The Peranakan Chinese are descendants of Chinese traders who settled in parts of Southeast Asia and married local women from as early as the 15th century. Over time, these communities developed a hybrid culture influenced by local and foreign sources.
A Different Kind of Chinese?
Spicy dishes, tropical coloured outfits and grand shophouses - the Peranakan Chinese feature frequently in Singapore tourism brochures. However, their true identity remains a mystery to many. My research into my father’s background has helped me to discover that this intriguing culture extends well beyond just prawn paste and beaded slippers. So who are these Chinese-looking people with unique tastes influenced by Chinese, Malay and European elements?
What Does ‘Peranakan’ Mean?
Peranakan means ‘locally born’ in Malay and refers to the offspring of foreign traders and local women in Southeast Asia from as early as the 14th century. Peranakan Chinese are mostly descendants of traders from southern ports such Amoy (now Xiamen), who settled in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and the Straits Settlements (Malacca, Penang and Singapore). These traders established relations with local women likely to have been of Javanese, Balinese or Batak origin, and their children became known as ‘Baba’ (man), ‘Nyonya’ (young lady) and ‘Bikik’ (older lady).
According to legend, some Chinese Peranakans take their lineage from a Chinese princess sent to marry a local sultan in Malacca. Their children and those of her servants are said to have formed the early community in Bukit Cina in Malacca. Peranakan can also refer to much smaller communities such as Indian Muslims (Peranakan Jawi ), Indian Hindu (Peranakan Chitti) and Eurasian Peranakans.
Happy Local Wife, Happy Local Life
As his wife was able to speak the local lingo, the Chinese trader was able to leave his businesses in safe hands as he went back and forth to the ‘homeland’ during the early days. Some Chinese merchants are said to have maintained families back in mainland China as a practical way to ensure the family’s succession. The fact that Chinese women were not allowed to travel overseas till the mid 19th century was also a reason for having a local wife. As the numbers of Peranakan Chinese increased, their offspring began marrying within their own community through arranged marriages that were also useful for business alliances. Sometimes Nyonya were married to the newly-arrived immigrants from China known as ‘Sinkeh’.
More to come soon about the Peranakans!