On day 10, we visited the Peranakan Museum to view their current exhibition Auspicious Designs: Batik for Peranakan Altars. The auspicious symbols from nature, folk beliefs, Buddhism, and Daoism that decorated Peranakan altar cloths and textiles were a part of a universally applicable visual language. Through migration and trading, the prevalence of this visual culture and its prominence in China’s history had a strong influence on the textile designs of Southeast Asia.
Batik is a kind of resist-dyed cloth made in India then adopted by ethnic groups in Java. Many of the cloths made on the north coast of Java show traditional Chinese symbols and well as appropriations from Europe and Southeast Asia, exemplifying how art is influenced by local traditions and cultures. Batik altar cloths, or tok wi decorate altars during significant ceremonies such as Chinese New Year. They reflect the importance on rituals and spiritual beliefs had in the life of the Chinese Peranakan people in Southeast Asian. The altar cloths have an important role in signifying special occasions and are used to separate sacred spaces.
One particular altar cloth that took my interest was this cloth labeled as Three Figures. It is Chinese, from the early to mid-20th century and is made from silk with gold embroidery. It depicts two groups of Daoist figures. At the centre are the Three Stellar Gods. On the top panel are the Eight Immortals riding marine creatures, including turtles, fish, a crab, and a prawn. The border of the cloth has a repeated pattern comprised of organic forms. This altar cloth stood out to me because of its elaborate and interesting appearance, and I was intrigued about the characters as they were obviously important figures.
The cloth features motifs of turtles, fish, a crab and a prawn. These marine creatures suggest that this is a depiction of the immortals crossing the sea. The theme may have been especially appealing to overseas Chinese communities or to Chinese preparing to emigrate to places such as Singapore. Other motifs include the crane which symbolized longevity and auspiciousness. They also represent happiness and a soaring spirit. The powerful symbols and motifs and the elaborate detail reflect the importance of this altar cloth.
The use of gold conveys a sense of importance, which reflects the high status of the Daoist figures, the Eight Immortals and the Stellar Gods. The extensive use of gold thread suggests this was a special commission.
The figures on this cloth are padded and protrude several centimetres, creating a three dimensional structure across the cloth. The cloth is also folded over so that there is a structural difference in the top and bottom sections of the cloth. The tassles help decorate and separate these two sections. The cloth would usually decorate a Sam Kai Altar, which was two-tied, hence the structural difference.
In the Peranakan Museum The Sam Kai Altar was decorated by the Three Figures Altar cloth. Sam Kai means ‘three worlds’ – referring to Heaven, Earth and Man. To the Peranakan Chinese it is the most sacred of altars, and is dedicated to Ting Kong – the Heavenly Grandfather or the Jade Emperor – an important deity worshipped by the Peranakan Chinese. It is a two-tied altar that was erected in the front hall of the house, directly in front of the main door on special occasions, for wedding rites like the chiu thau and on Ting Kong Seh, the birthday of the Jade Emperor. It was also very elaborately decorated, standing on layers of gold-leafed joss paper and red paper.