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Singapore’s history to me was always about chaos, hawkers and brotherhood. The Modern Colony exhibition gave me new insights on Singapore’s rich history, mainly on how technological advancements and modernity have led to progress and development for Singapore. Singapore’s past, especially in terms of fashion, was greatly influenced by the European culture in the 19th century. Through this exhibition, I too get a glimpse of the lives of women in the past. Upon entering the exhibition, I was greeted by retro black and white checkered pattern tiles, similar to the Victorian checkerboard pattern as well as kampong style windows as wallpaper.
This retro English ambience depicted was in contrast with the rundown messy environment I had painted of Singapore’s history through local past movies. The bright lively ambience was then replaced by a dark cozy ambience where the exhibits were displayed. The exhibition was arranged in a way such that the exhibits on men were displayed first followed by those of women and education. Lastly, in the darkest segment, showcased decorative and expensive household items that signified the advent of new technologies. In my opinion, the arrangement of the exhibits displaying men first then women parallels the importance of males over females in the past. Traditionally, the role of woman was a stay home housewife. What was surprising was that even at home, husbands, wives and children eat at separate tables, leading a rather patriarchal society. However, with the reforms in education, women gradually came out seeking for independence and economic improvements.
Eventually, their opinions were recognized and heard by the public on platforms such as ‘Women’s Corner’ in The Malaya Tribune. Education reforms had led to many establishments of girls’ school such as the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School. Subjects taught included cooking and sewing, which were vital skills for their future roles as daughter-in-laws and wives. Though women were given education opportunity, they were mostly educated to be worthy of their husbands who were on the other-hand given education to elevate their social status. In the past, fashion played an important role in defining modernity. With technological advancements, through the use of devices such as radios, people became more aware and start adopting western ideas and culture. Back then, outfits with a western touch were considered as modern outfits. Women became more self-conscious about their appearance, especially due to the influence of Hollywood movies and imported fashion magazines, something I did not expect to have existed in the past. These movies introduced the idea of liberal fashionable women, inspiring women to dress-up as their favourite movie stars. Women start to pair ankle-length cheongsum with high-heeled shoes, white stockings and a handbag as part of western fashion. The idea of western fashion was also apparent in men; wearing western-style suits with walking sticks and hats were deemed as a symbol of modernity. This led to the increase in demand for suits, attracting many Shanghainese tailors to Singapore. Department stores such as ‘Robinson & Co’ and ‘John Little & Co’ gradually opened up for the masses to shop and do business.
With the opening of Suez Canal in 1869, Singapore became a trade-based economy, importing goods and attracting immigrants, something that we are reliant till now. I was not aware but Singapore’s Cold Storage Company started out as a small depot, bringing in frozen meat from Australia. Technological advancements such as the advent of telephones played a huge role in connecting people to the outside world. With businesses growing, Singapore’s economy began to improve, increasing the number of wealthy and elites. Elite scholars reflected the multicultural nature of affluent groups in the straits settlement. The affluent often employ many servants including amahs, a group of women who underwent sor hei ceremony as a socially accepted form of singlehood, choosing sworn sisterhood over marriage. I was aware of the secret societies and brotherhood previously but not of amahs and their sisterhood. The exhibition gave me an impression that previously, Singapore was rather ‘high-class’ instead of the chaotic and poor impression I had from the various history and social studies subjects I took. I did anticipated stories on foot binding for females but I learnt that fashion was more relevant in Singapore’s past.
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