What is Peranakan?
Blended with many different ethnic groups and cultural back grounds, Singapore and Southeast Asia gave birth to an interesting Peranakan culture. Peranakan also has a different name “Baba Nonya” in Malay and Indonesian. This colourful culture arouse mainly in Singapore and Malaysia. Then, what is Peranakan? Peranakan refers to descendants of Chinese immigrants who came to Malaysia archipelago including British Malaya — now Singapore and Malaysia — and Dutch East Indies — now Indonesia. First time I arrived in Singapore, the Peranakan and their culture fascinated me because I came from a homogeneous culture that has only one ethnic group and speaks one language.
Malaysians call Peranakan “Baba Nonya”. Baba is the term for the male and Nonya is the term for the female. In fact, when you have a chance to visit Singapore or Malaysia, especially Malaysia, you will be able to spot many restaurants indicating “Nonya food”, or “Nonya cuisine”.
Since Peranakan’s ancestors came from China to Malacca Straits during the British Straits Settlements and the Dutch invasion, Peranakan Chinese are also referred as Straits Chinese. Mostly, Peranakan refer to these Straits Chinese. However, there are many different small groups of Peranakans such as Indian Hindu Peranakans, Arab/Indian Muslim Peranakans and Eurasian Peranakans having different religions and customs.
A Short History of Peranakan
Singapore Peranakan Museum is a good place to learn more about Strait Chinese. The size of the museum is very small, yet, I could more closely feel the real Peranakan life. During the Ming emperor’s era, opening up of the China-Malay trade contributed to a huge influx of Chinese to the Malay archipelago in the 15th century. Since then, Chinese traders settled in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Some of them embraced the local culture while still practicing their Chinese culture. Some have children with local women, and gave birth to the Peranakan culture.
When I showed my interest in the Peranakan culture, one of my colleagues said he was Peranakan and his surname follows the father side because of the ancestor. He added his family has a hybrid Chinese culture mixed with Malay, Muslim and Western. Normally, Peranakan people are considered as different groups from those migrated from mainland China.
In a language wise, you could also see a variety of mixture between English, Chinese, Malay and Indonesian. Besides English, the language is a mixture of a patois of Malay with a combination of Hokkien — Chinese dialect mostly used by Chinese ancestry who settled this region.
The religions evolved mainly conserving the mailman Chinese beliefs — Taoism, Confucianism, and Chinese Buddhism. Therefore, they celebrate Chinese festivals. Depending on where they settled, this Chinese culture penetrated into local culture. For example, Chinese who settled in Indonesia converted to Islam while preserving Chinese practice. It produced Peranakan Muslims. I heard many people in Singapore saying Indonesian Chinese are rich and affluent. It is because many Peranakans who converted to Islam married to aristocratic dynasties. Some Chinese accepted Christianity — Catholics, Protestants and Methodists and so forth. In Singapore, the fist Peranakan church was founded in 1894 by an Australian missionary, Sophia Blackmore. So the mixture of religion and Chinese belief is one interesting part of Peranakan culture.
Peranakan cuisine, also known as Nonya cuisine shows the most distinctive Peranakan culture. The most prominent trait of Nonya cooking is its use of various spices and coconut milk. While the regions of Penang in Malaysia uses more tamarin in food, Singapore and Malay use more coconut milk. The quintessential Peranakan dish is “Ayam Buah Keluak”. Ayam Buah Keluak is made with chicken braised in a thick, spicy tamarind gravy with buah keluak nuts. Another famous Peranakan dish is Laksa. It consists of rice noodles or rice vermicelli with chicken, prawn or fish, served in spicy soup based on either rich and spicy curry coconut milk or on sour asam (tamarind or gelugur).