Discovering Peranakan culture

When I bought my ferry ticket from Thailand Koh Muk to Malaysia Langkawi, I had in mind a two-week insight into Malaysia before moving on to the next destination.

Little did I know then that this country would captivate me to such a degree that I would extend my stay beyond 6 weeks, and in so doing discover one of the most colourful cultures of south-east Asia – the Peranakans.

I had previously heard of ‘Peranakan’, ‘Baba-Nyonya’, ‘Straits-born Chinese’, not realising that they are all one and the same. Born from the marriage between a Chinese immigrant gentleman – the ‘Baba’, and a local Malay lady – the ‘Nyonya’, the Peranakans were significantly more than the union of two cultures. They rose during the British colonial era when the trading port cities of Penang, Melaka and Singapore were bustling with foreign traders and immigrants. At the time not all Malays were of Muslim faith and marriage to a Malay did not require conversion to Islam. The right context was set for the Peranakans – they considered themselves to be neither Chinese nor Malay and instead forged a new identity altogether centred around a melting pot of Chinese, Malay and Western traditions, beliefs and lifestyle. It was this vibrant and eclectic fusion that captured my attention and tickled my curiosity on my very first encounter with them.

Among the rare few to be educated in English schools, Peranakan men were fluent in the English language. This gave them a marked advantage over their fellow countrymen and allowed them to do lucrative business with the West and move in high society. This close connection somewhat influenced their lifestyle, at least in appearance. In the Peranakan houses I visited, one can observe the unusual presence of rectangular dining tables and imported English crockery. Building materials used for their dwellings such as the ironworks and floor tiles were also imported from Scotland and England respectively. Yet, despite the Western inclinations, the Peranakans remained deeply Asian at heart.

They followed the Baba’s religion which more often than not was Buddhism, and ancestor worshipping retained a sacred place in their culture. I was fascinated by the numerous Chinese symbolisms that abounded in the design of their houses and clothing – bats, symbol of good fortune carved in furniture pieces, mantelpieces and covings; phoenixes and peonies, symbols of prosperity and beauty, present in a variety of decorative artwork, crockery designs and embroideries.

Typical entrance hall to Peranakan houses. This is where the head of the family would receive his guests. Not allowed into this room, the women would discreetly peek through the gaps of the carved wooden panels.
Ancestor worshipping is a core part of the Peranakan culture, with altars always occupying a prominent spot in the house. Surprisingly the central picture above the altar is that of the Nyonya, not the Baba as one would expect in a patriarchal era.
Long dining tables decorated western style with English crockery. Note the large mirror on the right – an identical mirror is also placed to the left of this room and allowed the patriarch head of the table to discreetly monitor entries and exits to the house without having to leave the table or lean sideways: this was the CCTV of those times!
The inner courtyard, typical architectural design for shophouse-style houses, gives an inside-outside feel, allowing for ventilation and lighting.
This is a games table for the Peranakan ladies. The dark brown drawer on the side of the table was used to store the betel leaves which the ladies would chew while playing and chatting with their friends.

The Peranakans even developed their own gastronomy. Though containing elements of Chinese cuisine, Nyonya food owes its complex flavours to some of the basic ingredients of Malay cuisine – shallots, chilli, galangal (wild ginger), turmeric, belacan (fermented shrimp paste), assam, among others. While the dishes may also recall subtle hints of Thai or Indonesian flavours depending on whether Nyonya food is enjoyed in Penang or Melaka/Singapore, the aromas and ‘savoir-faire’ remain unique and a tremendous source of pride to the Peranakans. Nyonya food is unfortunately not as widely known to the world. I had only once previously tasted it back in London when I barely understood what it was all about. Over ten years on, while on this discovery journey, at a family restaurant in Melaka, I had a culinary epiphany.

As I write this article, I can still taste the ‘Pai-Tee’, a crispy top-hat shaped cone filled with spicy sweet vinegar-pickled crunchy vegetables that exploded with flavour and texture at the first mouthful. There and then, I surrendered to avid indulgence!

Scrumptiously crispy Pai Tee
Gulai Tumis – sole fish served in a spicy and sweet/sour tamarind gravy

Food aside, the Peranakan language and ladies’ fashion were equally awe-inspiring. The former unsurprisingly came into being from a combination of words borrowed from Chinese Hokkien and Malay. For example, Peranakans called their long dining tables ‘Tok Panjang’, ‘Tok’ meaning ‘table’ in Hokkien and ‘Panjang’ meaning ‘long’ in Malay Bahasa. Dress-wise, Peranakan women were particularly elegant in their long sarong and Kebaya blouse. The Peranakan Kebaya evolved in style over time to become the epitome of refinement with its beautiful intricate embroidery, often on silk fabric.

From the Kebaya, it was actually possible for men to identify a woman’s marital status – long blouses (knee length or even longer) made of opaque materials for married women and short and slightly see-through for the single ladies. The Peranakan wear was paired with hand-beaded shoes and always adorned with accessories: a three-piece brooch (known as ‘kerongsang’) used in lieu of buttons to secure the blouse opening, belts, and anklets. The materials from which these accessories were made (the most expensive were in gold and silver and contained precious stones) indicated the wealth of the family.

Interestingly, just as I thought I had a clear understanding of the Peranakans, while travelling to the east of the Malaysian peninsula to the Terengganu state, I encountered a different, albeit smaller branch of this culture. I learnt that some descendants of male Chinese immigrants who married Malaysia-born Chinese women (as opposed to Malay women) also called themselves ‘Peranakans’. They share undeniable similarities with the mainstream Peranakans but in contrast, are staunchly proud of their Chinese origins and identify themselves as Chinese. In view of the variance in background, including the fact that they originate relatively far from the Straits of Malacca, they cannot be called ‘Baba-Nyonya’ or ‘Straits-born Chinese’.

Further information on this branch was painfully sparse – I only found one small private museum in Kuala Terengganu, funded and curated by the owner Mr Chen himself in his spare time, that provided me with some insights, including exclusive access to unique and beautiful examples of Peranakan ladies’ wear, all skilfully sewn and embroidered by his late mother. Mr Chen admitted with a touch of sadness that his museum would likely only exist in his lifetime, having no-one in his family to continue his work. While I was dazzled by the grandeur and opulence of the mainstream Peranakans, I was deeply moved by Mr Chen’s humility and can only sincerely wish that his invaluable legacy will survive.

The Peranakan house in Kuala Terengganu, with typical shophouse architecture.

The challenges of survival are ever-present for the Peranakans. The culture is quickly diluting and at the brink of completely disappearing for a number of reasons, the main ones being that (a) a large number of Peranakan descendants have left Malaysia to settle abroad and/or have married outside of the Peranakan community; (b) conversion to Islam is today required by Malaysian law if one is to marry Malays; and (c) Peranakans are no longer recognised as an ethnic group in their own right in Malaysia and are now officially categorised as ‘Chinese’.

While change may be part of the natural evolution of modern society, it highlights the immense historical value of all the Peranakan museums and historical houses in south east Asia, the urgent need to preserve and share this precious cultural legacy, and the critical relevance of the Nyonya gastronomy as one of the last surviving elements of the Peranakan culture.

My journey discovering this rich and vibrant culture has been a key highlight of my trip in Malaysia and I am so grateful for all the people I have met who were willing to impart their knowledge with palpable passion!

This article was written by Jade Ah-Hen; photos taken by Marvin Tse Ve Koon.

Jade is a travel blogger who has taken a year off work to travel in Asia with her husband.

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Instagram:  @lets.go_now and @lets.eat_now

Featured image by Firdaus Roslan on Unsplash


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