The Complex Task of Being Chinese Peranakan

By Peter Soh

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Cedric and his family during Chap Goh Mei 2002. Photo: Peter Soh.

The Baba-Nyonya (or Chinese Peranakan) remains a subject of fascination. Much has been debated about the different nomenclatures – Peranakan, Straits Chinese, Straits-born Chinese and King’s Chinese – but the narrative of this Sino-Malay culture is never far from the popular image of a Nyonya in her embroidered sarong kebaya and her resplendent jewellery.

Such a gendered narrative has “frozen Peranakan culture and identity to a specific past”,1 and has led to the Peranakan identity being perceived as nothing more than the clothes she wears.

Does the sarong kebaya a Peranakan make, though? What defines this fusion culture, and how makes someone a “Peranakan”?

It’s Not about the Clothes on Your Back

According to Cedric Tan, a sixth-generation Baba from Melaka, it is in what you practise.

“Technically, one is Peranakan if the father is one – we follow the father’s bloodline. But in reality, this may not be the case. I have seen kids whose father is Chinese but whose mother is Nyonya speak the Baba patois and know the rituals and practices of the Peranakan. I have also seen both parents who are Peranakan pekat (true-blue Peranakan) but their children cannot even speak the language. Now, who is the Peranakan here?” Cedric asks.

Although a Teochew Chinese, Mrs Tan Chin Teat nee Madam Yeo (middle) wore sarong kebaya for most of her life. Her daughters were all seen in Chinese costumes in this picture. Photo: Peter Soh.

Challenging the idea of ancestry as the signifier of being Peranakan, Cedric, who is the president of the Persatuan Peranakan Baba Nyonya Kuala Lumpur & Selangor, asserts that it is never about wearing the sarong kebaya. In fact, most Peranakans never put one on except for family events or occasions.

“If you look at the Peranakans in Melaka today, most of the ladies don’t wear the sarong kebaya because it is very leceh (troublesome), especially to work in the house wearing one. The same goes for the baju panjang – the women nowadays never wear it at home. Even in the past, they would just wear the baju kecik – the cotton blouse underneath the baju panjang – at home for convenience. The kebaya is not something the Nyonyas use to strengthen their identity.”

Cedric explains it is technically easy to be “Peranakan” – one just needs to marry into or be adopted by a Peranakan family. However, it takes a certain level of understanding to know what constitutes Peranakan culture and practices, and this entails looking at the history and traditions to understand why certain rituals were carried out in the first place.

"Technically, one is Peranakan if the father is one – we follow the father’s bloodline. But in reality, this may not be the case."

“The Peranakans in KL sembahyang bulan tujuh (commemorate the Hungry Ghost Festival) on the eve of the seventh lunar month because they are influenced by Cantonese culture, which usually celebrates something a day earlier. The Peranakans in Melaka follow the original Hokkien tradition and will do it on the first, 15th and last day of the seventh lunar month. The practices vary in households, geography as well as in accordance with one’s dialect, but the commonalities never change.”

Other cultural and religious celebrations include Lunar New Year and Cheng Beng (tomb sweeping), which provide an avenue for the living to remember their ancestors’ sacrifices and reconnect with other family members.

Mrs Tan Chin Boon (left) and Mrs Tan Chin Teat (right) clad in Peranakan costumes even though both of them were from Teochew, China. Photo: Peter Soh.

The Peranakans take great pride in their Chinese identity2 – at least ritually – which they retain and remember through practices such as ancestor worship.

By the 19th century, the huge influx of Chinese immigrants from southern China had significantly changed the ethnography of the Peranakans – there were only a handful left who were actually of Sino-Malay origin by the time the Straits Settlements came into being in 1826.3

Most Peranakans had either married among themselves or were married to men or women from China. Their bloodline had become “more Chinese”; the residual Malay blood in them had slowly become diluted. Some even argued that Malay cultural principles did not really fit into Peranakan values.4

“We are Chinese after all – we have Chinese names. If you don’t practise ancestor worship, how can you claim to be Peranakan? You have got to practise the intangible forms. You cannot define or judge a Peranakan by what they wear – you can’t fake the knowledge and manners.

“Nowadays, you see many donning a white kebaya with a colourful sarong. You cannot simply wear a white kebaya in Melaka because it is worn during funerals. The same goes for dishes offered during sembahyang abu (ancestor worship) – you can’t put lauk merah (dishes that have the colour red in them, e.g. curry) on the altar just because it was the late person’s favourite food. You can do so during the prayers for his or her death anniversary, or Chinese New Year (as part of the reunion spread). It is all about doing things at the correct time.”

Lineage or Heritage?

In John Ang’s family, possessing Peranakan blood and devoting oneself to Peranakan rituals are completely different things when it comes to embracing one’s “genuine” Peranakan identity.

Even though John’s paternal lineage traces back to the Peranakan of Banjarmasin in South Kalimantan, he describes himself as a “fifth-generation Singaporean Chinese with Peranakan blood” rather than a Baba.

“I never grew up with Peranakan customs and rituals. I am more familiar with Teochew culture because we stayed next to my maternal grandmother in Singapore,” says Ang.

