How a Peranakan boy turned his home into a heritage trove
SINGAPORE, Sept 15 — As a child, Mr Alvin Yapp sensed there was something unique about his family’s heritage, but didn’t know quite what it was. At his Hainanese nanny’s house, he was fed omelettes, porridge, chicken wings, “none of the spicy, complicated rempah-filled fish we had at home”.
And while his parents spoke English to both their children, between themselves, they lapsed into a strange patois “when they didn’t want us to understand what they were talking about”.
The momentous point came when, at 16, Mr Yapp watched the play Menyesal (Regret), performed in Baba Malay, with his parents. “My father was laughing his heart out while my mom was crying — and I couldn’t understand a single word! That was when I decided I should learn more about my culture.”
He took to playing the video of Menyesal “over and over” to pick up the language: Malay with a smattering of Hokkien. But reading up on the Peranakan culture proved more difficult. “There was no Internet, and very little written history that’s easily available,” said the 44-year-old.
Going on jaunts with his father to antique shops and the National Museum to look at Peranakan collectibles, it was not long before Mr Yapp caught the collector’s bug. “The dealers, the families, the friends who passed the pieces to me shared their stories as well — and that was how I started to learn.”
A tale behind every piece
The first piece of furniture he bought, he had to borrow his father’s station wagon to cart home. It was a planter’s chair, an iconic feature in any Peranakan home. “My mom said my granddad would have had one in the living room.”
The second was an intricately carved door frame which cost him S$50 (RM124). “At that time, that was a lot of money. So I asked the lady, is this a real piece or a fake? And she said, ‘I’ll give you a receipt, boy, and if it’s fake, you can always return it’.”
That receipt is still behind the door frame which marks the entrance to his private space at The Intan, Mr Yapp’s home which now doubles up as a boutique museum. The chair, too, takes pride of place in the loft.
The Intan — which means rose-cut diamond in Malay — is one among a row of post-war houses in Joo Chiat. Strictly by appointment only, Mr Yapp welcomes an average of 50 visitors into his home every month.
A typical visit consists of a tour with a running commentary by Mr Yapp about Peranakan culture and its influences. Guests are led upstairs to view a wedding ceremony set-up, after which they are served tea or dinner prepared by Mr Yapp’s mother with a caterer’s help.
Every space in the long and narrow interior is filled with antique furniture and Peranakan paraphernalia — nyonya porcelain, spittoons, delicate tea sets. Even the steps are lined with old tiffin carriers.
“It may seem like it’s all over the place, but every piece is carefully curated and placed such that it tells a story. I can tell you how I collected each piece, where it came from and who sold it to me,” said Mr Yapp, ensconced in one of a pair of Chinese chairs inlaid with mother-of-pearl given by a family friend. The late President Wee Kim Wee once sat in it, he proudly shares.
Amassed over 20 years, his collection, unlikely as it may seem, comes from around the globe. The frequent traveller said: “As collectors, we have a disease. It’s like a woman with shoes and bags, we have to keep buying.
“When I was abroad, I would look out for auctions, for flea markets. I have found beadwork in Europe and I got a good collection of shoes from an American dealer who left Singapore. And there are families who migrated to Australia and brought pieces with them too.”
When he returned to Singapore 10 years ago, after four years working for Singapore Airlines, he had a sizable collection that his Marine Parade apartment was too small to fully display. A friend casually mentioned a cousin who wanted to sell her place in Joo Chiat — and within two weeks, the house was Mr Yapp’s.
He said: “All you see out here is all the money I have. I’ve got nothing in the bank — everything is either in a tile, in a piece of porcelain or in a piece of beadwork.
“We’ve been very lucky, so far, there have been no pilferages and breakages, except by myself. But of course, we had to take the extra precaution of CCTV cameras and security devices.”
All in the family
While he was hard-pressed to pick a favourite piece, Mr Yapp — who works in his family’s advertising business - pointed out a pair of wax-paper lanterns, hand-painted with his family’s Chinese names, which he had commissioned in Malacca. Traditionally, these would have been hung outside a Peranakan family’s home.
He learnt from the artist that the family’s name must always be on the left lantern; the matriarch’s name faces the house, the patriarch’s faces out. “This means that whatever is outdoors, the grandfather will take care of and whatever is indoors, the grandmother takes care of.”
He calls his parents an inspiration and The Intan’s patrons, although they do not live with him. “They are truly Peranakan in every way — they live, eat, breathe Peranakan.”
Even as he admits that “things are bursting from the walls”, Mr Yapp has no plans to expand or swap his 100-sqf abode for a bigger one. “I’m quite happy with the space I have now ... it allows me to focus on what’s most important, which is to give an amazing experience to every visitor.” — Today