Peranakan (Straits Chinese) community
The term Peranakan generally refers to people of mixed Chinese and Malay/Indonesian heritage. Many Peranakans trace their origins to 15th-century Malacca where their ancestors were thought to be Chinese traders who married local women. Peranakan males are known as babas while the females are known as nonyas (or nyonyas).1 While some Peranakans have retained many of their particular cultural practices, many have assimilated into the larger Chinese community today.
While the exact origins of the Peranakans are hard to pin down, many scholars and writers believe them to be descendents of Chinese immigrant traders who married local Malay women or Bataks from Sumatra.2
The Peranakans were also known as Straits Chinese as they were usually born in the British-controlled Straits Settlements of Singapore, Penang and Malacca.3 During colonial times, they were also known as the King’s Chinese in reference to their status as British subjects after the Straits Settlements became a Crown colony in 1867.4
The term Peranakan is an Indonesian/Malay word that means “local born” and has largely been used to refer to the Peranakan Chinese. However, not all Peranakans are of Chinese ancestry.5 In the Straits Settlements, there was a small but significant community of Peranakan Indians known as Chitty Melaka.6 The origins of the Peranakan Indians were said to have evolved around the same time as the Peranakan Chinese when Tamil merchants began marrying local women.7 The Jawi Peranakan community was another notable Peranakan group of non-Chinese descent comprising Straits-born Muslims of mixed Indian (especially Tamil) and Malay parentage.
Although many Peranakans retained their Chinese surnames and cultural practices such as ancestor worship, they were still considered as a different group from the China-born Chinese in Singapore. The Peranakans were also generally from a higher socio-economic class than most Chinese immigrants.8 The Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II hit the wealthy Peranakans hard and thereafter many of them failed to recover their former wealth or resume their previously lavish lifestyles.9 The post-war years thus marked the beginning of the decline of Peranakan culture.
In recent years, however, there has been a resurgent interest in Peranakan culture sparked by the highly popular television drama series, The Little Nyonya (2008), as well as the growing popularity of Peranakan cuisine.10
Occupations and trade
Many of the early Peranakans were entrepreneurial traders and shopkeepers. A significant number were also involved in the real estate, shipping and banking sectors. As most of the Peranakans received an English education and were fluent in the language, many of them were appointed by the British authorities as community and civic leaders.11
Like many other communities, the Peranakans formed their own associations to advance the welfare of their community. In 1900, several key Straits-born leaders of the Chinese community, namely Tan Jiak Kim, Seah Liang Seah, Lim Boon Keng (Dr) and Song Ong Siang, came together to form the Straits Chinese British Association (SCBA). Besides looking after the interests of the Peranakan community, the SCBA initially also had a political agenda: to promote interest in the British Empire and loyalty to the Queen.12 The SCBA is today known as the Peranakan Association.13
There were also a few non-political Peranakan associations. One was the Straits Chinese Recreation Club and the other was the Straits Chinese Football Association. These two institutions were set up in 1885 and 1911 respectively to promote various sports and provide the necessary facilities for playing them.14
Peranakan culture is usually described as a hybrid of Chinese, Malay and Western cultures. While specific cultural practices and customs may differ from generation to generation and family to family, there are a few elements common to Peranakan culture. One such element is the language. Besides English, the Peranakans speak baba Malay, a patois described as an adulteration of the Malay language with a liberal mix of Hokkien words and phrases.15
An outstanding feature of Peranakan culture is the cuisine, which is also known as nonya food after the ladies who cook it. Peranakan cuisine has strong Malay and Indonesian influences, which can be seen in the use of rempah (spices) and coconut milk.16 Pork is an oft-used ingredient in nonya cooking, unlike in Malay cuisine, where its use is strictly forbidden. Some of the signature nonya dishes include babi pongteh (braised pork with salted bean paste), ayam buah keluak (chicken braised in a thick, spicy tamarind gravy with buah keluak nuts) and beef rendang (beef stewed in coconut milk and spices). The nonyas are also well known for their sweet cakes, often referred to as nonya kueh.17 In the past, most nonyas were expected to know how to cook as this skill was seen as an accomplishment.18
Besides cooking, Peranakan girls were also expected to excel in embroidery and beadwork, the two distinctive features of Peranakan fashion. The traditional costume for Peranakan women is the nonya kebaya, which began replacing the baju panjang (Malay for ‘long dress’) as the outfit of choice from the 1920s onwards.19
Originally from Indonesia, the kebaya was adopted by both Malay and Peranakan women but with important differences. The Malay kebaya is a loose-fitting long blouse made of opaque cotton or silk with little or no lace embroidery. On the other hand, the nonya kebaya is a shorter, tighter-fitting sheer fabric blouse that is often decorated with embroidered motifs (known as sulam) such as roses, peonies, orchids, daisies, butterflies, bees, fish and chickens. Being semi-transparent, the kebaya is usually worn over a camisole and secured with a kerosang (spelt as kerongsang in Malay), which is a set of three interlinked brooches.
