The Life Interview With Peter Lee

The Life Interview with Peranakan scholar Peter Lee: Finder, keeper and giver

Peranakan scholar Peter Lee is an avid collector of textiles who gives generously to museums. He talks about how his mother sparked his interest in textiles

From the outset, the 500 sq ft room in this two-storey Binjai Rise bungalow looks like any other work studio - a large wooden work table takes pride of place and floor- to-ceiling steel cabinets line the walls - except it is not.

Behind the cabinet doors are yards and yards of colourful textiles, from batik and silk to chintz and ikat sourced from all over the world by Peranakan scholar, curator and author Peter Lee, 53. He is the son of prominent Peranakan figure Lee Kip Lee, 93, and the younger brother of singer- composer Dick Lee, 60.

Each piece of textile in the collection is carefully wrapped, folded and stored according to type, country of origin and sometimes its maker, in purpose-built cabinets that were made by an industrial kitchen specialist to protect the extensive archive.


The room is also temperature-controlled - kept at 20 deg C by two air-conditioners, each running on a 12-hour shift - to ensure the collection, which includes rare antique textiles, stays in top condition.

The studio is kept under lock and key, but much of the private collection has already been dispersed around the world and made public through loans and donations in the name of his parents to museums such as Adelaide's Art Gallery of South Australia and the Yale University Art Gallery in the United States.

In March, a batch of more than 50 textiles and garments was donated to the Fukuoka Art Museum.

The trove of woven history and heritage has made its youthful- looking mastermind an unwitting cultural advocate and philanthropist.

He says: "In any other country, what I do is normal. It's recording history, nothing special at all."

But he recognises that he is "lucky" to be able to indulge in doing something that he loves and play a part in documenting and preserving heritage.

He shies from commenting, however, on how extensive the collection is and from putting a value on the donations and the collection.

To him, its worth lies in its cultural and historical significance.

Yet he is aware that his mission to record history does not bear immediate and quantifiable results.

"I just hope I'm not wasting time," he says. That thought has not stopped him from poring over records and travelling far and wide since the 1990s to acquire textiles and garments.

He has also authored the book, Sarong Kebaya: Peranakan Fashion In An Interconnected World 1500-1950 (2014) and he consults and curates on an ad hoc basis for the Asian Civilisations Museum, the National University of Singapore's Baba House and the Peranakan Museum.

The first donation from the collection was a gift of 425 garments, made to the Peranakan Museum in 2011 after a fire caused by a faulty air-conditioner started in his textile work room in 2010. Apart from a light covering of soot and an acrid smell which lingered for ages, none of the textiles were damaged.

"I took that as a sign from God and contacted the Peranakan museum about the donation," Lee says.

On the generosity of the donation, he says he inherited the trait from his late mother, Elizabeth, who died last July at the age of 80 from old age.

"My mum was extremely generous with material things and time. She was always giving things away," he says.

She was also the reason for Lee's interest in textiles, which began in the early 1990s when he started shopping for sarongs for her. What began for him as an appreciation of the aesthetic quality of the fabrics gradually grew into a deeper fascination with their historical significance as he became a scholar in Peranakan culture.

Does he miss his mother?

His eyes well up. After a deep breath, he says: "Terribly."

He then excuses himself and leaves the room. When he returns 10 minutes later, he apologises.

"Sorry, I am such a cry-baby. Small little things can trigger me off."

The practice of collecting textiles and garments, however, is not like shopping. He is careful about how much he spends and assesses each piece based on criteria such as its display value, its historical significance and the stories it can tell.

His prudent collecting habit comes from his father.

The senior Lee ran a successful shipping business until he retired in the 1990s.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 16, 2016, with the headline 'Finder, keeper and giver'. Print Edition | Subscribe