From Singapore Hotels & Singapore Lifestyle
"Peranakan" Chinese Culture is a unique and vibrant culture found in the South East Asian Region. It is to be found mainly in the countries of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. It is a culture that encompasses the best of old ancient malay, chinese and european influences and absorbs the best of other cultures as well to form a cohesive and united Peranakan identity.
Origin of the word "Peranakan"
The origins of the word Peranakan actually come from the word anak or child. The word Peranakan therefore in its full meaning means to give birth to a child. This means that the children of such mixed intermarriages were called Peranakan meaning that they were born locally and were of mixed blood. In the Malay and Indonesian dictionaries peranakan and beranak are used interchangeably and mean to give birth to. After years went by and as centuries passed, the term Peranakan became exclusively used to refer to the Chinese Peranakan community, this was so as the Chinese Peranakans comprised the majority of all other Peranakan groups. The Indian Peranakans now refer to themselves as Chitty Melaka and the Peranakan Eurasians call themselves simply as Eurasian. However in Indonesia, the term Peranakan Cina or Peranakan Chinese is used to refer to children of such mixed marriages.
"Babas" and "Nonyas"
Other names you may hear for these people are Babas or Nonyas, after the Peranakan words for male (Baba) and female (Nonya). The term Baba actually evolved from the Indonesian term "Bapak" meaning "Sir". It is used only for people of status and stature in society as a mark of respect. As the years passed, the term Bapak was corrupted and became the Baba as we know it today. Similarly the term nonya is also of Indonesian origin and means "Lady". It was also used only for ladies in the upper echelons of Indonesian colonial society. The terms Bapak and Nonya are still used in Indonesia till this very day.
Peranakan Settlements & Migration
The Peranakan community started with the rapid influx of Chinese traders to South East Asia in the early 15th century. As their women folk were not allowed to accompany them out of China due to an Imperial Decree, most Chinese men who settled in the South East Asian Islands had to intermarry with the local inhabitants. They did so by marrying non muslim local malays such as the bataks, balinese, ambonese, the coastal malays and other malay groups. As such malay and indonesian influences were incorporated into the Peranakan way of life and the lingua franca of the Peranakan community became to be known as Baba Malay or Peranakan Malay.On a similar scale, Indian men and Eurasian Portugese men intermarried with the local malay inhabitants as well. These communities became to be known as the Indian Peranakans and Eurasian Peranakans respectively. The term does not in fact strictly denote Chinese - there were also "Peranakan Yahudi" (Jews), "Ceti Peranakan" (Hindus from southern India) and "Peranakan Yawi" (Arabs). Peranakan culture actually encompasses the Peranakan Chinese, Indian and Eurasian communities.
Lifestyle of the Peranakans
The Peranakans were often wealthy traders and could afford to indulge their passion for sumptuous furnishings, jewellery and brocades. Their terrace houses were gaily painted, with patterned tiles embedded in the walls for extra decoration. When it came to the interior, Peranakan tastes favoured heavily carved and inlaid furniture.
Peranakan dress was similarly ornate. Nonyas wore fabulously embroidered kasot manek (slippers) and kebaya (blouses worn over a sarong), tied with beautiful kerasong brooches, usually of fine filigree gold or silver. Babas, who assumed Western dress in the 19th century, reflecting their wealth and contacts with the British, saved their finery for important occasions such as the wedding ceremony, a highly stylised and intricate ritual dictated by adat (Malay customary law).
The Peranakan patois is a Malay dialect but one containing many Hokkien words - so many that it is largely unintelligible to a Malay speaker. The Peranakans also included words and expressions of English and French, and occasionally practised a form of backward Malay by reversing the syllables. There are very few monolingual Peranakans left - and they are very old - and fewer than 5,000 people in Singapore now speak the language at all.
The descendants of these cross-cultural unions grew up as a distinct community, particularly in Malacca, with their own brand of language or patois. The culture and language of the Chinese Peranakans is a fascinating melange of Chinese and Malay traditions. The Peranakans took the name and religion of their Chinese fathers, but the customs, languages and dress of their Malay mothers. They also used the terms "Straits-born" or "Straits Chinese" to distinguish themselves from later arrivals from China, who they looked down upon.
The only major obstacle that seperated these Peranakan communities was religion. Indian Peranakans were staunch Hindhus, the Eurasian Peranakans staunch Catholics while the Chinese Peranakans or Babas and Nonyas were staunch Taoists in the past.
Therefore Peranakan Culture as we know it is very varied and is different from region to region. No one Peranakan Community can claim that they are more Peranakan than the next. As we have seen, Peranakan culture varies from country, locality and even Peranakan culture in the same country varies. It also varies from town to town and city to city. Peranakan Culture is a cultural entity practiced by the descendants of old Chinese families. As the first Chinese to settle in this region hundreds of years ago, Peranakan culture has emerged into the combination and fusion of cultures and colour that it is well known for today.
Western culture has largely supplanted Peranakan traditions among the young, and the language policies of the government are also accelerating the language's decline. As the Peranakans are considered ethnically Chinese, children study Mandarin as their mother tongue in schools. Many also marry within the broader Chinese community, resulting in the further decline of the Peranakan patois.
Peranakan culture is far from dead in modern Singapore, though. The Peranakan Association reports growing interest in Peranakan traditions as Singaporeans discover their roots. The distinctive Peranakan Cuisine is also popular across the island. To find out more about how Peranakans once lived, visit the Armenian Street branch of the Asian Civilisations Museum.
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