The kebaya top is traditionally worn together with a batik sarong skirt and paired with intricately hand-beaded slippers known as kasut manek.20 However, in recent times, the younger generations of Peranakan ladies have experimented pairing the nonya kebaya with Western dresses, skirts and even jeans.21
Another distinct element of Peranakan culture is the practice of dondang sayang, which involves the singing of verses in the Malay poetic form known as pantun. The singing is accompanied with music from an orchestra that usually comprises a rebana (Malay drum), biola (Western violin) and a gong.22 In the 19th century, the Peranakans in Malacca adopted this originally Malay cultural practice when they performed dondang sayang as a form of entertainment during informal social gatherings at their homes.23
In February 1910, the Gunong Sayang Association, also known as Persatuan Gunong Sayang, was established in Singapore by the local Peranakan community to promote the performance of dondang sayang in the public domain. The association continues to help preserve this art form as well as generate greater awareness of Peranakan culture through its wayang (theatre) performances.24
The Main Wayang Company is another institution that is involved in spreading awareness of Peranakan culture through arts performances. Formed in 2004, the arts and community theatre company specialises in staging entertainment shows, concerts and musical plays both in Singapore and overseas to help promote Peranakan culture.25
Although the Peranakans historically practised elements of Malay culture, not many of them adopted the Islamic faith. Instead, many Peranakan families retained the Chinese practice of ancestor worship, although some embraced Christianity or Catholicism. A notable Peranakan Christian was Sir Song Ong Siang. His father, Song Hoot Kiam, was the founder of the Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church. The younger Song served as the church’s deacon and elder for 41 years.26
Historically, groups of Peranakans resided in several different locations, notably the Neil Road/Tanjong Pagar, Emerald Hill and the Joo Chiat/Katong areas.
Neil Road/Tanjong Pagar: This area bordering Chinatown and Tanjong Pagar has some historical associations with the Peranakans. In the early 1800s, Peranakan merchants such as Tan Tock Seng owned a nutmeg plantation in the area.27 Many wealthy Peranakan families also lived in the area until the 1920s and 1930s when they moved out to the Katong area.28 Tan Boo Liat and Lee Hoon Leong were some of the prominent Peranakan businessmen who owned houses or resided in the area.29
Emerald Hill: The Peranakans settled in the area at the turn of the 20th century. While some land developers of Emerald Hill were Peranakans, the association of the area with Peranakans was mainly due to the large number of Peranakan families who resided there.30 One of the prominent Peranakans who lived in the area was Lim Boon Keng (Dr).31 Today, Emerald Hill is part of the conservation area known as Peranakan Place.
Joo Chiat/Katong: The area’s association with the Peranakans can be traced back to the early 20th century when many Peranakan families from the Neil Road/Tanjong Pagar area shifted there.32 Since then, the area has been closely linked with the Peranakans.33 The Peranakan influence can be seen in the facades of many of the residential houses located on Koon Seng Road and in the Peranakan restaurants still found in the area.
Lee Kuan Yew (b. 16 September 1923, Singapore–): Lawyer, politician and first prime minister of Singapore.34
Wee Kim Wee (b. 4 November 1915, Singapore–d. 2 May 2005, Singapore): Journalist, diplomat and fourth president of Singapore.35
Lim Boon Keng (b. 18 October 1869, Singapore–d. 1 January 1957, Singapore): Singapore’s first Queen’s Scholar, doctor, philanthropist, and member of the Legislative Council.36
Song Ong Siang (b. 14 June 1871, Singapore–d. 29 September 1941, Singapore): Lawyer, lay preacher, author, and member of the Legislative Council.37
Tan Teck Neo (b. 1873, Malacca–d. 1974, Singapore): Daughter of prominent businessman and community leader Tan Keong Saik and wife of Lee Choon Guan. She was known as Singapore’s Diamond Queen for her collection of jewellery.38
1. Jaime Koh and Stephanie Ho, Culture and Customs of Singapore and Malaysia (Santa Barbara: Greenwood Press, 2009), 3. (Call no. YRSING 305.80095957 KOH)
2. Felix Chia, The Babas (Singapore: Times Books International, 1980), 2. (Call no. RSING 301.45195105957 CHI); von Jürgen Rudolph, Reconstructing Identities: A Social History of the Babas in Singapore (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998), 1. (Call no. RSING 305.80095957 RUD); Khoo Joo Ee, The Straits Chinese: A Cultural History (Amsterdam: The Pepin Press, 1996), 23. (Call no. RSING 305.895105951 KHO)
3. Khoo, Straits Chinese, 23–24.
4. Koh and Ho, Culture and Customs of Singapore and Malaysia, 3.
5. Leo Suryadinata, Peranakan Chinese in a Globalizing Southeast Asia: The Cases of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia (Singapore: Chinese Heritage Centre and Baba House, 2010), 2, 32–33. (Call no. RSING 305.8951059 PER)
6. Samuel S. Dhoraisingam, Peranakan Indians of Singapore and Melaka: Indian Babas and Nonyas – Chitty Melaka (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2006), xi. (Call no.: RSING 305.8950595 SAM)
7. Dhoraisingam, Peranakan Indians of Singapore and Melaka, xi, 4.
8. Lynn Pan, The Encyclopedia of the Chinese Overseas (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet for the Chinese Heritage Centre, 2006), 202. (Call no. RSING 304.80951 ENC)
9. Khoo, Straits Chinese, 28.
10. Ong Dai Lin, “Peranakan Culture is Hot Business,” Today, 10 January 2009, 8; Hong Xinyi, “Big on Little Nyonya,” Straits Times, 9 January 2009, 16; Don Mendoza, Great Adaptations. Today, 25 July 2009, 38. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Khoo, Straits Chinese, 24–26.
