2.3 Regional Differences

Asian Peranakans of the Region

As members of the mercantile class, the Asian Peranakans moved and migrated to places with opportunities around the Straits Settlements of Malacca, Penang, and Singapore. Families in all three of these places were often also related by intermarriage, facilitating business links built on the networks of relations and friends.

In addition, the emphasis on Western education meant that Asian Peranakans were particularly employable in the British civil service and as middlemen. Postings to various places in the Straits Settlements and other parts of British Malaya often resulted in civil servants moving their immediate families to new locations, widely planting Asian Peranakan communities where none had existed before. Craftsmen and artisans were also in demand all over, and their populations similarly followed regional demand.

The same process happened with the Asian Peranakans in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Both places also received large numbers of workers for the new industries of mining, agriculture, hospitality, and restaurants.

Where Did Asian Peranakans Settle?

Trade and commerce, civil service employment, and the demand for artisans brought Asian Peranakans to various places throughout South-East Asia. 

In the Dutch East Indies, Asian Peranakans are found particularly at Bandung and Batavia in central and east Java, at Medan and the Bangka Belitung islands along the western coast of Sumatra, the Riau Archipelago, western Borneo, as well as Macassar and other places important for trade and colonial administration in Dutch-ruled Indonesia. 

In Malaysia, apart from the oldest communities in Malacca and Penang, notable communities may be found in Kuala Lumpur and most major cities. Singapore, once part of Malaysia, also has a significant Peranakan population with a thriving culture.

The Chinoys or Mestizos of the Philippines, being the descendants of intermarriage between the Chinese and natives in the Spanish colonial period, may well be counted as Peranakans.

Thailand also has its Thai-Chinese Asian Peranakan community, centred on Phuket Island and Ranong, both in the south west coast, along the Andaman sea. Peranakans were also to be found in Hat Yai, a city in Southern Thailand just over the border with Malaysia’s Kelantan State. These are the result of migrations in the 19th century as Peranakan merchants sought to expand their spheres of influence. 

Asian Peranakans and their influences are found as far away as Burma (Myanmar) and Macao. Burma’s Peranakan community has its origins in rich overseas Chinese in Rangoon (now Yangon) marrying wives from Penang’s Peranakan community, giving rise to a local population with close ties to the Penang, while Macao’s cultural tapestry includes foods with distinctly South-East Asian elements and even their local Patua, a Portuguese creole, retains words of Malay origin.

This course will focus on Asian Peranakan food as found in Singapore, which exhibits a distinctly local take on the multicultural shared culinary heritage of Asian Peranakans all across South-East Asia.

The Effect of Migration on Asian Peranakan Culture

While there are many shared elements of culture across the wide geographical area in which Asian Peranakans may be found, such as the wearing of the kebaya and beaded slippers by ladies, use of a mixed creole language, fusion cuisine, and other hybrid customs, true to their spirit of adaptation, Asian Peranakans have always taken local elements and added them to their multi-cultural heritage. 

The Chetti Malacca (Peranakan Indian) culture is exemplified in their language – a seamless blend of Indian, Malay, and Chinese influence. While predominantly Hindu, they too have adopted the Malay language, even using the Chetti creole for Hindu prayers which other Hindus perform in Sanskrit. Their dress reflects Tamil, Bugis, Acehnese, Javanese, and Bugis influences. Their food shows a strong Indian sensibility in their use of spices and flavours.

The Jawi Peranakans, once a major community in the Malay world, were Straits-born Muslims of mixed Indian (especially Tamil) and Malay parentage but have now largely assimilated into Malay society. They developed a fluid identity vis-à-vis their host society, liberally adopting Malay language and customs, while retaining their preference for southern Indian cuisine and dress. As with other Peranakan subcultures, oscillating between their hybrid cultural identities was partly a source of their communal strength. 

Baba-Nyonyas exhibit much variation across the spread, with those of Penang, Phuket, and Rangoon having notably Thai elements, particularly in their use of lemongrass and sour-sweet flavours in cooking. Thai Peranakans, naturally, have a much stronger Thai influence in their culture, mostly speaking Thai in modern times, but retain their architecture, family customs, and cuisine, albeit with a distinctive Thai twist. 

Despite the Thai culinary elements, the Penang Peranakans speak mostly Hokkien, in contrast to those of Malacca and Singapore, who speak Baba Malay (and English in the present day).

The Asian Peranakans of Indonesia fit in well, as Indonesia has long been a place of many cultures that influence other and cross-fertilise each other. A greater use of Indonesian batik in fashion, a predominance of Indonesian flavours in cooking, and a vocabulary containing words from the local languages are marks of inculturation. Peranakan culture has influenced even Indonesian mainstream culture itself, with many food items coming from Peranakan roots. The Indonesian/Malay word ‘kuih’ (also spelt ‘kueh’ or kue’), meaning a bite-sized dessert or snack food, is of Hokkien/Teochew origin.

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