McNally School
of Fine Arts

Theresa Tan

Theresa Tan

MA Asian Art Histories
2019 — 2022

Theresa is a leader in change management practices in the Asia region, and her interest in the study of art histories is in how artists respond to change. As a general committee member of The Peranakan Association of Singapore (TPAS), Theresa’s research interest is in modern and contemporary Peranakan art and how artists respond to Peranakan economic, social and political environments in history, beyond the Nyonya material culture. Theresa’s background is in computer science, and she hopes to do further research into the impact of artificial intelligence, digital art and NFTs in art history.

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Thesis abstract

Countering stereotypes of the nyonya in popular culture: Photographs of Peranakan women in the Straits Settlements from 1844 to 1942

In popular culture, the young Peranakan girl is frequently projected as powerless and submissive, while the elderly Peranakan woman is stereotyped as the all-powerful family matriarch. Narrow tropes of the nyonya identity as circulated by successful cultural productions such as the multi-award winning play Emily of Emerald Hill, arguably undermine the multifaceted identities of Peranakan women as historical subjects.

Juxtaposing the fictional life of the protagonist of Emily of Emerald Hill with historical photographs and records of the nyonya, this thesis looks at the social history and identities of the nyonya beyond her domestic space. Applying semiotic theory, this thesis deconstructs signifiers of meaning towards reading identity projections in photographs taken in the Straits Settlements between 1844 and 1942, and concludes that contrary to popular culture’s imagination of the stereotypical nyonya, historical photographs enact such a varied range of identities, including the anomalous and ambiguous ‘naked’, ‘cross-dressing’, and ‘not-so-nyonya’ nyonyas, that call for greater attention and examination not only in academic disciplines, but also through artistic and cultural productions.