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By Magdeline Lee
Fourth year student, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences
BABA HOUSE INTERN: Ms Magdeline Lee, fourth year student majoring in History, interned at Baba House from May to August 2010
CULTURAL EXPOSURE: Delegates who participated in the 8th ASEAN Youth Cultural Forum in June 2010 being brought on a tour of Baba House Baba House is a heritage house which used to be home to a wealthy Peranakan Chinese family. Nestled among a row of quaint shophouses along Neil Road, it is currently managed by the NUS Museum.
When our history lecturers proposed several internship positions for us, I recalled my visit to the Baba House a few semesters back and being captivated by its nostalgic charms. I was pleasantly surprised to spot it on the list and applied for an internship there from May to August 2010.
On my first day, I was briefed by the manager of the house who was also my internship supervisor. She shared how the Baba House, being a heritage house, differed from a museum. Hour-long guided tours introduced visitors to the settings, artefacts, history and restoration process of the house. As an intern, I needed to familiarise myself with daily operations, learn to be a guide and eventually review the docent training syllabus.
While Peranakan Chinese culture was not something foreign to me, I did not have extensive knowledge of it. In the first few weeks, I discovered that the Baba House was not as obscure as I thought. There was a steady stream of visitors who came for different reasons. Some had a specialised interest in Peranakan culture or restorative works; others were piqued by curiosity. Tourists and students were among the common visitors as well.
In the beginning, I led tours only on the second floor of the three-storey Baba House. As I gradually took on larger parts of the tours, I was struck by the organic nature of guiding tours, for which there were few hard and fast rules. Not only must you be prepared with enough knowledge, the motivations of the visitors must be considered so that the right amount of information was presented effectively. I was often made aware of this on the job. The feedback and questions raised by the visitors honed my guiding skills and increased my understanding of the Baba House. To further equip myself, I read research materials and hunted for library books.
I appreciated having the flexibility to navigate my own learning process during the internship. There were certainly many areas for exploration that went beyond merely understanding of the Chinese Peranakan. There were also the restorative process of old houses as well as its daily maintenance, and practical aspects such as catering to visitors’ requests.
This learning experience not only gave me ample room to decide the direction and range of my research. I was also able to hone my independent thinking skills as I assessed myself on what and how much I wanted to learn. The fluid nature of a guide’s job also sharpened my mental agility in handling unexpected situations. All these skills seem easily acquirable. Yet we often do not realise how sorely we lack them till we encounter circumstances which put them to the test. The internship was an invaluable opportunity to practice these skills, which would prove to be especially useful upon one’s foray into the challenging working world.
I also had the opportunity to interact with people from all walks of life, from whom I had heard countless snippets of interesting information. For example, one foreign student commented that the air wells – which we often associate with Southeast Asian shophouses and think of as having been inspired by courtyards in Chinese homes – can also be found in ancient Roman architecture.
During my internship, several visitors had remarked that it must be wonderful to work in such a charming place. Indeed, I cannot agree more.
24 September 2010