Are the Peranakans a part of Singapore’s past or a heritage shaping my life choices?
Growing up Singaporean, I thought my ‘Peranakan heritage’, a group to which my maternal side of the family traces their lineage, only went as far as a steaming bowl of laksa (rice noodles served in a curry sauce or hot soup), enjoying the sight of vibrantly-coloured shophouses, or owning pair of kasut maniks (as Peranakan beaded slippers are called).
As I deepened my research into Peranakans, I began to realise that my ancestors far exceed their reputation as creators of imaginative cuisine and eclectic architecture. In fact, the culture not only shapes the Singapore we see today but has largely influenced the choices I have made in life.
The term ‘Peranakan’, a conjugated word adopted from the Malay language, means ‘locally born’. Tracing their origins back to the Malaysian city of Malacca in the 15th century, the intermarriage between Southern Chinese traders and Malay women contributed to the gradual emergence of a distinct hybrid culture.
Those who would eventually become Peranakans were relatively isolated in their connections with mainland China, largely due to the difficulties in transportation and so not desiring to return to China, these settlers had to adapt. However, largely due to their economic status, the Peranakans were fortunate enough to be able to maintain a sense of personal and historical identity and did not dissolve into the Malay society. Instead, a new culture was born.
In the journal article, Review: Java’s Chinese Minority: Continuity and Change, American anthropologist G. William Skinner (1925-2008) wrote about the Peranakans, describing them as a theoretically improbable if not impossible ‘creation through fusion of a new socio-cultural system that achieved autonomy and stability despite continued contact with both parent societies’.
The notion ‘Peranakan’ mostly refers to people of mixed Chinese and Malay or Indonesian heritage, although historical sources also mention Dutch, Arab, and Indian Peranakan identities. The Peranakan Chinese, however, are the largest and most prominent sub-group to the extent that the term ‘Peranakan’ is commonly used to refer specifically to the Chinese sub-group1.
Jinn Ong's great grandmother’s sister at her wedding.
In the 1800s, the Peranakans searched for new trade opportunities. Many migrated towards Singapore, their interest sparked by the establishment of a British colony there, others relocated to Penang, a bustling port city in north Malaysia. The latter was where my grandfather was raised.
The age of colonial empires offered particular opportunities. Banking, shipping, and farming were just some of the fields pioneered by Peranakans following their settlement in colonial-era Singapore and Penang. As educated multilingual members of high socioeconomic standing, Peranakans often acted as intermediaries between authorities of the British Empire and locals, which enabled the formation of a symbiotic relationship between the administration and the Peranakan community.
Due to their political and economic affiliations, many Peranakans were able to enjoy a life of opulence, however, the situation soon changed during the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War 2. Plagued by rising prices, the invasion from the Japanese Empire and the fall of Singapore, the Peranakans were unable to continue the lives that they had preserved for centuries.
The terrors of the Japanese occupation had lasting effects on the community. With little to no fortune left, wealthy Peranakan families eventually integrated into mainstream society, away from the luxurious lifestyle they had once enjoyed under British rule.
Nowadays, Singapore is experiencing a resurgence of the Peranakan culture, with Peranakan cuisine fine dining and numerous government-backed efforts to preserve and exhibit the remnants of its heritage. The Peranakan Museum, following an extensive refurbishment, recently opened its doors again in February.
Discovering the multicultural nature of my ancestors and their strong connection with British culture made me aware of how I had a lot more in common with Peranakan culture than I had initially expected.
For someone born and raised in Singapore, living in a cultural melting pot is not a foreign concept. Growing up on the island nation, I distinctly remember spending my primary school days playing capteh2 with friends, watching the lion dances during the Chinese New Year, or henna decorating during Deepavali celebrations.
In many ways, the Peranakan culture lives at the very heart of contemporary society in Singapore - with our four official languages being Malay, Tamil, Chinese, and English. Singaporeans are not defined by ethnicity or race, which makes them similar to the Peranakans.
Jinn Ong's great grandmother’s parents.
