The Tale of a Japanese Peranakan

Tanaka and his mother.

At 51, Adel Yap Lye Meng is finally ready to share her story.

“Many of us keep it secret because of the vitriolic criticism we have received,” says the descendant of an allegedly powerful Japanese Peranakan family.

With her fair skin, deep-set eyes and high nasal bridge, Adel often receives questions about her ethnicity. However, things were more sensitive four decades ago: “I looked very Japanese in my late teens. There was once a taxi driver who asked if I was a ‘pure’ Chinese, to which I replied ‘no’. When he found out that I had Japanese blood, he wouldn’t stop saying how cruel the Japanese were. It was a stigma to say you were related to any Japanese.”

The Tanaka Family

Adel’s Japanese ancestry comes from her paternal great-grandmother, who was match-made to a member of a Penang merchant family to strengthen business ties between the two houses.

According to Adel’s grandfather, Tanaka (whose name consists only of his mother’s family name, translated to Yap Seng in Mandarin), there was a small number of Japanese who settled in Malaya before the First World War erupted. They worked as photographers, hairdressers and shopkeepers, while a sizeable number of the women were involved in prostitution.1

But with the Japanese consul seeking to curb prostitution, economic opportunities appearing during the rubber boom from 1909 to 1912, and the outbreak of the First World War, the landscape changed. The Japanese were attracted to the resources Malaya had and they slowly started gaining control of the rubber plantations, iron mines, commercial activities and the fishing industry. In December 1941 the gruesome Japanese Occupation of Malaya began.

Tanaka's mother's kamon.

Adel’s great-grandmother came from an important family in Japan and was revered even by the locals when she resided in Penang. “My grandfather told me that when Japanese soldiers wanted to arrest the women and children who were hiding in our house, my great-grandmother went out to the balcony. Without saying a word, she showed the solders the kamon2 sewn in her kimono and they quickly retreated.

“My grand-uncle was also captured by the Japanese army, but by the time my great-grandmother arrived to rescue him, it was too late – two pencils had been shoved into his ears. He passed away because of that.”

When the Second World War ended, the family lost contact with their relatives in Japan. And with the death of Adel’s great-grandmother, the Tanaka family history came to a halt.

The Kapitan Ewe family

As a young chap, Tanaka spent his time boxing and often boxed at the Bukit Bintang funfair, where the Lot 10 shopping centre currently stands. It was there that he met his wife, Ewe Ah Chit, a Nyonya from a long line of influential Kapitan Cina with links to Penang, Melaka and Seremban.

Adel performed as a ghost in the Lost Alphabet in 2013.

They were soon married and because there were no sons in the Ewe family, the Ewes made a pact with Tanaka to have his children take the Ewe surname instead of Yap. Being an outcast and interested only in boxing, Tanaka’s parents did not object as he was not the only son in the family. After the marriage, Tanaka worked as a clerk and had a son, Ewe Yap Loon – Adel’s father.

But Adel did not take the Ewe surname.

“My grandmother disapproved of my mother because she was Hakka, and because of that, she did not want us to take the Ewe surname. This is why my siblings and I are Yaps,” she says.

To add insult to injury, Adel’s mother ran away from home with her two other children, Adel’s elder brother and younger sister.  Wanting his son back, her father went off in pursuit of his wife, leaving Adel behind with her disapproving grandmother. Adel was only three when she was abandoned by both parents.

“My grandmother did not acknowledge me in public and would deny that I was her granddaughter,” says Adel. “I remember she used to say I should be called ‘tong sampah’ (rubbish bin). I was treated poorly at home. I had to wake up at 5am to help with the housework, but in hindsight, this was where I got to know about Peranakan culture.”

Sanctuary in Art

Growing up a loner, Adel sought solace in theatre. To date, she has performed in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Japan and Vienna. “Speech and drama have given me a wealth of strength and self-love – to be bold and to cherish every part of my existence without prejudice,” she says with a smile.

Out of the 30 productions that she has been involved with, the Lost Alphabet by Jane Chen in 2013 was her favourite. “It felt weird at first because I played a Japanese ghost. She was a metaphor for memories and one’s past and when I understood her, I immersed myself in the character because I have always felt connected to my past even though it did not explicitly manifest itself in my life,” says Adel.

Adel when she was young.

She has yet to perform any Peranakan-themed dramas, but would like to one day tell a story about this part of her heritage using physical theatre – one with many movements and expressions, and without dialogue. “It would be a story about the women back then. For them, they did not see the lack of education or maintaining a household as oppression – it was a privilege. I am interested to learn more about them, and in the process learn more about myself.

Peter Soh has published his works in Eksentrika, Malaysian Indie Fiction, Ricepaper Magazine and Penang Monthly. One of his short stories was featured in the upcoming Emerging Malaysian Writers 2018 anthology.

1Yuen, Chong Leng. (1978). The Japanese Community in Malaya before the Pacific War: Its Genesis and Growth. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 9(2), 163-179.
2During the late Heian period in Japan (1100s) when war was rampant, the kamon, an emblem, was a signifier of one’s membership and family name. The warriors and nobles used kamon to distinguish their origins and bloodlines and it was often displayed on their swords, ships, flags, curtains, roof tiles and formal attire. During the Edo period (1603-1868), the kamon was used to differentiate social classes.

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