Port Cities: Multicultural Emporiums of Asia, 1500 – 1900

14859659_10154296553286749_4278876479340900201_oThe opening of Port Cities: Multicultural Emporiums of Asia, 1500 – 1900 at the Asian Civilisations Museum was tremendously successful, with more than 300 guests attending and having a whale of a time. Thank you very much everyone who was there!!

This is the very first exhibition I have opened as Director of ACM and I thought I’d share here on Dream Of A City, my first ever welcome address, on port cities in Asia (how apt!). The speech contains seeds of thinking about (Asian and Singaporean) IDENTITY, that have always guided me in the process of conceptualising and writing my books past and forthcoming; and that will perhaps also guide how the Museum’s own curatorial perspective will evolve.



“Your Excellencies, the ambassadors who are here with us this evening; Permanent Secretary for Culture, Community and Youth, Ms Yeoh Chee Yan; Members of the National Heritage Board Board of Directors and the Asian Civilisations Museum Advisory Board, distinguished guests, colleagues and friends… good evening and welcome to the opening of Port Cities, Multicultural Emporiums of Asia, 1500 – 1900.  

My name is Kennie.  I am the new Director of the Museum and today I’m almost exactly two months old on the job. I am deeply privileged and moved to be opening this exhibition in such wonderful company. 

For the longest time, I have been fascinated, or obsessed rather, with port cities in Asia. And this obsession has literally taken me to the streets of more than 30 Asian port cities in the last 5 years, where I have been doggedly and insanely – some would say – photographing as much of the historic architecture and streetscapes as I can before they disappear. Alongside my job at the National Heritage Board, I have been researching, reading up on and writing about the history and heritage of each and every one of these cities, and how these cities are linked to each other by global routes of trade and travel. 

I was driven to take on this crazy project by a singular question – why am I who I am?  Why is Singapore – and why am I – so strange?  Why do I speak English, even though I’m ostensibly Chinese? Why is it that I have this deep, inexplicable craving for sambal and Muthu’s fish head curry and I pepper my sentences with curious words like baju and senang and teruk.   

I am delighted, and still a little surprised, that my journey of discovery has led me here to ACM, where – in a stroke of fate – the first exhibition I am opening as Director is one on Port Cities, and this exhibition aims precisely to explore the kinds of conundrums-masquerading-as-questions I have been asking myself. 

Port Cities is a tremendously significant exhibition for the Asian Civilisations Museum as well as for Singapore. Firstly, because it explores and presents the very specific and unique history, heritage and material culture of cosmopolitan, multicultural port cities in Asia, which Singapore has always been, and I hope, will always be. Before Singapore, there was a long line of historic Asian port cities in the vein of Singapore – cities that would have looked very familiar to us today – I refer to the likes of Batavia (today’s Jakarta), Manila, Malacca, Canton, Nagasaki, Calcutta and Bombay – these global and highly globalized, “east-meets-west” and “east-meets-east” kinds of places grounded in trade, commerce and the coming together of peoples from all over the world.

We have tended to search for the roots of Singaporean heritage in the space of the Grand Asian Civilisations – the South Asian, the East Asian, the Southeast Asian, the West Asian – and we do indeed find clues to our roots there, but not the full picture. What this exhibition proposes, and what I firmly believe, is that it is in the more-recent-nearly-forgotten space of Asian Port Cities, where there is no purely South Asian or East Asian or Southeast Asian or West Asian or even European; but instead a rich, heady, intoxicating, brew of cultures, that we find that reassuring trace and presence of ourselves in the past.

In other words, it is in rojak, that we find the essence of Singapore.  

The exhibition is also significant because the concept and the curatorial narrative of the exhibition originated in ACM, and it is the first exhibition anywhere in the world that adopts a pan-Asian approach in presenting on the subject of Port Cities in Asia. The process of putting together the exhibition has been remarkably complex, having taken almost 3 years from conceptualisation to fruition. We have loaned more than 180 artefacts from 22 lending institutions and private collectors across 7 countries. Interestingly some of the institutions we have loaned from are not museums at all, but places of worship, and many of the objects from these places of worship have never left the building, let alone their country of origin.

