There’s no one else in the world quite like the Peranakans. Tracing their ancestry back to 15th-century Malacca – a little port town that’s a marriage of Malay, Chinese, as well as Dutch, Portuguese and British colonial influences – these vibrant people have created a wonderfully flamboyant identity for themselves through myriad clothing styles, performing arts and culinary customs.
There’s no finer place to explore the multitudinous hues of the Straits Chinese than in Singapore. Here’s how you can taste, wear and dance to their many intriguing cultural nuances.
1. Step into a conserved residence
The family unit is the most important facet of the Straits Chinese community, and their homes are their pride and joy. Stucco dragons and other exotic creatures are splayed across facades, flanked by glazed tiles, stained glass, family emblems and ornately carved doors. Intricate mosaics are laid out across the floors.
Joo Chiat, Emerald Hill and Blair Road are enclaves of beautifully preserved Peranakan buildings – multicoloured colonial-era shophouses moulded by Asian and Western architecture styles. To see houses decorated with antiques from the early 20th century, step inside conserved residences The Intan (above) in Joo Chiat and Baba House on Neil Road. Entry to both are by appointment only.
2. Learn about its history
Housed in a historic school built in 1912, the Peranakan Museum (below) spans three levels. Each section interprets the ethnic group’s most distinct aspects, including a recreated traditional matrimonial chamber, and the largest known example of Peranakan beadwork – a tablecloth featuring more than a million glass beads.
Past exhibitions include ‘Great Peranakans: Fifty Remarkable Lives’, a larger-than-life illustration of men and women who have shaped Singapore through art, business and public service for almost two centuries. Intimate portraits – such as those of the nation’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew; Tan Tock Seng, who built the country’s first hospital for the poor; and women’s rights advocate Seow Peck Leng – are celebrations of Singaporean identities.
3. Tuck into traditional dishes
Peranakan cuisine involves painstaking preparations – from the pounding of rempah (blended pastes of chillies, garlic, shallots and other ingredients) to the slow simmering of stews and curries. The result? Dishes imbued with Malay, Chinese and Portuguese flavours.
4. Get a customised sarong kebaya
Female Peranakan wear is a dazzling fashion parade, woven with intricate embroidery and dripping with elaborate beadwork. Nonyas (Peranakan women) cut arresting silhouettes in sarong kebayas: their signature three-piece outfit of a sheer fitted blouse over a camisole and a batik sarong (cloth adorned with patterns using wax and dye). Brooches, jewellery and beaded sandals complete the look.
At Rumah Kim Choo, third-generation scion Raymond Wong specialises in designing and custom-tailoring Peranakan fashion. He leads a team of seamstresses in stitching together intricate details by hand – a laborious undertaking that is a rarity today. To cater to younger customers, Wong updates his designs to include Swarovski crystals and modern cuts so kebaya tops can be matched with everyday clothes. Visitors can also learn the fine art of beading (below) at workshops he conducts.
5. Watch Peranakan wayang
Peranakan wayang (theatre) began as a mainstay of social life where music-filled parties unfolded in parlours and clubs. Mainly using Peranakan patois and embracing cultural stereotypes, certain tropes are now instant hallmarks of the community’s art form – such as female impersonators and melodramatic family dramas.
Gunong Sayang Association’s forte is the dondang sayang, featuring two singers who compose and sing witty four-line verses back and forth, set to a small orchestra of violins, accordions and guitars. The troupe also stages plays (above) and traditional Malay dances throughout the year.
Straits Chinese Slang
English, Malay and Hokkien languages have been stirred into a rojak (a salad, or a term to connote a mishmash) of Peranakan patois that have made their way into daily Singaporean speak.
Aksi borak – Show-off
Alamak – Exclamation of surprise
Amboi – Oh my goodness!
Bibik – Polite address for older women
Cakap – Speak
Chiak – Eat
Gabra – Confused
Jalan-jalan – Go out
Kek Sim – Broken-hearted
Leceh – Troublesome
– TEXT BY DESIREE KOH
PHOTOS: VEE CHIN, DARREN CHANG, COURTESY OF PERANAKAN MUSEUM, GUNONG SAYANG ASSOCIATION, CANDLENUT
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.