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The Paranakan Culture in Singapore

Bride and groom during tea ceremony.

Bride and groom during tea ceremony.

Bride and groom during tea ceremony. Nonya kuehs. Bride and groom during tea ceremony. Peranakan teapot

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  • Image © 2001 Singapore History Museum

An economic marvel, commercial hub of Southeast Asia, efficient and corruption-free government and number one airport in the world; these are usually the images that appears to the minds of frequent travelers in Singapore. Lesser known are the unique ethnic cultures that form the major ingredients of what the entire Singaporean experience is all about.

The Malays, Chinese and Indians collectively make up the social and cultural pillars of Singapore. These are by no means cultures of anonymity and so much is already known that it does not warrant saying more. I intend to introduce to you the Peranakan culture, a truly unique and colorful culture that has never ceased to fascinate but is sadly fast losing foothold in the country to modernization and assimilation with other mainstream cultures.

The Peranakan culture is essentially a cultural blend of mainly Chinese, Malay and some European descent, very often bearing the best of each. The Peranakan community evolved some two to three hundred years ago when Chinese traders established trade ties with the locals from the Malay Peninsula, including Singapore. Cross-cultural relationships and marriages were natural by-products when these traders married local Malay women. Peranakan, which means, "locally born" in the Malay language, was to be the name of subsequent generations of Chinese-Malays. To Westerners, they are commonly known as "Straits-born Chinese".

The early Peranakans were indeed a well-off group of people in social standing and wealth. They classified themselves as different from the common Chinese who were mainly laborers in Malaya. But as more Chinese merchants rooted themselves in the Malayan Peninsula, the Peranakans began to assimilate into the Chinese culture and thus diluting the rich heritage established by the early Peranakans. Among these are the language and beliefs. The Malay component was diluted to such an extent that the modern day Peranakans are chiefly Chinese in look and identity.

The original Peranakans were mainly from Malacca, many whom later migrated to Penang and Singapore. Though essentially the same, they are distinguishable by the nuances in styles and languages that they use. Peranakans in Singapore have developed a language called Baba Malay, essentially a Malay vernacular. Male Peranakans are known as Baba and the females Nonya. The latter has been affectionately used in describing Peranakan cuisines and fashion.

However, as more Chinese immigrants flooded in at the turn of the century, Baba Malay rapidly lost out to the Chinese dialects instead. The Hokkien dialect quickly became the adopted language of the new generations. Another reason for the demise of Baba Malay was due to the improper sentence structure and grammar used. The language contradicts the correct structure of the official Malay language and thus finds no official use other than within the Peranakan social circle. As Singapore progressed, Mandarin and English being official languages have predominantly replaced the Baba Malay, even the Hokkien dialect was not spared.

Most of the early Peranakans retained their ancestry beliefs in Buddhism and Taoism. They worshiped their ancestors identical to the ways that Chinese practiced. However, during British colonization of Singapore in the 19th century, many Peranakans together with the Chinese embraced the "foreign faith" in Christianity. Many of the Peranakan rituals and ceremonies were against the Christian faith and were hence not observed anymore. As more of the community received and acquired the trappings of the West, their beliefs slowly eroded and deemed outdated.

Kebayas and Sarongs are the popular costumes of Nonyas and Babas. Though of Malay origins, these are often embroidered with Chinese motifs to distinguish from their Malay counterparts. Golden hairpins are also worn by the Nonyas on a daily basis.

The Peranakans also created a whole new repertoire of exquisite ornaments and jewelry. However, the most popular costume pieces among Nonyas and others alike, are the colorful beaded shoes and handbags. This painstaking work that uses mainly the needle and thread requires months and years of practice to attain perfection.

Being the more affluent group of people in the country at that time, most Peranakans in Singapore lived in colonial styled bungalows and terrace houses. The style of the houses were extremely similar to those of Chinese origin, with much emphases placed on the interior decorations and furniture. The furniture is crafted mainly from Chinese Red- or Blackwood with intricate designs unique to their culture. Most elaborate of these are the bridal four-post bed that formed the heart of the bridal chamber, where the wedding ceremonies were carried out.

Porcelain is another important part of Peranakan households. Most of these wares have intricate motifs of flowers, butterflies and phoenixes in bright yellow and rose pink, unlike typical Chinese porcelain. Many of these porcelain pieces have become collector's items.

Peranakan or Nonya cooking, as it is more affectionately known, best demonstrates the eclectic nature of Peranakan culture. Blending the best of Chinese and Malay cooking, the resulting cuisines are often labor-intensive to prepare but heavenly in taste.

Unlike the other parts of Peranakan culture that are lost over generations, Nonya recipes and cuisines are still very much alive and are perhaps the only Peranakan contributions that will survive modernization. This is evident, as dozens of Peranakan restaurants have sprouted all over the island city. Singapore being a food paradise does help in more ways than one to preserve this colorful aspect of Peranakan culture.

Laksa, a special dish of rice-noodles cooked in prawn and chicken curry gravy is perhaps the commonest among Nonya cooking. It can be found in almost every eatery in Singapore and is quite inexpensive. Though spicy to the unwary, connoisseurs often eat this and many other Nonya dishes with generous helping of belacan or prawn paste chili.

Coconut being an important ingredient in Nonya cooking can be found in many of the dishes. Nonya kuehs or sweets are another specialty that entices both sight and stomach. These are usually colorful rice cakes with grated coconut toppings.

The Nonyas of yester-years were known to be matriarchs of Peranakan homes. Their status at home is no less important than the social standing of the Babas in society. Their strong will and assertiveness were infamous and have inspired numerous literary creations, most famous among them being "Emily of Emerald Hill" by Stella Kon.

Today's Peranakan community still takes pride in their heritage but much has already been lost over the generations since their forefathers' time. Scholars have predicted the difficulties in straddling the modern society and the old-world charms of the Peranakans, let alone reviving what has already been lost.

Hoping that the younger generation of Peranakans would imbibe some of the rich culture and for the rest of the population to appreciate a homegrown culture, the Singapore government has taken every possible preservation effort since the 80's.

Houses bearing unique Peranakan characteristics were restored and conserved. Relentless efforts were spent in re-enacting the Peranakan experience in the Singapore History Museum as part of their permanent exhibitions. Another exhibition called The Peranakan Legacy is being held in conjunction at the Asian Civilizations Museum, with some of the exhibits on loan from prominent Peranakan families in Singapore.

Also, various associations were formed with the intention to promote networking among Peranakans. Maybe more should be done to help arrest the demise of what is left of an indeed colorful culture.

Published on 7/18/01

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