In Malaysia, we came across Peranakan style cuisine also known as Nyonya Cuisine. If you were in Malaysia you probably ate one of their dishes, without even realizing it. Here we will write more about the Peranakan culture, which developed this sophisticated cuisine. So, who are the Peranakans and their Peranakan culture?
These are Southeast Asian communities that established themselves in the colonial settlements of the 16th and 17th centuries. In general, these were Chinese male immigrants who settled here. Women were restricted from leaving the mainland until the 19th century, so as a consequence, these immigrants married native women or took them as concubines.
They evolved a new culture, which was mostly a mixture of influent native cultures. The Peranakans later came to be known as the Straits Chinese. The main locations where you could find this community were trading towns like Singapore, Melaka, Penang and Indonesian island Java.
Peranakans have a great feeling for trading business and because of their connections to mainland China, it is not surprising they were appreciated by colonialists. English colonial authorities left them some freedom and did great business with them. Yes, there were high taxes, but business still did very well. Many of them had interests in commercial agriculture: pepper, gambier, nutmeg, sago, pineapple, sugar and tapioca.
Business with Westerners had a big influence on the Peranakans as they liked the lifestyle and items that showed off wealth: aVictorian furniture, Victorian tiles, styles of houses, clothing, accessories, perfumes and of course, dinner service.
The Peranakans retained most of their original ethnic and religious origins; they even celebrated Chinese lunar calendar festivals from the Taoist tradition. Certain traditional festivals were modified based on their local circumstances, as they now combine two festivals into one. Food was also sometimes different than it was in their homeland. The Peranakans in general were considered as Buddhists.
At the beginning of 20th century, many of them converted to Christianity as a trend of “being Western”. Those who didn’t convert to Christianity were a mix of Taoist and Buddhist. Regardless of their old or new faith, they continued to observe the traditions of their ancestors while at the same time adopting customs of their native land and colonialists.
The wedding ceremony of the Peranakan people is largely based on Chinese tradition and it is known as the most colorful wedding ceremony in Malaysia and Singapore and it was stretched over 12 days The highlight of the wedding party was a form of extempore rhyming song (dondang sayang), which was sung and danced by guests.
The wedding feast was commonly referred to as long table (tok panjang). As late as the 20th century, the Peranakans were known to give away or exchange their children for astrological reasons. They also believed in spirits, geomancy, horoscopes and put a great value on colors. Despite that, most of wealthy Peranakans were polygamist and their families were extensive.
Arts and Culture
The Peranakan language, sometimes referred to as Baba Malay, was a fusion of the indigenous Malay language and Hokkien, the dialect of the Fujian province in China where most of the immigrants came from. Later, the English language became important and children learned it as their second language. Baba Malay is a dying language and it is mainly spoken between the members of the older generation.
The word Peranakan is derived from Malay and Indonesian and means local-born. The menfolk were referred to as Babas and the women as Nyonyas. Those two phrases were terms of respect and are still used today.
Peranakans originally received all the education in the temples, but later they sent their children to colonial schools. By the 20th century, affluent Peranakan families sent their children for further education to England rather than China. This knowledge of the language of their colonial masters gave them a huge advantage. Babas were placed in a position to act as agents or intermediaries between colonial bureaucracy and the local population in commercial matters.
Nyonyas’ style of dressing was adapted from their native style, with Malay, Javanese and Portuguese influences. Ladies had a batik sarong or skirt with a traditional blouse, usually made from cotton gingham, silk or organdie. Long blouses known as baju panjang were paired with the sarong and held together by a set of three brooches known as kerosang.
The outfit was completed with beaded slippers called kasot manek. Making those slippers was an elaborate craft, requiring hours of effort. In the early 20th century, they adopted shorter blouses, often trimmed with lace. Peranakan women continued to dress in this style right through to the 20th century. Today, we can see these dresses on festive or special occasions.
Men wore Western-style clothes: shirt, trousers with pairing jacket and also a tie or bowtie. For informal occasions, they wore sarongs with lighter shirts.
The architectural style of the Peranakan house is formally described as Straits Eclectic. At first, houses were simple, 1-2 storeys, mostly made of wood in Chinese style. Between 1890 and 1910, the houses became 2-3 storeys high with a mixture of Chinese and European style, known as “Early Straits”. From the Chinese influence, you can see carved timber door, air vents, gable end, air-well and more.
From the European influence, you notice the full-length shuttered windows and geometric-patterned colored clay floor tiles. Between the 1910s and the 1930s, houses were made more colorful, decorated with ornaments and details. The style is not just Chinese and English, as every colonialist left some architectural influence. The Portuguese introduced the arch, the Dutch brought their sense of size and space and the British introduced the grandeur of Anglo-Indian buildings with their ornaments.
It is delicious! More about it will be written in our next blog post, dedicated only to this outstanding Heritage that is still very much alive today.