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Modern Colony is a gallery that showcases Singapore as a British Crown colony from 1925 to 1935, with great attention on the Straits-born and migrant Chinese. The gallery’s lighting and background music gave off a colonial vibe, which allowed visitors to immerse themselves in the exhibition. During the colonial period, Singapore was a vibrant metropolis city, being the pioneers in the East of technological advancements such as a telephone system and motor cars. The affluent among Singapore’s Chinese community began to adopt Western education, customs and lifestyles. ModernityA theme explored in the gallery is Modernity.
There were numerous exhibits that displayed that theme, such as a pair of metal-frame round-rimmed spectacles which were made popular by Hollywood actors. Being heavily influenced by the Western culture, there was also an increasing demand for Western-style suits for men. Exhibits displaying Modernity among women were also present. There was a silver ladies’ mesh purse which had been inspired by Victorian-style purses and made for Westernised Peranakan Chinese women. The traditional cheongsam was also given a twist with intricate Western-inspired designs. Women also put in more effort into their appearances after influences from Hollywood movies and imported magazines.
This was evident from a silver vanity set displayed which was embossed with floral patterns in the Art Nouveau style – an art style originated from Europe. Dining tastes and etiquette were also modernising, as presented by a set of tableware which bore royal cyphers from the Government House collection and originated from silverware companies from England. A feature was also showcased alongside the tableware and exhibited the changing palates, with imported frozen meat and other products. Gender & EducationGender and Education were also explored, mainly about women’s roles and education. Prior to the 1900s, education opportunities were mostly given to men and women stayed at home to fulfil traditional roles. However, advocates for women rights started to emerge. One example was Song Ong Qiang with fellow reformist Dr Lim Boon Keng, who founded the Straits Chinese Magazine which was displayed at the exhibition. It was a prominent platform for advocating of education and social reforms for all Chinese. The Malaya Tribune, one of the most widely read English-language papers in Singapore then, had a “Women’s Corner” column which allowed voices of women and debates about topics such as marriage and equality to be heard. There were AV kiosks in the exhibition which visitors could listen to differing views between men and women. A photograph of Sophia Blackmore with students, another prominent figure who established the Methodist Girls’ School, was displayed.
A group of British-educated Peranakan Chinese men including Dr Lim Boon Keng and Song Ong Siang also founded the Straits Chinese Girls’ School (SCGS). A schoolgirl’s report card from SCGS were also displayed, with subjects such as arithmetic and history. Thoughts after the exhibitionHaving little prior knowledge about the colonial period in Singapore, the exhibition was an eye-opening experience as it allowed me to peek into the lives of Singapore Chinese in the past. It was interesting to see how the Western culture influenced their lives and how it showed through the intricate details in the displays in the exhibition. I could also see how the popular culture was evolving and modernising their lifestyles such as how they spent their leisure time and designed their clothing. I was able to challenge myself to put myself in their shoes and began to understand how life was for them. Being a Singapore Chinese woman myself, it made me realise how difficult it was for my ancestors during the colonial period, especially for women. They were denied opportunities and had to fulfil traditional roles, which would be hard to imagine if it was the norm.
Many people played pivotal roles to help fight for women’s rights and education, which I was previously unaware of and have now developed a deeper understanding. In my opinion, many people often take for granted what a typical Singaporean life is like today, including myself. We are given much more educational opportunities and freedom to explore, as compared to the past. We should be more grateful for what we have and be more appreciative of our ancestors’ contributions to shape what Singapore is today, while retaining our cultural roots.
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