Alongside these pieces, we have also placed artefacts from our National Collections – the collections of the National Museum of Singapore, of ACM, of course, of the National Archives and the National Library. And this is to suggest to our visitors – Look! We too have spectacular and historically significant artefacts here in our museums and archives and libraries in Singapore; artefacts able to hold their own amongst their counterparts from the rest of the world. 

For this exhibition to have taken place at all, I have to thank our many partner museums and institutions, lenders, donors and supporters, some of whom are here with us today. First our lenders: from Singapore, I would like to thank the family of Mr Ahmad Mohamed Ibrahim; Mr and Mrs Lee Kip Lee; and Mr Ashwin Muthiah, from the Saigon Chettiar’s Temple Trust Pte Ltd. From Belgium, many thanks to Mr Jan Veenendahl. From Japan, Hiromichi Kondou-san and Nobuyasu Kimura-san, who are temple elders of the Manpuku-ji in Kyoto; and Matsura Osamu-san from the Matsura Historical Museum in Hirado. From Indonesia: Dr Ibu Ekowati, attending on behalf of Museum Nasional Indonesia, Jakarta. From the Philippines, Mr & Mrs Juan Claudio Laya, of the Family of Mr Jaime C. Laya. 

I would like to thank the following partners who have offered us invaluable help in the exhibition: the Ayala Museum in Manila; Ryosuke Nishigori-san and Etsuko Iwanaga-san, who are the Director and Chief Curator respectively of the Fukuoka Art Museum; The Japanese Association and the Japan Creative Centre. I would also like to thank our sponsors, the Port Authority of Singapore, the Japan Foundation and the Singapore Cruise Centre.

Finally, my special thanks go to one very important person – and this is our Guest Curator, Mr Peter Lee, whom many of you will know as a local researcher and expert in Peranakan and Cross-cultural Art. As guest curator, he played an instrumental role, alongside ACM curators Mr Clement Onn and Ms Naomi Ang, and my predecessor (much-missed) Dr Alan Chong, in conceptualising, orchestrating and completing this exhibition. In my brief two months working with Peter I have learnt much, including how to organise complex ideas about networks and cross-boundary movements of peoples and goods into compact, compelling and easily-understood stories. And how important it is to always introduce a strong element of people and everyday life, warts and all, in exhibitions that we do.

In a moment, I shall invite Peter onstage to actually talk about the exhibition rather than around the exhibition, like what I’m doing. But before I do, I’d like to express my deep gratitude to and huge vote of confidence for the ACM team of curators, programmers, editors, collections managers, operations professionals, marketing professionals and fundraisers, who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to put this exhibition together. Thank you very much for your passion and professionalism and for welcoming me so readily into the museum as one of your own. I look forward to our journey together.  A round of applause please for Peter and the ACM team – it really does take a village to put on an exhibition!

I am also very pleased to declare that we are simultaneously launching the exhibition catalogue this evening. So if you like what you see in the gallery, do please pick up a copy of the catalogue which is retailing tonight at a minimum suggested donation of $40.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for your attention and I do hope you enjoy the opening.   

Peter, may I now invite you to say a few words.”

PORT CITIES: MULTICULTURAL EMPORIUMS OF ASIA, 1500 – 1900 is on at the Asian Civilisations Museum from 4 November 2016 to 19 February 2017. Do please pay it a visit. 

About Kennie Ting

I am a wandering cityophile and pattern-finder who is pathologically incapable of staying in one place for any long period of time. When I do, I see the place from different perspectives, obsessive-compulsively.
This entry was posted in Art & Architecture, Cities & Regions, Heritage, Landmarks & History, Singapore, Southeast ASia, Travel & Mobility and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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