12. Constance Mary Turnbull, A History of Singapore, 1819–1988 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1989), 101. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
13. “History,” The Peranakan Association, accessed on 15 September 2021.
14. Turnbull, History of Singapore, 102.
15. Khoo, Straits Chinese, 109–110.
16. Khoo, Straits Chinese, 127–128.
17. There are numerous cookbooks on Peranakan cuisine, also referred to as nonya cuisine. See, for example, Sharon Wee, Growing Up in a Nonya kitchen: Singapore Recipes from my Mother (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2010). (Call no. RSING 641.595957 WEE)
18. Khoo, Straits Chinese, 128.
19. Seri Endon Mahmood, The Nyonya Kebaya: A Century of Straits Chinese Costume (Singapore: Periplus, 2004), 39–47. (Call no. RSEA q391.209595 END-[CUS])
20. Khoo, Straits Chinese, 208–210; Seri Endon Mahmood, Nyonya Kebaya, 49, 121, 139.
21. Seri Endon Mahmood, Nyonya Kebaya, 157.
22. Phillip L. Thomas, Like Tigers Around a Piece of Meat: The Baba Style of Dondang Sayang (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1986), 3–4. (Call no: RSING 780.89 THO)
23. Thomas, Like Tigers Around a Piece of Meat, 5–6.
24. Thomas, Like Tigers Around a Piece of Meat, 8; “About Us,” Gunong Sayang Association, accessed on 15 September 2021.
26. Singapore Days of Old: A Special Commemorative History of Singapore Published on the 10th Anniversary of Singapore Tatler (Hong Kong: Illustrated Magazine Pub., 1992), 62. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SIN-[HIS])
27. Tan C. K., “From Nutmeg Plantation to Keppel Harbour,” in Tanjong Pagar Citizens' Consultative Committee, Tanjong Pagar: Singapore’s Cradle of Development (Singapore: Tanjong Pagar Citizens’ Consultative Committee, 1989), 14. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TAN-[HIS])
28. Chew D. (1989). Towards A Social History of Tanjong Pagar, 1900–1940,” in Tanjong Pagar Citizens' Consultative Committee, Tanjong Pagar: Singapore’s Cradle of Development (Singapore: Tanjong Pagar Citizens’ Consultative Committee, 1989), 26. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TAN-[HIS])
29. Lim I. and Chua C. H. (1989). “Opium Dens and Towkays’ Homes: The Social Mosaic,” Tanjong Pagar Citizens' Consultative Committee, Tanjong Pagar: Singapore’s Cradle of Development (Singapore: Tanjong Pagar Citizens’ Consultative Committee, 1989), 87. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TAN-[HIS])
30. Singapore Days of Old, 101.
31. Singapore Days of Old, 64.
32. Chew, “Social History of Tanjong Pagar,” 26.
33. Lily Kong and T. C. Chang, Joo Chiat: A Living Legacy (Singapore: Joo Chiat Citizens’ Consultative Committee, 2001), 97–99. (Call no. RSING q959.57 KON-[HIS])
34. Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore: Federal Publications, 2000), 25. (Call no. RSING 959.57 LEE-[HIS]); Pan, Encyclopedia of the Chinese Overseas, 209.
35. “Former Presidents: Dr Wee Kim Wee,” President’s Office, last updated on 1 February 2019.
36. Singapore Days of Old, 64–65.
37. “Death of Sir Ong Siang Song in Singapore,” Straits Times, 29 September 1941, 8. (From NewspaperSG); Pan, Encyclopedia of the Chinese Overseas, 205–206; Singapore Days of Old, 62–64.
38. Singapore Days of Old, 58–61.
Cheo Kim Ban, A Baba Wedding (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2009). (Call no. RSING 392.508995105951 CHE-[CUS])
Christine Ong Kiat Neo, Nyonya Kebaya: Intricacies of the Peranakan Heritage (Singapore: Christine Ong Kiat Neo, 2011). (Call no. RSING 391.2095957 ONG-[CUS])
Lee Geok Boi, “The Evolution of Straits-born Cuisine,” BiblioAsia 17, no. 2 (2021).
Peter Lee, Junks to Jewels: The Things that Peranakan Value (Singapore: Peranakan Museum, National Heritage Board, 2008). (Call no. RSING 305.895105957 LEE)
The information in this article is valid as at 26 August 2013 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.