He is the great-great-grandson of Tan Hiok Nee, a well-known Teochew political figure and businessman in Singapore and Johor during the 19th century.5

Hiok Nee’s granddaughter-in-law and Ang’s maternal grandmother, Tan Chin Teat nee Madam Yeo, dressed in sarong kebaya throughout her entire married life, even though she was not a Nyonya.

“She was a China-born Teochew lady who only spoke Teochew, and never the Malay language,” says Ang. “She watched Teochew opera every day, but wore the sarong kebaya till she died.”

Holding a Master of Arts in Asian Art History from the University of Michigan, Ang explains that it is impossible to define one’s identity through clothing because it is a product with historical implications.

“The sarong kebaya is an amalgamation of different cultures, and it changed according to different periods in time. The kebaya was mostly white and lacy during the mid-19th century because of Dutch influence. In the 20th century, it became more elaborate due to the introduction of machine embroidery.”

The sarong kebaya was made even more complex and interesting when it travelled and landed in different regions.

“You have all kinds of kebayas – the Javanese kebaya, the Malay kebaya, the Terengganu kebaya, and so on. It is a facet of a broader Peranakan identity. When you put on the sarong kebaya, it represents your cultural heritage, but it doesn’t define you.”

And like anything we wear, it can become a statement of one’s status in life. Ang deduces that his grandmother chose to wear the sarong kebaya probably because she needed to distinguish herself as the matriarch of the family: “It was a statement of authority, especially when the husband was not around. Also, I think it was because of the convenience of purchasing and wearing one – in those days, the merchants would come to your door and sell them. Anyone could wear the sarong kebaya.”

The Young Peranakan Today

Sean Koay, 23, recalls how his maternal Cantonese grandmother, Madam Long Kim Yah, had to adopt the Peranakan way of life out of necessity. She had married into a Peranakan family.

“She had no choice because her mother-in-law, Cheah Kean Keap nee Lim Gim Siew, didn’t like her. So she dressed up as a Peranakan and learnt how to cook the dishes,” Koay says.

Madam Long could have stopped wearing the sarong after the passing of her mother-in-law, but she continued to wear it for many years after. She only stopped wearing it in recent years and till today, continues to cook Peranakan dishes for her family.

Sean's maternal grandmother, Madam Long Kim Yah, holding Sean's mother, Cheah Mei Chin. Photo: Peter Soh.

“I disagree with the notions of ‘pure Peranakan’ or ‘Peranakan celup’ (a non-Peranakan who has adopted Peranakan culture), or ‘half Peranakan’. The Peranakan culture from the very beginning has never been ‘pure’ because it consists of different cultures and influences,” Koay says.

For him, it is never about the costume or the language. Peranakan identity has gone through so many political and cultural changes that it can never be clearly defined. “Culture is fluid. The Peranakans in Penang cook perut ikan and jiu hu char, while the Melaka Peranakans cook ayam buah keluak. Penang Peranakans mainly speak Hokkien; while Melaka Peranakans speak Baba Malay. Does it make one less Peranakan than the other?”

Koay’s grandmother, Madam Long, practised Peranakan culture out of familial demands. His parents’ generation no longer practise the customs after they moved to new places for work.

And for Koay’s generation, he finds the entire idea of being Peranakan as always being about the past. “I cannot compare myself with the older Peranakans because we were born in different generations. It is good to know stories about the past, but I think we shouldn’t stop there. We should focus on what we can be because that was what our ancestors did – they adapted and evolved to suit the circumstances. The Peranakan identity is never a rigid one.”

To him, whether or not one chooses to recognise oneself as Peranakan is a personal matter. “Nobody is to tell us who we should be. I try to have more conversations with people about the Peranakans because I am interested in my heritage. I think it is important for people to know, for example, the history of the kebaya before they put one on. And we should also talk about the kuihs and acar – just like how we talk about croissants and kimchi.”

1Duruz, Jean, & Khoo, Gaik Cheng. (2015). The Little Nyonya and Peranakan Chinese Identity: Between Commodification and Cosmopolitanism. In J. Duruz & G. C. Khoo (Eds.), Eating Together: Food, Space, and Identity in Malaysia and Singapore (pp. 151- 171). Malaysia: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre.
2Tan, Chee-Beng. (1979). Baba Chinese, Non-Baba Chinese and Malays: A Note on Ethnic Interaction in Malacca. Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science, 7(1/2), 20-29.
3Png, Poh-Seng. (1969). The Straits Chinese in Singapore: A Case of Local Identity and Socio-Cultural Accommodation. Journal of Southeast Asian History, 10(1), 95-114.
4Tan, Chee-Beng. (1988). Structure and Change: Cultural Identity of the Baba of Melaka. Bijdragen tot de Taal, Land-en Volkenkunde 144(2/3), 297-314.

Peter Soh

is a Peranakan writer who is very interested in exploring the discourse and identity of the Chinese Peranakan. One of his Peranakan short stories was featured in the Emerging Malaysian Writers 2018 anthology. He is currently the Head of Humanities in Maple Leaf Kingsley International School, and teaches Sociology.