RESTAURANTS : local culture

By Lea Wee :  The Straits Times,   LIFE ! December 6th, 2000
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A cultural explosion is brewing at the Asian Civilisations Museum as Peranakan exhibits take center stage. And we don't mean Emily of Emerald Hill

Ms Serene Tan had no idea that she was a Peranakan until she was 21.

"I was watching this skit and dance by a group, and I told my mother that it looked interesting. It was then that she told me that, like the performers, I am also a Peranakan," the human resource manager, now 31, recalls.

Like many Peranakans of her generation, Ms. Tan does not speak the patois, a mix of Malay and Hokkien. Neither did she follow the traditional 12-day wedding rites when she got married last year.

But she tried to make up for it by learning the community's dances and songs at the Gunong Sayang Association, which organises Peranakan activities.

As Mr. Tan Boon Hui, 32, a curator at the Asian Civilisations Museum, points out: "It is quite impossible to live the Peranakan lifestyle in this day and age. The Language is dying, and the knowledge of complex customs has been lost through generations."

While more intangible parts of the culture may be dying out, the museum will pay tribute to its more tangible artistic aspects in a permanent exhibition, The Peranakan Legacy, which will open officially this evening by Mr. Lee Kip Lee, president of the Peranakan Association.

On display are about 350 exhibits - from beading, embroidery and textiles to jewellery, silver and ceramics - culled from the thousands in the museum's collection. The collection, one of the largest in this region, was built up over the last 100 years from Peranakans in various parts of South-east Asia.

The exhibits reflect the elaborate hybrid style of the Peranakan, who are the descendants of Chinese traders who settled in this region as early as 700 years ago. These highly-adaptive people retained some of their Chinese roots but also absorbed Malay, Indian and European influences.

Says Mr. Tan: "The hybrid style of the Peranakans is one that is unique to South-east Asia and one which we can truly claim as ours."



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The bedrock of Peranakan culture - a Penang wedding bed.

A fascinating hybrid of Chinese and Malay cultures

Chinese traders came to South-east Asia as early as the 14th century and settled down along its coastal areas.

They married local women and adopted many of the native customs. Their descendants became known as the Peranakans, which is Malay for locally-born.

Their culture is an intriguing study of what happens when different cultures meet and interact. The women, or nonyas, maintained their Malay-Indonesian-style dress, and habits such as betel chewing, but adopted from their Chinese husbands customs such as ancestral worship and elaborate wedding and funeral rites.

Meanwhile, the men, or babas, retained their Chinese costume, but acquired a Malay patois.

Not all are wealthy, but the minority who were very rich commissioned high quality beadwork, jewellery, silver and ceramics from Malay, Chinese and Indian craftsmen, which explains the hybrid nature of the works. But many still thought of themselves as Chinese.

The sense of being a race apart only came about during the late 19th century, with the influx of new immigrants escaping the political unrest in China. Unlike the earlier settlers, they retained strong ties with mainland China and regarded the Peranakans as OCBC, short for Orang Cina bukan Cina (Chinese and yet not Chinese).

The Peranakans retaliated by founding the Straits Chines British Association, now known as the Peranakan Association, in 1900.

They moved closer to the colonial government gradually, so much so that they became known as the King's Chinese. The babas also started wearing Western suits and sent their children to English schools.

Many converted to Christianity and no longer observed ancestral worship. Their material culture, too, took on Western motifs. But after World War II, many Peranakans lost their wealth and could no longer commission expensive works.

With independence, their identity also became subsumed under the wider Chinese identity for official reasons. There was a push for learning Mandarin, and as intermarriages with non-Peranakans became more common, their identity was further diluted.

There are, however, no official figures on the number of Peranakans in Singapore as they are classified as Chinese in the population census.

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