These similarities made me think – how much has my Peranakan heritage influenced my personal decisions in life?
Although I do partake in Lunar New Year celebrations just like the Peranakans did, and I can be very superstitious at times, I never followed any exact traditions of Peranakan origins.
However, similar to my ancestors, I have developed strong ties with Britain. At the age of 11, my parents and I made the collective decision to send me to school in England. Being the only one out of 240 girls in my year group at primary school and all my childhood friends to leave, all of a sudden I had to adapt to a completely different school, environment, and culture – like my ancestors.
The real question is: what exactly drove my parents and me to make such a bold, adventurous decision? Yes, I went in search of new opportunities and to immerse myself into an education system no other place could offer me, but perhaps there is an inbuilt urge to explore or take a ‘different’ path that has been passed down through generations of Peranakans.
These values can be seen particularly within the Peranakans that have pioneered the development of Singapore. Among some of the most prominent figures includes Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015), Singapore’s inaugural Prime Minister.3
Through his personal ingenuity and diplomatic skills, Lee was a strong example of what it means to be Peranakan – he is recognised as the country’s founding father who led the decades-long transformation of Singapore from a British colonial backwater into an economic powerhouse.
Great Peranakans: Fifty Remarkable Lives
Another notable example is Lim Boon Keng (1869-1957), the first person of Chinese background to be awarded the Queen’s Scholarship, a prestigious achievement awarded by the Government of the Straits Settlements to further an individual’s studies in the United Kingdom.
Having to travel to England for the first time at 18, Lim’s experiences were probably vastly different to mine. With close to no contact with his family, Lim would have been thrown into an environment completely opposite to life in colonial Singapore – one only fathomable in books. Despite all the factors working against him and his success, Lim graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1892 with a first-class honours degree in medicine. He would then travel back to Singapore to share his education, ideas, and principles.
Lim was a groundbreaker of his time, particularly within the rigid constraints of Singaporean society. Being a passionate advocate for progression and advancement, Lim actively campaigned for the creation of a Chinese girls’ school and largely concerned himself with reform and education in China.
Lim Boon Haw, Jinn Ong's great grandmother’s grandfather. This picture now belongs to the permanent collection of the Peranakan Museum in Singapore.
Alongside fellow Peranakan Song Ong Siang (1871-1941), Lim pioneered several progressive initiatives, such as founding the Straits Chinese Magazine, the Straits Chinese British Association, and the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School (SCGS), an institution that I myself attended decades later.
Lim faced strong opposition from the conservatives – following the founding of the school, carriages had to be arranged for the girls to be escorted between the school and their homes so as to avoid public scrutiny.
Lim and Song’s efforts did not go to waste. The school would come to produce a set of notable alumni, including Peranakan Lee Choo Neo (1895-1947), the first Straits Chinese woman to obtain a Senior Cambridge Certificate in 1911 and the first female medical doctor to practise in Singapore.
I am walking up Emerald Hill, surrounded by narrow shophouses. The smell of incense permeates the air, tourists crowd the sidewalks and the sound of music can be heard from one of the houses. The flurry of chaos is the distinguishing soundtrack of my home city.
Through the shutters of a cerulean blue home, I imagine a young woman who lived here a century ago. She wore a tea-green kebaya3 embroidered with hibiscus flowers, with a salmon-pink hair clip adorning her smooth black locks. She is a true embodiment of Peranakan culture. Were she able to see me, a teenager in a t-shirt and shorts with dishevelled hair, claiming to be Peranakan, she would have probably shaken her head in disapproval. You are nowhere close to being a Peranakan.
Yet, I would have strongly disagreed. Yes, I may not appear anywhere close to being Peranakan on the exterior: I rarely eat our food, I do not wear our clothes, and I don’t follow any traditions.
But the Peranakan culture is so much more than that. When you go beneath the surface, you find a heritage entrenched in values which I continue to follow to this day. Whether it may be ambition or exploration, these principles not only form the backbone of the Singapore we see today but the opportunities I have been lucky enough to experience.