cultures & traditions
You may have heard about Peranakans or maybe even watched popular drama serials based on their culture, but how much do you really know about this special ethnic group?
No man is an island and every community has different practices. In this section, learn about the different cultures of the world so that you can relate to these differences and compare them to your own culture.
In the 17th century, many Chinese immigrants began to travel to the Malay Archipelago for work or business, and over time many of them eventually settled there. At that time, only the men were allowed to leave China so many of the Chinese male immigrants married local women instead. Their children or descendents are known as “Peranakans”. The men were called “Babas” while the women were called “Nyonyas”. Although there are no written historical records about the origin of the Peranakans, it is generally believed that the first Peranakan community was in Malacca. Over time, the Peranakans also moved to Singapore, Penang and Java, where they are known as “Straits Chinese”. Most Peranakans are of Hokkien descent, though some are also of Teochew and Cantonese descent.
During the colonial period, the Peranakans were mostly involved in the cultivation of nutmeg, pepper, rubber and gambier, tin mining and commodity trading. They also sent their children to Christian mission or English-medium schools, as well as to England for tertiary education. As a result, many Peranakans, who could converse in English, were able to work in the colonial government and big Western companies. Many of them also subsequently played important roles in Malaysia and Singapore’s road to independence.
The Peranakan culture is a unique cultural combination with traces of influence from the Chinese, Malay and British. The Peranakan language, known as “Baba Malay” is a mixture of Malay, English and Hokkien (a Chinese dialect). In addition, most of their rites and rituals are very similar to Chinese traditions. For example, the Peranakans also celebrate Chinese festivals like the Lunar New Year and Mid-autumn Festival.
However, by the 1980s and 1990s, there were concerns that the Peranakan culture was dying out, as modernisation and Westernisation seemed to be eroding the cultural identity, especially among the young. Fortunately, in recent years, there has been a growing consciousness of the importance of preserving and promoting the rich cultural heritage of the Peranakans. For example, in Singapore, the Peranakan Museum was established to showcase the cultural traditions and distinctive visual arts of this unique community. With coverage in mass media, there is also an increase in public awareness about Peranakan culture.