Introduction / History
Peranakan is a term used for the descendants of late 15th and 16th-century Chinese immigrants to the Nusantara region during the Colonial era. It applies especially to the ethnic Chinese populations of the British Straits Settlements of Malaya and the Dutch-controlled island of Java and other locations, who have adopted partially or in full Nusantara customs to be somewhat assimilated into the local communities. They are the elites of Singapore, more loyal to the British than to China. Most have lived for generations along the straits of Malacca and not all intermarried with the local Malays. They are usually traders, the middleman of the British and the Chinese, or the Chinese and Malays, or vice versa. They almost always have the ability to speak two or more languages. In later generations, some lost the ability to speak Chinese as they became assimilated to the Malay Peninsula's culture and started to speak Malay fluently as a first or second language.
In the 15th century, some small city-states of the Malay Peninsula often paid tribute to various kingdoms such as those of China and Siam. Close relations with China were established in the early 15th century during the reign of Parameswara when Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho), a Muslim Chinese, visited Malacca and Java. According to a legend in 1459 CE, the Emperor of China sent a princess, Hang Li Po, to the Sultan of Malacca as a token of appreciation for his tribute. The nobles (500 sons of ministers) and servants who accompanied the princess initially settled in Bukit Cina and eventually grew into a class of Straits-born Chinese known as the Peranakans.
Where are they located?
Due to economic hardships at mainland China, waves of immigrants from China settled in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Some of them embraced the local customs, while still retaining some degree of their ancestral culture; they are known as the Peranakans. Peranakans normally have a certain degree of indigenous blood, which can be attributed to the fact that during imperial China, most immigrants were men who married local women. Peranakans at Tangerang, Indonesia, held such a high degree of indigenous blood that they are almost physically indistinguishable from the local population. Peranakans at Indonesia can vary between very fair to copper tan in color.
Peranakans themselves later on migrated between Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, which resulted in a high degree of cultural similarity between Peranakans in those countries. Economic / educational reasons normally propel the migration between of Peranakans between the Nusantara region (Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore), their creole language is very close to the indigenous languages of those countries, which makes adaptations a lot easier.
What are their lives like?
For political reasons Peranakans and other Nusantara Chinese are grouped as a one racial group, Chinese, with Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia becoming more adoptive of mainland Chinese culture, and Chinese in Indonesia becoming more diluted in their Chinese culture. Such things can be attributed to the policies of Bumiputera (Malaysia), mother tongue policy (Singapore) and the ban of Chinese culture during the Soeharto era in Indonesia.
Written records from the 19th and early 20th centuries show that Peranakan men usually took brides from within the local Peranakan community. Peranakan families occasionally imported brides from China and sent their daughters to China to find husbands.
Some sources claim that the early Peranakan inter-married with the local Malay/Indonesian population; this might derive from the fact that some of the servants who settled in Bukit Cina who traveled to Malacca with the Admiral from Yunnan were Muslim Chinese. Other experts, however, see a general lack of physical resemblance, leading them to believe that the Peranakan Chinese ethnicity has hardly been diluted. One notable case to back the claim is of the Peranakan community in Tangerang, Indonesia, known as Cina Benteng. Their physical look is indigenous, yet they dutifully adhere to the Peranakan customs, and most of them are Buddhist. Some Peranakan distinguish between Peranakan-Baba (those Peranakan with part Malay ancestry) from Peranakan (those without any Malay ancestry).
The language of the Peranakans, Baba Malay (Bahasa Melayu Baba), is a creole dialect of the Malay language (Bahasa Melayu), which contains many Hokkien words. It is a dying language, and its contemporary use is mainly limited to members of the older generation. English has now replaced this as the main language spoken amongst the younger generation.
In Indonesia, young Peranakans can still speak this creole language, although its use is limited to informal occasions. As is the case with many languages, young Peranakans have created new words (and lost others), so there is normally a difference in vocabulary between the older and younger generations.
The Peranakan retained most of their ethnic and religious origins (such as ancestor worship), but assimilated the language and culture of the Malays. The Nyonya's clothing, Baju Panjang (Long Dress) was adapted from the native Malay's Baju Kurung. It is worn with a batik sarong (batik wrap-around skirt) and 3 kerosang (brooches). Beaded slippers called Kasot Manek were a hand-made made with much skill and patience: strung, beaded and sewn onto canvas with tiny faceted glass beads from Bohemia (present-day Czech Republic). In modern times, glass beads from Japan are preferred. Traditional kasot manek design often have European floral subjects, with colors influenced by Peranakan porcelain and batik sarongs. They were made onto flats or bedroom slippers. But from the 1930s, modern shapes became popular and heels were added.
From the Malay influence a unique "Nyonya" cuisine has developed using typical Malay spices. Examples are Chicken Kapitan, a dry chicken curry, and Inchi Kabin, a Nyonya version of fried chicken. Pindang bandeng is a common fish soup served in Indonesia during the Chinese new year and so is a white round mooncake from Tangerang which is normally used during the Autumn Festival. Swikee Purwodadi is a peranakan dish from Purwodadi, it is a frog soup dish.
The wedding ceremony of the Peranakan is largely based on Chinese tradition, and is one of the most colorful wedding ceremonies in Malaysia and Singapore. At weddings, the Dondang Sayang, a form of extempore rhyming song in Malay sung and danced by guests at the wedding party, was a highlight. Someone would begin a romantic theme which was carried on by others, each taking the floor in turn, dancing in slow gyrations as they sang. It required quick wit and repartee and often gave rise to laughter and applause when a particularly clever phrase was sung. The melodic accents of the Baba-Nonya and their particular turns of phrase lend to the charm of this performance.
What are their beliefs?
Baba Nyonya subscribed to Chinese beliefs: Taoism, Confucianism and Chinese Buddhism, celebrated the Lunar New Year and the Lantern Festival, while adopting the customs of the land they settled in, as well as those of their colonial rulers. There are traces of Portuguese, Dutch, British, Malay and Indonesian influences in Baba culture. A certain number of Baba Nonya families were and still are, Catholic. Most Peranakans are not Muslim, and have retained the traditions of ancestor worship of the Chinese, though some converted to Christianity.
What are their needs?
Peranakan culture is disappearing in Malaysia and Singapore. Without colonial British support for their perceived racial neutrality, government policies in both countries following independence from the British have resulted in the assimilation of Peranakans back into mainstream Chinese culture. In Singapore, the Peranakans are classified as ethnically Chinese, so they receive formal instruction in Mandarin Chinese as a second language (in accordance with the "Mother Tongue Policy") instead of Malay. In Malaysia, the standardization of Malay as Bahasa Melayu — required for all ethnic groups — has led to a disappearance of the unique characteristics of Baba Malay.