decorative arts, fashion and ways of living.

The exhibition, which opened last Friday, features more than 180 objects, including paintings, personal effects and everyday items that were used and traded in no fewer than seven port cities across Asia, such as Nagasaki, Batavia (present- day Jakarta) and Singapore.

They include Japanese robes made from Indian chintz, a type of cotton dyed with floral patterns, and a 19th-century necklace made of French and Austro-Hungarian coins.


  • WHERE: Asian Civilisations Museum, 1 Empress Place

    WHEN: Till Feb 19, 10am to 7pm (Saturdays to Thursdays), 10am to 9pm (Fridays)

    ADMISSION: $13 for Singapore citizens and permanent residents, otherwise $23; includes entry to permanent galleries and the special exhibition, Cities And Kings: Ancient Treasures From Myanmar (opens Dec 2). Those who visit Port Cities before Cities And Kings opens will be given a complimentary pass for a return visit when the latter opens

This necklace was presented as a devotional offering to a temple in Saigon (present-day Ho Chih Minh City) that was built by the Chettiar community from Tamil Nadu more than 200 years ago.

There is also an oil painting from 1865 that shows a panoramic view of Singapore and buildings of different cultural and architectural styles, including thatched-roof houses and landmarks such as the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd in Queen Street.

While there are no artefacts in the show that relate directly to the origins of laksa - the issue of its cultural provenance made headlines in 2009 when former Malaysian Tourism Minister Ng Yen Yen claimed it as Malaysian - cultural scholar Peter Lee, who is the exhibition's guest curator, raised the question during a media tour of the show to point out how the shared histories and connections among the people of port cities transcend geopolitical as well as cultural boundaries.

He says that a key idea that developed as the exhibition came together was the "false notion" of tradition and culture.

"We've been taught to see each culture as exceptional and different and we are used to highlighting them as such," he says. "We have also been brought up to understand that we come from traditional cultures that are fixed.

"But through this exhibition, you might see that people of the past were probably more dynamic, and less conservative and scared about their own cultures and mixing (things up). Even the way they dressed was much funkier."

The museum's director Kennie Ting, who is also group director of museums at the National Heritage Board, says the show builds on the museum's two main themes - trade and the exchange of ideas, and faith and belief - and presents them in a fresh way through the story of cosmopolitan port cities in Asia.

He hopes the exhibition's cross- cultural focus will help the audience here have a deeper appreciation of "what it means to have lived and continue to live in a multicultural society grounded in trade", and be comfortable with who we are as Singapore - a fruitful "mishmash" of cultures and practices.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 08, 2016, with the headline Asia's melting ports. Subscribe