2.1 Who are the Asian Peranakans?

Asian Peranakans: A Historical Background

The Asian Peranakan: ‘Asian’ is a familiar enough term to most, but what of ‘Peranakan’? In its simplest form, the Peranakans are a people in South-East Asia, who have a culture that is a blend of influences from several ethnic and regional cultures, akin to a spice mix.

The word ‘Peranakan’ is derived from the Malay/Indonesian word ‘anak’ which means ‘child’, and specifically refers to the descendants of intermarriage between an indigenous person from the Malay Archipelago and an immigrant (usually Chinese or Indian).

The regional and seasonal monsoon winds have brought traders back and forth across the area for over a thousand years, with busy ships laden with Chinese porcelains and silks as well as spices from the Malay archipelago (modern-day Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia) and India, plying the routes from China to the Straits of Malacca and onward to India, and then back again. Trading posts became semi-permanent settlements with merchants of various countries. Indian and Chinese businessmen interacted daily with the indigenous peoples of the Malay Archipelago, and what was exchanged went far beyond the barter trade and goods of the marketplace. The peoples of these settlements intermarried and absorbed elements of each other’s customs of dress, religion, speech, and, of course, food.

The exact time period in which the Peranakan melting pot began to bubble is a matter of debate, but these traders are recorded as settling in the coastal towns of what is now Malaysia as well as Java and Sumatra as early as the 14th century. They emerge distinctly in the 16th and 17th centuries as descendants of the early Chinese and Indian immigrants who settled in the Malay Archipelago and took native Malay women as wives or concubines.

The earliest to arrive were the South Indians (generally from Tamil Nadu) who settled in the Malacca Sultanate in the 15th century, marrying local wives of Malay or Chinese descent, giving rise to the Chetti Malacca community, notable for their eclectic mix of Indian, Chinese, and Malay heritages. South Chinese (Hokkiens from Fujian, Cantonese, Hakkas and Teochews from Canton) from Ming Dynasty China (14th to 17th centuries) did the same, giving us the Peranakan Chinese, also called Baba or Nyonya (more will be said about this later). Similar intermarriages happened with Arabs and Thais along the trade routes. Communities were to be found at Malacca and Penang in Malaya, Singapore, Medan and Bandung in the Indonesian archipelago, in Southern Thailand at Phuket and Ranong, and even as far off as the Philippines, Burma, and Macao.

These Malay wives ran their households, as was traditional for Asian societies, with their native customs and mores. It was inevitable that these Malay wives who ruled the kitchen would have initially cooked their own dishes, but adapted with Chinese and Indian elements, and similarly cooked Chinese and Indian dishes with their own distinctly local twists.

With the arrival of the Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, and eventually British colonial powers in South-East Asia, the Peranakans, who by this time were very much a local community, eagerly experimented with and embraced new influences from the lands now more interconnected – Thailand, Burma (now Myanmar), Britain, Holland, Spain, and Portugal.

Speaking mostly Baba Malay at home, a unique creole dialect of the Malay language peppered with words from Chinese and other languages, the Peranakans, now also referred to as the ‘Straits born’ after the British gave the name ‘Straits Settlements’ to the grouping of Malacca, Penang, and Singapore, often sent their children to the newly opened English and Dutch schools, meaning that later generations spoke fluent English or Dutch. This led to the Peranakans being perceived as racially neutral. As such, they were uniquely placed to be traders and middlemen between not only the various Asian communities, but also with the British and Dutch.

With the withdrawal of the colonial powers and rise of the South-East Asian nation-states, the mixed heritage of the Peranakan peoples has often been difficult to categorise in what are sometimes sharply drawn definitions of race and ethnicity. While Peranakan language and culture has receded in some places, it is seeing a revival in others, and enthusiastic efforts to preserve and celebrate them have borne fruit. The story of the Peranakan peoples, a unique and colourful multi-cultural mélange, has always been marked by openness to adapt and reinvent, and with the increased pace of globalisation, may yet have many more interesting chapters to be written.

Where are the Asian Peranakans?

South-East Asia has always been a crossroads for maritime trade and commerce, and the earliest records of Indian influence in the region date to the period of the Indianised Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms as early as the 4th century, first in Java and Sumatra, and then in the Indo-China region. Chinese records indicate that Chinese began settling in the Malay Archipelago as early as the 10th century, but a large influx did not occur until the Ming emperors reopened Chinese-Malay trade relations in the 15th century. Did significant intermarriage occur in the earlier periods? Unfortunately historical records do not indicate.

The first reliable accounts of the Peranakan peoples as a distinct community come from the Malacca Sultanate (13th to 16th centuries), which was a fabulously rich trading port, with a sizable and influential population of Tamil traders from South India. The arrival of the Chinese to the Malacca Sultanate is as much a matter of legend as it is of historical fact. Malacca was a vassal state of Ming China, we know that the eunuch Admiral Cheng Ho (Zheng He) visited Malacca during his expeditions. Local legends tell that a princess, Hang Li Po, was sent as a bride by the Ming Emperor to the Malacca sultan and her retinue included some 500 Chinese junior nobles and servants, who all settled in Malacca, giving rise to the Peranakan Chinese.

The coming of the British and Dutch to South-East Asia brought not only new industries, but also brought the Peranakans to new places. British rule in Malaya brought the Peranakans to Singapore and Penang. Those in Dutch-controlled areas spread to Bandung, Batavia (now Jakarta), Medan, Tanggerang, and various other places in Java, Sumatra, and Borneo (now Kalimantan). Indentured workers from China also came to these places, where the majority married local slave wives of Javanese, Sumatran, Bugis, Batak, Balinese, or Nias origin.

The Peranakan populations of all these places were fluid and tightly knit, and migration was commonplace, with the result that there was a high degree of cultural similarity between the Peranakans of various localities in the region of what is now Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. Communities also hail from the Philippines, Thailand, Myanmar and Macao.

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