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On Set | Norman Cho and His Collection of Peranakan Jewellery

By Lynette Kee

The term Peranakan is more commonly known in regions like Singapore, Malacca and Penang where this sub-ethnic group resides. They are characterised by the unique hybrid of ancient Chinese culture and cultures from European and Indonesian archipelagos. Between the 15th to 17th century, the economy of China was facing a downturn and Chinese immigrants soon found themselves an alternative home in Malaya (now Malaysia and Singapore). And the term Peranakan Chinese, which translates to “local descendants”, was then adopted by the early settlers to distinguish themselves from the late immigrants.

Among the community in Malacca from the late 19th century, was one Peranakan family whose culture continues to live on today through four generations. “Both sides of my parents are Peranakans; they were both from Malacca,” says Norman Cho, a Singaporean of Peranakan descent who is also an avid collector of Peranakan jewellery

Set in one of Singapore’s quintessential high-rise buildings in the East, the 49-year-old’s home appears nondescript next to his residential neighbours. However, stepping inside his intimate dwelling, one is immediately transported to a cultural establishment of the 1900s. Against the archetypical mould of Singaporean housing, Cho’s flat is packed with heritage furniture, antique vanity and tiny sprouts of treasured collectibles — like the artefacts that were only ever observed through the glass windows of museums, such as the rows of hand-beaded Peranakan slippers and the porcelain spittoons. 

Cho’s current living space lends a window vision to the authentic entirety of the Peranakan culture, where they have clothing, cuisine, and jewellery utterly unique to them. In modern context, however, the rise of local culture has inevitably diluted the Peranakan community that is nonetheless a distinctive culture to many Singaporeans and Malaysians. For Cho and many collectors alike, the fascination for Peranakan jewellery sprung from a need to preserve one aspect of this fast disappearing culture. But more so for Cho on a personal level, it was his search for his late great-grandfather’s tomb that initially kindled his enthusiasm for preservation. “Knowing your roots is very important. I’ve been trying to trace my ancestry for quite a number of years, and I really tried to go back as far as possible,” Cho recalls a time when his family stopped their ritual of paying respects to his great-grandfather and grandfather after the tombs got lost during World War II. It was a painstaking process in search for the lost tombs but having found them reconnected Cho to his extended family and a newfound love for preserving his culture.

Today he has a 300-piece jewellery collection amassed throughout the years. “Every Peranakan will have at least a set of kerosang (decorative brooches) — without it, they would not be able to fasten their kebaya,” says Cho. From celebratory-to mourning-specific pieces, jewellery to the Peranakans has a special significance that goes beyond mere accessorising. For Cho, it was important to illustrate the depth of his diminishing culture through his collection.