Kreta Ayer Heritage Gallery: Singapore’s First ICH Community Gallery

An interior shot of the new Kreta Ayer Heritage Gallery ⓒ National Heritage Board, Singapore

Nestled in the cultural heartland of Singapore’s Chinatown, the Kreta Ayer Heritage Gallery is Singapore’s first community gallery that showcases different aspects of the intangible cultural heritage (ICH) of the Chinese community as well as ICH elements practiced by the arts and cultural groups located in Kreta Ayer.

Covering a gallery space of 1,076 square feet (100 square meters), the Kreta Ayer Heritage Gallery was co-curated by the National Heritage Board in partnership with the Kreta Ayer Community Centre and officially launched on 14 July 2019. The gallery features a total of 123 artifacts, of which 68 are on loan from the community and/or arts and cultural groups operating in Chinatown.

The gallery is made up of five sections covering five ICH elements comprising Chinese opera, Chinese puppetry, Nanyin music, Chinese calligraphy, and tea appreciation. It introduces visitors to the history of the precinct and showcases the aforementioned ICH elements while tracing their evolution from the days of old Chinatown to contemporary times.

The first section on Chinese opera traces its popularity as a form of local live entertainment between the late 1800s and the 1930s and showcases the different elements of the form including costumes, music, and characters. It also covers opera houses that used to operate in Chinatown and the characteristics of different types of opera according to dialects.

The second section on Chinese puppetry explores the roots of the art form and focuses on the common types of puppetry practiced in Singapore, including hokkien glove puppetry, teochew iron-stick puppetry, hainanese rod puppetry, and henghua string puppetry. The section also features a mock-up stage where puppetry performances are given, and visitors can try their hand at operating stringed puppets.

The third section on nanyin music, meaning “music of the south,” traces the origins of the art form and features nanyin performances, instruments, and musical scores on loan from Siong Leng Musical Association. It also showcases different genres of nanyin music such as Fujian nanyin and Cantonese naam-yam.

The fourth section on Chinese calligraphy focuses on the roots of Chinese calligraphy and the Chinese calligraphy scene in Singapore. It also features the first generation of calligraphers in Singapore and explores how the cultural art form is still practiced in schools, community centers, and cultural institutions today.

The final section on tea appreciation explores the long history of Chinese tea, the establishment of tea houses and the act of brewing and drinking tea as a cultural art form. It also looks at the different types of Chinese tea and how they are typically paired with different types of cuisine.

The gallery also features interactive components that allows visitors to experience the different ICH elements on show. These components include a puppetry stage where visitors can test their skills as puppeteers, multimedia stations that allow visitors to experience playing nanyin instruments, and a Chinese calligraphy station that allows visitors to practice their calligraphy using “invisible ink.”

Following its official opening, NHB and Kreta Ayer Community Centre is partnering with various arts and cultural groups in Chinatown to present regular programs, including Chinese opera, Chinese puppetry, and Nanyin music performances and workshops as well as calligraphy and tea appreciation classes for students and members of the public to promote greater awareness of these ICH elements and, where possible, facilitate the transmission of skills.

With the opening of the Kreta Ayer Heritage Gallery, NHB hopes to showcase the richness and diversity of the Chinese community’s “living” ICH, provide a platform for ICH practitioners and groups to showcase their skills, and create more opportunities to collaborate with community partners to showcase the heritage of specific precincts or estates as well as the history and heritage of different ethnic communities.