A roomful of Nonya ladies in colourful embroidered kebaya blouses and floral sarongs, and Baba men in handsome batik shirts was a spectacular sight at the recent Peranakan Ball in Singapore! All the frolicking and cake-cutting was part of an annual drive to raise funds for The Peranakan Association, which this year celebrates its 115th birthday. President Tony Tan Keng Yam and his wife Mrs Mary Tan were the Guests-of-Honour.
However, Chinese Peranakans are not just foodies and fashionistas! Chinese Peranakans in Singapore generally take their roots from early Chinese traders who married local women in the former Malay archipelago and British Malaya (now Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore) between the 15th and 17th centuries. Also known at Straits Chinese, many were sent to missionary schools in the early 20th century and were able to speak at least three languages - Hokkien or other Chinese dialect, Malay and English.
The cultural, economic and social contribution made by many Peranakans to the nation is highlighted in the current exhibition ‘Great Peranakans: Fifty Remarkable Lives’ at The Peranakan Museum Singapore. The education of girls, civil infrastructure and even the successful social housing program are examples of areas championed by Peranakan individuals. The first Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, was undoubtedly one of the most internationally recognised Peranakans. A Cambridge educated lawyer and fluent in Malay and English, his Peranakan wife Madam Kwa Geok Choo was his intellectual match and a recipient of the coveted Queen’s Scholarship to Cambridge.
Peranakans in Singapore were represented in the early days by the former Straits Chinese British Association (SCBA), now known at The Peranakan Association. With a growing number of overseas associations in Malaysia, Thailand and even Australia, the Peranakan community is stretching its wings! Anyone is welcome to join and can enjoy the collectable issues of their twice-yearly magazine.
At the Peranakan Arts Festival Cultural Interludes event in November, I’ll be demonstrating how I create my Peranakan-inspired Japanese woodblock print. My limited-edition handmade prints will also be on sale then including the Peranakan Peony and new Tile Trade series. Take a sneak peek at my online store here!
It’s an exciting SG50 jubilee year for Singapore with lots of opportunities to experience Peranakan culture. Celebrate by learning about one of Singapore’s earliest multiracial and multicultural groups!