14 Oct Peranakan Chinese Heritage of Southeast Asia
The Peranakan Chinese are descendants of Chinese traders who settled in Malacca and coastal areas of Java and Sumatra as early as the 15th century. They married into local Southeast Asian communities, as Chinese women were not legally allowed to leave China. In the 19th century, the Peranakan immigrated into the bustling ports of Penang and Singapore during the British colonial expansion. The Peranakan community was successful as merchants and, later, as professionals. These communities are often referred to as Straits Chinese or baba nyonya (baba refers to the males and nyonya to the females).
Peranakan became extremely cos-mopolitan and displayed their wealth and artistic sensibilities using items acquired from China, Southeast Asia, and Europe. The EWC exhibition reflects this unique aesthetic and highlights many of the distinctive arts and customs of this community. Photographs and videos focus on wedding and marriage rituals, hospitality customs, funeral customs, and birthing traditions. A wide variety of textiles, clothing, beaded slippers, cooking utensils, and ceramics are included.
The 19th and early 20th century saw a huge influx of Chinese into Southeast Asia. These immigrants, migrating from southern China, were referred to as Sinkhek. The baba nyonas in contrast, had already developed a distinct Malayized Chinese culture and saw themselves as distinct from the newcomer Chinese. The baba nyonyas spoke a creolized Malay language enriched with Chinese loan words and syntax. The religion followed many traditional Chinese patterns, but over time the Peranakan Chinese developed distinct rituals. Later, with European colonial expansion, many converted to Christianity.
Peranakan preferred to marry within their community. Home life was particularly influenced by Malay customs because women originally came from diverse SE Asian communities. The nyonyas developed a unique cuisine that is world renowned and wore clothing influenced by local Malay design.
Originally the Peranakan served as the go-between traders linking the local Malay population and China. Later they served as the liaisons between the colonial powers and the local populations. They acted as intermediaries for Portuguese, Dutch, and later the English. By the late 19th century, many of the babas had been educated in English medium schools and took upon themselves both the dress and culture of the English.
As the Peranakan entered the government bureaucracy and the professions, they became further Anglicized and were even referred to as the King’s Chinese. When the Japanese controlled British Malaya (which included Singapore), much of the Peranakan wealth and status was undermined. Furthermore, both Malaysian and Singaporean independence and development further diminished the special status of the Peranakan population. In recent years there has been a great effort at reviving and sustaining the achievements of this unique community.
Food and ceramicsNyonya food, which is world renowned for its delicious flavors, is a complex, serious, and time consuming enterprise. It is said that a nyonya can determine the culinary skill of a new daughter-in-law simply by listening to her preparing the spices with a mortar. Nyonya traditionally spent endless hours pounding rempah (spices) on a flat stone slab. Nyonya recipes are handed down from one generation to the next. Key ingredients include coconut milk, galangal (a subtle, mustard-scented root similar to ginger), candlenuts as both a flavoring and thickening agent, laksa leaf, pandan leaves, belachan
(shrimp paste), tamarind juice, lemon-grass, torch ginger bud, jicama, fragrant kaffir lime leaf, rice or egg noodles.
Another important ingredient is chinchalok, a pungent sour and salty shrimp-based condiment that is typically mixed with lime juice, chilies and shallots and eaten with rice, fried fish and other side dishes. The food is tangy, aromatic, spicy, and herbal. Influences include Chinese, Thai, Malay, Indonesian, and European cuisine. Dishes from Singapore and Malacca show Indonesian influence, using more coconut milk. Penang has a stronger Thai influence and the food has a relatively sour taste, by using tamarind.
Eating habits of the Peranakan traditionally differed from other ethnic Chinese communities. They served spicy dishes and rice on individual plates and used their hands for eating until the late 19th century, when European forks and spoons were used at most meals. Everyday dishes tended to be on blue and white porcelain. However, for special occasions the exuberantly colored ceramics now known as nyonya ware would be used. These pieces, called Shanghai ware by the Peranakan, were filled with traditional Chinese motifs and glazed in pinks, reds, yellows, and turquoise. The dazzling shades of pink and red were introduced to China from Europe in the eighteenth century and this porcelain is called rose famille. Many pieces were produced especially for the Perankan at a ceramics company in Jingdezhen, China. The nyonya loved ceramics and glassware made in Europe and regularly purchased dishes on which to present elaborately-prepared meals.
Peranakan lived and worked in buildings often called a Straits Eclectic architectural style, but these structures have a host of other names, including Sino-Malay-Colonial, Sino-Malay-Palladian, Tropical Renaissance, Chinese Palladian, and Chinese Baroque. As the names indicate, this architecture is a unique combination of Eastern and Western elements. The style developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries and buildings include shop houses, temples, clan buildings, and villas and bungalows.
A shop house is usually a two-story building, the first floor used for commer-cial purposes and the second floor for residential use. The building is connected to other shop houses, forming a row house block. There is typically a continuous covered walkway on the front façade of a shop house block. If there is no commercial establishment on the ground floor, the structures are often referred to as terrace houses. Front walls were made of masonry covered with plaster or ceramics.
In the late 19th century Peranakan adapted Western architectural elements including French windows, pilasters of classical orders and plaster renderings. These decorative elements included flowers, fruits, and Chinese or European mythical figures. Colorful ceramic tiles can be seen on walls and the floor. The tiles may have been introduced by either the Dutch or the Chinese, but by the 20th century, art nouveau designs from England had become very popular. The earliest shop houses used Chinese roof tiles, but later Mediterranean terra cotta roof tiles were used.which to present elaborately-prepared meals.
A typical Peranakan house included a first hall, a second hall where the ancestral altar was placed, bedrooms, a bridal chamber, kitchen, and 1-2 courtyards which also served as air wells. As the wealth of the community increased in the early 20th century, Peranakan built bungalows and ostentatious villas replete with fine European chandeliers, mother-of-pearl Blackwood furniture and teak cupboards filled with colorful porcelains.
Peranakan ceremonies are a combina-tion of Chinese and Malay customs. Combining traditions from their eclectic history, Peranakan ceremonies celebrate a range of events from milestones to holidays to paying homage to the ancestors.
Stemming from a belief that the deceased walked the earth, there are many customs associated with funerals aimed at making sure the deceased is happy in the afterlife. After the death, all reflective surfaces are covered and often a Taoist priest or priestess is called in to clean and dress the body before placing it into the coffin.
Chinese New Year
The Chinese New Year is considered to be one of the most important holidays in the Lunar Year. It is a day to reconnect with extended family. The Chinese New Year always falls on the first day of the first lunar month, sometime between January 21st and February 20th on the Western calendar.
Ancestors are honored and remembered when homage is paid to inscribed tablets on the family altar. However, if the family members have settled in different places and there is no altar, then they pay homage to the oldest member of the family and to the ancestor tablets that are usually kept in temples.
Peranakan weddings are grand 12-day celebrations with one ceremony per day, all symbolizing the couple’s transition into adulthood and married life, as well as blessing the bridal bed and the couple’s future. All the ceremonies are coordinated and performed by members of both families, as a way of blessing the marriage and displaying their wealth. The dress is based on the wedding outfits of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), while the religious aspects are mainly Buddhist and Taoist.
Some of the most important skills for a young nyonya were embroidery and beadwork. Beginning at age 8-10, young girls were expected to produce a variety of items by the time they got married, including shoes, other clothing, and decorations for the bridal chamber. The quality and the quantity of the nyonya’s work depended on the nurturing she received when she was young; the amount of gold thread and beads became an indicator of wealth and status.
Nyonya, especially younger women, often prefer combinations of bright vivid colors and wear bright colored sarongs from the Northern Coastal area of Java, where Chinese artisans had dominated the batik cottage industry. An essential feature of the Peranakan sarong is the kepala kain, which normally has a contrasting panel from the rest of the sarong. This panel is placed so that it hangs neatly in front when the sarong is wrapped around the waist. Batik sarongs are usually worn with a sheer, densely embroidered pastel hued blouse called a kebaya.
Credit : East-West Center Gallery