This is the museum’s first large-scale exhibition tracing historical trade links across the Pacific that connected Asia to the Americas and Europe. Featuring over 140 objects spanning the 16th to the 20th centuries, the exhibition allows visitors to discover how the movement of people, goods, and ideas through the Philippines and Mexico created a distinctive cultural and artistic heritage that was shared between seemingly distant regions. Looking at Manila as a precursor of Singapore, the exhibition also reflects on the unique qualities of the blended society and highlights the impact and importance of port cities on global affairs.

The Manila Acapulco Trade

The Manila Acapulco trade began early in the era of exploration and early globalisation through trade, bringing new contacts along with the exchange of cultures and ideas. Dennis Carr writes in the catalogue Made in the Americas (MFA, 2015) that within decades after the Spanish conquest, Mexico had become a hub of global commerce, working as a linchpin between Asia and Europe in the early 16th century. This early Asian trade greatly helped the colonial Americas to flourish, producing an extraordinary array of goods for its citizens to enjoy. It allowed the elite and merchants to surround themselves with a mix of exotic goods alongside European decorations to show their status and power’. The goods originating from Asian ports were imported in enormous quantities by Spanish and Portuguese traders. As Carr cites, ‘By 1770 some 70 percent of household inventories in Boston recorded some type of imported porcelain’.

Spanish Ships Bound for The Philippines

In 1565, the first Spanish ships sailed from the recently founded colony of the Philippines bound for Acapulco on the Pacific coast in Mexico. More were to follow and by 1573 regular trade commenced with the two port cities, establishing the route that would be known as Galéon de Manila or Nao de China, with the ships sailing annually with the trade winds. This trade would last almost 250 years. For the Spanish, Manila provided a gateway into the regional trading networks of East and Southeast Asian, a market that was first dominated by Dutch and Portuguese traders and the by the British East India Company in the 17th century. From the port of Acapulco goods were shipped overland to Mexico City where they were traded and either consumed by the domestic market or sent onwards to the east-coast port of Veracruz, bound for Spain, or transported inland to the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru.

Views of Manila

In the exhibition exploring the Manila Galleon trade, a 17th-century chest from the Philippines depicting a view of Manila, reflects this early trade. The travelling chest conserves one of the oldest extant view of the city, showing its walled town facing the sea and land, surrounded by water – the mouth of the Pasig River. The early city had three bastions at the major corners of the town and shows densely clustered houses and churches that had been established on the opposite banks of the river. Many stylistic details seem to link to the probability that it was by a Chinese painter, perhaps living in Manila. Figures in Ming-dynasty clothing stroll about a plaza (seen on the lower right), while some are on horseback accompanied by attendants holding parasols, and Chinese ships are depicted floating in the habour. To add to the Chinese connection, an area of thatched roof houses at the end of the waterway is labelled Parian de los Sangleyes, referring to the market quarter where the Chinese (sangleys) were forced to live.

Chinese Export Porcelains

Chinese export porcelains also had a sizeable market in Mexico. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to order specific pieces from China and most of them were decorated in a rich blue with both royal and Catholic imagery. During this same late 16th-century period, the Spanish also began to commission porcelains from China, including some destined specifically for Mexico. Their international route of trade started in Canton and continued to Manila, Acapulco, Mexico City, Vera Cruz, Cartagena, Havana, and home to Cadiz.

There is evidence that Mexico was also receiving Japanese goods during this early period of trade, brought to the Americas by the Manila galleons. Japanese folding screens (byobu) were first brought to Mexico from Japan and China in the 17/18th century and quickly became coveted luxury items, which went on to influence creations of local Mexican versions (biombos). These screens reproduced local scenes of daily life, heroic deeds, allegories and city landscapes to feed the demand for exotic goods.

Hasekura Tsunenaga

A striking portrait in the exhibition is of Hasekura Tsunenaga, who was of noble ancestry and from the samurai class. From 1613-1620, Hasekura was the head of the Keicho era (1596-1615) embassy to Pope Paul V, in Italy, and this painting was commissioned to celebrate the event. On his way back to Japan, Hasekura and his companions retraced their route across New Spain in 1619, sailing from Acapulco to Manila before sailing north to Japan in 1620. The figures in the background point to his Christian faith, a rarity in Japan at the time. Christianity was first introduced into Japan in the 15th century by the Portuguese, but Japan had begun to suppress the Christian faith and restrict foreign movement in the country. This turbulent period resulted in the country turning inward and becoming isolationist. However, Hasekura is remembered as the first Japanese ambassador in the Americas and in Spain, despite the other less well-known and less well-documented missions he concluded preceding this voyage. Japan’s next embassy to Europe would not occur for another 200 years.

Elsewhere in Manila Galleon, coins, chests, and other objects show how silver carried by the galleons became the first global currency. A 17th-century chest in the exhibition shows a most interesting aspect of this trade – the inlay decoration features the foundation myth of Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Mexica (Aztecs). After independence, this became the coat of arms of Mexico. The fall-front cabinet is European in form, but was made in the Philippines, with local woods, bone inlay, and silver fittings. The beast-mask and paw-shaped feet at the corners, and lion heads’ drawer pulls, are similar to features on Chinese furniture, so this might be the work of southern Chinese craftsmen – or Filipinos influenced by those works.

The Silver Trade

Silver was critical to the trade which created enormous demand. Mined in large quantities in the Americas, it was greatly desired in China, and soon came to dominate trade in Asia. The metal was minted into the Spanish dollar, which became the basis of many of today’s currencies, including the Straits dollar (now the Malaysian ringgit and Singapore dollar), and the US dollar.

The final section of Manila Galleon offers a captivating look at how the galleon trade influenced artistic expression in fashion, textiles, and accessories well into the 19th century. During this period, Mexico and the Philippines sought to assert their national identity through a reinvention of traditional fashions. Highlights include embroidered silk shawls known as the mantones de Manila (Manila shawls), which became popular in Spain, the Philippines, and the Spanish Americas as a fashionable accessory worn by women, particularly flamenco dancers. Imported from China through Manila and brought to Spain and Europe, the embroidered patterns influenced the Tehuana ensemble, a distinctive form of Mexican dress adopted by celebrated artist Frida Kahlo.

Manila Galleon: From Asia to the Americas offers reflections on the legacy of the galleon trade, which continues to be felt through the languages, cuisines, and art of the countries involved in the trade. The exhibition explores Manila’s role as an entrepot and central node within a global trade network. Asian commodities such as porcelain and textiles flowed across the Pacific to the Americas through Manila, and likewise, American goods such as silver and chocolate reached Asia from Acapulco in Mexico. Along with these goods came cultural exchange, the legacy of which is still palpable in the material culture of the Philippines and Mexico today.

Manila Galleon, is on show until 17 March, 2024, Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore,