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Hello & Welcome to the "Reflections" section of the The Peranakan Resource Library Archives !! We have countless posts from Peranakans worldwide on their reflections about Peranakan culture of yesteryear. We thank all of you for your generous contributions and thanks for supporting us and making us the best online library dedicated to Peranakan culture on the net !! Read on to find out what Peranakans worldwide have to say !

 

REFLECTIONS ON PERANAKAN CULTURE OF YESTERYEAR

 

I remember that my grandmother, I also saw my makcho or greatgrandmother when I was young. She would be dressed in her baju panjang and she had a rambot sanggol on her head. Her kerosangs were large and were covered with intans and berlians. She also had alot of jade and gold jewelry on her. She would chew or makan sireh all day and it made her mouth really red, like it was stained with fresh blood. As a child I was always frightened of my grandma or mama as we called her as her mouth was always satined red. She would also play cherki alot and loved to sing, recite pantuns and perform the joget. She also loved cooking all the various nonya foods and kuehs. She used to make 20 types of nonya kueh just for Chinese New Year ! She would also have a tok panjang for weddings, funerals, birthdays and Chinese New Year. She sopke Baba Malay that is very different from today's Baba Malay. Her Baba Malay sounded more Indonesian than malay. She passed away in the 1970's, it was really sad to lose her, she was the only bibik left inb the family that practiced the Peranakan culture of old. I really miss those days alot. I only wish that Peranakan culture of old was still around. When I look back at my childhood, I begin to realise that I cherish a lot, I cherish it because we Peranakans dont live like that anymore. I have two photos and portriats of my mama and I have framed them in a large frame for all to see. My children both in their late 20's are not sadly interested in the unique and vibrant culture of their ancestors.

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Long time ago in Penang(circa 1890 - late 1930's), when Chinese New Year was drawing near, the Nyonya ladies would commission tailors for three baju panjang to be made. The first piece would be worn on the First day, the second on Cheh Khow (9TH Day)and the last would be used for parading on Chap Goh Meh. The unmarried ladies would be decked with the finest jewelleries and chapparoned by their younger brothers and taken for the only ride of the year passing by the famous streets of the city of George Town. Since every Baba household would do this and even competing with each other to show off their wealth, it became the sort of motorcade of the year. It would begin with those who were the wealthiest with their latest motor car driven by their drivers to the last with the trishaw. It was the time of their lives as well as for the Baba guys who by now would have formed a beeline on both side of the road to judge which among these beauties would best fit them. If any fit them, the next day, the match maker would be at the home of the girl asking for her hand.Since World War 2 and the years following that this tradition has vanished but for some 30 - 50 years now, what you have for Chap Goh Meh is a decorated bus with Nyonya ladies decked in Baju Panjang and Sarong Kebaya and Uncle William Tan together with Penang singers singing Dondang Sayang and old Malay songs while the bus travels around the city and at some stage performing in front of the Esplanade and in Gurney Drive for the crowd. The t radition of throwing the Orange have been revivied with a sort of a competition spirit.

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I fondly remember my late grandmother and grand aunts, She was educated at the Singapore Chinese Girl's School, a Peranakan school. She would always be playing cherki in her spare time. She also made this drink made from tea and ginger, I cant seem to remember what it was but it seemed to be a very popular Peranakan drink in my family. They took it everyday especially in the morning and night. I think its some sort of gingerale though Im not very sure. My grandma stopped using the kebaya daily when I was born. She only used it on special occasions. She also did not believe in the old ways or in the old culture. She told me that all her family members converted to Christianity before she was born so she was a very westernised and modern nonya. She was born in the late 1920's and passed a way in the late 1990's she lived to a very ripe old age. She also cooked nonya food only occasionally and did not know much about Peranakan culture as her family was already Christian in the 1910's. She told me that Peranakan families converted to Christianity in around the 1940's en masse. She also said that the Christian faith contradicts much of Peranakan culture. As such they abandoned most of the culture in favour of western Christian values and beliefs. She also told me that what was happening here to peranakan culture now was merely what happened when her family converted, nothing new she said. I finally began to realise why Peranaakn culture is now in its present state of decline. It is declining not because it died a natural death, but is dying because of social and religious change that has taken place in the last 80 years. These are the 2 things that have led Peranakan culture to the present state it is in. My grandmother told me that culture only fades away when there is great religious and social change on a community. As these 2 changes had a devastating impact on the Peranakan way of life, it is now sadly fading away.

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Hi. I'd like to share with you what was expected in my family. I'm from Penang, Custom/Taboo: Meal time, kids have to greet all the elders first before eating. Eg: Mummy makan, Daddy makan. This is very troublesome when you are having family reunion and there are like, 12 old people sitting there, and you have to make your round either clock wise or anti-clockwise. The reason it being so troublesome is, half the time, you forgot how you are suppose to greet your 1st/2nd/3rd aunty, and whether they are from your father's side, or mother's side.Other cute taboos include: No singing while on the meal table eating, consequences: you will marry an old man/woman.No singing in the toilet while you are doing your "business" either, cause you will end up marrying old man or old woman.No pointing at the moon, or you get your tongue cut? (sorry, a bit blur about this one).Festival: Chinese New Year. First day have to pay respect to parents. Usually involve kneeling down in front of them, and wishing them all the good things in life (the longer the wishes, the better). Usually starts with: "kong xi kong xi, long life to dad and mum, may you strike 4d, have many many grandson and granddaughter etc etc....." (you get the point). After that, you get your ang pow. Language: For 6 years old, I think the worst thing to remember about the languages, are the proper greetings to uncle and aunty! Father's side and mother's side are greeted differently, and whether they are older or younger then your parents also plays a part. So language wise, you are suppose to master all that. Other basic language I can't quite recall. Because I grew up in a Peranakan setting, I wasn't aware that I was peranakan until I was in high school when I discovered that some of my friends can't understand a word I say when I talk to them. For example, I didn't know "binatang" was a peranakan word. I always thought it was, until my friend told me that it was a malay word.

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Hello : I would like to contribute this here. It was written by my late mother, it is a very touching and sad account of the hardship of war, faith in religion and acceptance of life's hurdles. She wrote this in her personal diary meant as a written record for my children: I was born in 1931, in Katong. in an old bunglow in front of Katong Beach. I loved my childhood, those really were the days, I remember that we would always have tea on the beach and I would spend hours walking the entire strecth of beach with my dear cousin. We had 2 maids, 1 ah mah, a jaga and a cook. Those days of luxury were gone when the war came, we suffered horribly. My father and brother were killed in the Sook Ching Massacre and the Japanese did umentionable things to my sister. My mother decided to sell the palatial home that was in my family for 2 generations. We sold the home with its entire contents for a measly sum due to the war. My uncle helped us shift to a terrace home in Joo Chiat road. It was a home that belonged to another Peranakan family that had fled for safety to Batam, on the way the ship they were on was bombed by the Japanese. My Uncle was given the keys to the house for safekeeping and he in turn gave it to us. The home was in a mess, it had been looted by the people and Japanese soldiers. I detested the Japanese for what they did. I hated them with every bone in my body, but I knew that I had to forgive them for they did not know what they did. The home was then claimed by the Uncle of one of the survivors of the ship and we in turn shifted to live with my second Uncle.

My mother died of heartbreak. She was so heart broken that she died a year after the war ended. When she died I sold all her nonya jewelry, the few items of nonya porcelian and silver that was left. I suffered a hard life then, We werent the only ones to suffer, many Peranakans suffered this way too, many other Peranakan families lost loved ones and lost their entire fortunes after the war. My mother also forced me to marry someone I did not love, she thought that it was better for me as my brother and, father were no more. The final blow came when my sister was fondled with and assaulted, my dear sister lost her mind after that incident. My mother arranged for a marriage as soon as that happened, I agreed and was married to a Chinaman whose culture and ways of thinking was so different from mine. I was unhappy even after the war, I regained joy in life only when I accepted Christ, my thoughts and perspective on life changed, I found joy that I never had before. I began to feel love for myself, my husband, my family and most importantly I accepted the hardships I faced since the war began. My dear grandchildren, as you read this I would have gone away to meet the Lord. I am dying of cancer, and will not be able to live on to see you my beloved chuchus. I write this down so that my grandchildren will have this record for prosterity and so that my grandchildren will know at least a little about me. I have also written down many things about Peranakan culture in this little diary. Please take care of my sarong kebayas, jewelery and nonya beaded slippers, pass them down to your children. With much love my dear grandchildren, from your grandmother, I will always love you and be with you..... waiting to see all of you all soon where we will be together with our Lord Jesus Christ..Farewell I love you all deeply.......

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My ah ee or grand aunt was the most Peranakan of all other relatives, even more Peranakan than my own grandmother. My grandmother's family was from Malacca and they settled here in Singapore in the 1910's. My ah ee spoke in typical baba malay of old, it was very refined and contained a lot of old Peranakan phrases and words not spoken today. She was always in the baju panjang all day, never would she don the sarong kebaya, she said that that was only for the young ones and not for the old. She was a very refined old lady. She adored the joget and could sing the dandang sayang like a professional, she also enjoyed eating seray and loved making nonya slippers and nonya kueh, I only saw her in the kitchen, she was always there, morning, day and night, and I loved eating her buah keluak, it was the best I had ever eaten. I always saw it sad that Peranakan culture has changed so much, we have lost so much. If only I could have been born then and not in the late 20th century as I was. I am Peranakan by virtue of my mother, my Dad is only part Peranakan and that was from his grandmother's side. Peranakan culture isnt alive in my family, my wife isnt Peranakan. My children however say that they consider themselves Peranakan as Im three quarters Peranakan, at least the Peranakan identity survives partially in my family, its better than losing everything even your identity. Now that would be sad if it were so.

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There is a Penang Nyonya Hokkien saying, (To throw good orange will bring good husband, to catch an orange will fetch a good wife) Another Penang Peranakan tradition for Chap Goh Meh is that we always cook Pengat Pisang to end the celebration with a sweet note. I still cook it. Hmnn..just love it.Now for the kneeling down to our elders during the Chinese New Year and their repective birthdays, I believe its more like our forhead touching the floor while wishing them the auspicious blessings of Happy New Year. I remember my grandparents and parents educating me and my sisters to perform this as a child to my great grand parents for the New year and receiving a big fat ang pow. In recent years, I have stopped this tradition since my parents are the only older generation left and they hare not in favour of this anymore. Well, one day if God permits, I might teach this to my own children.

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It is the Peranakan pratice to sojar our parents and elders during Chinese New Year and Birthdays. And the Chye Kee with the ends tied up with bunga teratai will hung up on the day the gods report back to heaven.This is how you tell a Peranakan household. A Peranakan house never hang the chye kee up on the eve of the New Year as the other Chinese pratice. During birthdays mee sua is cooked and served to the birthday celebrant.The mee sua is cooked and the soup can be babi charbek with spare parts added or a plain soup using pork bones as stock, garlic, minced pork balls, egg, spare parts.

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THE BABA OF YORE - AN EXTINCT SPECIES

1) Speaks "King's English" with a mixture of Hokkien / Malay words. 2) Able to write and express himself well in English, some speak with cultivated English accent. 3) Probably had an English education overseas - England . 4) Favours Western clothes: hats , bows , neckties, waistcoats, jackets while at work 5) Prefers to wear the roomy sarong and white cotton sleeves T - shirt at home .6) Wears elegant imported leather shoes k'ok-k'ok-eh at work, though he finds it more practical to wear wooden clogs at home .7) The rich Baba loves horse racing, gambling, ballroom dancing, motor racing, visiting the cabaret, hunting , radio listening, drinking , womanizing , singing and swimming 8) Avoids menial jobs ; some need not work at all. 9) The fabulously rich would have their own stables, vintage cars, bi-planes and mansions. 10) Smokes a pipe using imported tobacco . 11) Carries a pocket watch attached to a silver or gold chain. Swaggers about using a walking stick. 12) He is usually a professional, a doctor, a lawyers, an architect, or a civil servant. 13) Owns European artefacts such as: a) Silverware : trophies , tea sets , cutlery . b) English silver dinner sets, teacups and teapots . c) English glassware and furniture . 14) Collects English royal memorabilia : From Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II.15) He has a library of English books , dictionary , encyclopedia .16) He owns record players or gramophones spinning English records.17) Loves Western Classical Opera- the operas of Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, Rossini, Donizetti etc. even though he may not understand any of the lyrics.18) Chooses to play the piano, guitar, violin, accordion etc. Forms musical bands.19) Sings Western favourite folk songs and songs from Western and Hollywood movies and Broadway musicals. Later enjoys Dondang Sayang, Keronchong, Lagu Asli (traditional songs).20) Enjoys Western style dancing like ballet, modern dance, ballroom, tap-dancing, folk dancing etc. Also enjoys dancing Malay ronggeng, joget and Thai Ramvong.21) Plays Western chess and Western outdoor games. Loves British sports: cricket, football rugby, hockey, tennis, badminton, cycling, motoring, horse racing,, swimming, diving, waterloo, flying and even photography.22) Respects the British National Anthem, "God Save The Queen". 23) Undivided loyalty and respect to England .

24) Prefers to converse mainly in English among friends and peers. 25) Children sent to schools in England . 26) He prefers to join the Civil service as administrator or teacher. Others (from rich families) go overseas to study and come back as lawyers or doctors. 27) In urban areas prefers to live in eclectic style terrace house. 28) To him, filial piety is very important and he has respect for the Trinity of Earth, Heaven and Man. 29) Addressing every one of his elders in turn and inviting them to eat at meal times.30) Elders themselves have to set very good examples in speech, manners, eating and dressing. Inculcate good values to the young.31) Addresses a relative, friend or an elder correctly and politely for example: tua ko, tua so, jee pek, jee chim, kor, ee, tneoh, peow chi and so on.32) Never rude to elders - always uses polite language when speaking to them.33) Dresses neatly and appropriately for the occasion. Avoids wearing red to a funeral wake, black or blue clothes to a wedding or any auspicious occasion.34) Supervises and pays great attention or detail in the preparation of food and carrying out ancestral rites before the altar table. 35) Visits among relatives and close friends are encouraged: 36) Quite tolerant of the religious beliefs of other races. Consults Chinese mediums, Malay Datoks/Nenek when need arises. 37) Upholds the motto, "Good name is better than riches"; guards his and his family's reputation jealously. 38) Upholds his dignity, maintains his pride and fulfils his promises.

39) Celebrates birthdays and anniversaries as does a Westerner. 40) Babas who have turned Christian would have married in the Western style, in Western wedding costumes and in full Christian wedding ceremonies. But they still retain and observe the traditional Chinese wedding tea-serving ceremony (especially for non Christian parents and relatives). 41) Follows closely the traditional Hokkien-style funeral service. 42) Funeral rites, superstitions, forms of burial, funerary time-table, mourning clothes and the addition of 3 years for Heaven, Earth and Man to the deceased actual age. Burial or cremation rites observed. 43) Christian Babas would adopt Christian style of funeral and funeral rites. Burials after Church service. 44) Has knowledge of the Animal of the Chinese Lunar Year in which he was born. Ability to calculate another person's age if he knows the Animal year in which the person was born. 45) Favours sons over daughters. 46) Reluctant to make a will (being highly superstitious). 47) Not interested in learning, speaking Mandarin or writing Chinese. Prefers to speak with a mixture of Malay and English. 48) Snubs or avoids the Chinese educated and despises other Chinese groups privately calling the China gerk or sinkek (newcomers), terng-snua ta (stupid Chin amen), the latter term applied to menial workers or low class, coarse folk having no status or class.

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WRITTEN BY DR LIM BOON KENG (SINGAPORE)

THE TIME IS LONG PAST for any progressive Chinese to postpone action in effecting necessary social and political reforms simply because in so doing the conservative prejudices of the people have to be ignored or opposed. We do not propose to say anything regarding political reforms because these are fraught with almost insuperable difficulties and are well beyond the scope of the Reform Party in the Straits Settlements. I therefore address myself solely to such questions as interest our Straits Chinese who are British subjects. Whatever may be said in this and succeeding articles apply to these latter only, as I do not wish to include subjects of the Ta-tsing rulers as the Chinese people who have no alternative before them but reform. The subjects of the Empress Dowager of the Ta-tsing dynasty must obey the laws and institutions of the great Ta-tsing Code and regulations. They can only reform at the point of the sword, and they can only gain independence by wading through the blood of countless thousands. Not even a sympathetic emperor can do aught to lighten for them the burden of Mandarin tyranny and oppression, and all patriotic Chinese must long to see the millions of the Middle Kingdom brought to the knowledge of the rights of man and thus induced to struggle for the removal of the yoke which presses them down so grievously.

But we Straits Chinese are free men! We are free in the sense that we are subjects of the Queen Empress who governs the British Empire on constitutional principles and through whom all the varied races under the aegis of the British flag are united in one bond of brotherly sympathy and accord. All those rights and privileges which the Commons of the United Kingdom had wrested from the Crown have now become the birthright of all who owe allegiance to the Queen. In view of those great and inestimable privileges we declare that it is unpatriotic and unwise on our part to allow the prejudices of our forefathers who were not British subjects, to deter us from pursuing the only course to advancement socially and intellectually - to wit, from the abandonment or alteration of ways and customs opposed to progress as well as from the formation or adoption of views and doctrines in consonance with the culture of civilised nations. We sorely lack the power of initiative, and this apparent feebleness of originality of mind and action can only be accounted for by the persistent oppression and cruelty to which our forefathers had been subjected. Now, even though we have all the liberty and privileges of free men, we are instinctively afraid to move out of certain grooves in which through association with our countrymen from China and our defective and pernicious system of Chinese education, we still delight to remain, and we are prepared to decry all renovators as traitors to our nationality.

We must change The indisputable fact, however, remains that the Chinese system of thought and social polity, must be changed or adapted to the newer needs of international intercourse, else we as Chinese must forfeit all the advantages which we otherwise enjoy, and must be content with joy, and must be content with only a secondary place in the social and commercial struggles of the nations. We, who are British subjects must claim to exercise all the privileges to which quoad British subjects we are entitled , but in order that our claims might be respected by the proper authorities we must prove by the lives and conduct and works of our people that are deserving of the citizenship of the British Empire. Individually, it may not matter very much to each Straits Chinese whether he continues to pursue unaltered the ways of his forefathers, or whether he sets to work to introduce such reforms as to place himself socially and intellectually in the position which as a British subject he ought to hold. Collectively, however it makes all the difference in the world, for I take it that the ignorance and defects of individuals reflect on the class.

I premise, as a safe and unimpeachable principle for Reformers, the necessity of abandoning a custom or habit or idea or ceremony if it can be satisfactorily shown that the latter is either useless, objectionable or inconsistent with progress. In the present article let us consider very briefly the queue question. Peoples object very much to change their costumes by direction, but the experiences of history teaches that in nothing else do nations change more frequently than in the matter of dress. Except in the case of modern Japan, which must in every respect stand as a paradox in the history of nations, changes in national dress have been brought about more or less gradually. Confining our remarks to British subjects of Chinese race, we must at once confess that the Straits people have evolved a special kind of costume which indicates no less clearly the influence of European and Malay dress than its Chinese origin.

Naturally, as English education spreads, the tendency towards adoption of European modes of dressing becomes greater. But we should not be in a hurry to exchange our present elegant, convenient and comfortable dress for the better fitting European clothes; although for special purposes we should have no hesitation in adopting them, e.g. in active employment and in taking part in violent exercises.

The tow-chang is useless The tow-chang is hardly part of our dress. It is merely a mode of doing up the hair. The only reason that I need urge against the custom is its absolute uselessness and inconvenience. The tow-chang can be done away with; and its absence will not in the least affect the Chinese prejudicially in one way or another. On the contrary they will have given up a troublesome and elaborate coiffure. The only people likely to suffer will be the barbers, but these will have to seek other employment or adapt their trade to the new custom. There is no reason why those who like to plait their hair into a long queue should not do so. The reformers have not the least objection to the tow-chang being worn by those who prefer to keep it on. But the reason we have laid great stress on its abolition is that in our opinion the conservative instinct of our race is so great and so deeply rooted that unless some important step is definitely taken to indicate a forward march there will always be back-sliding, and then there the convenient excuse, “Oh, we must not alter from the ways of our forefathers."

If the intelligent and educated Chinese who at the same time are British subjects, are not prepared to give up a practice which is troublesome, inconvenient and absolutely without any benefit, then we need not hope that the same people will be prepared to make any serious attempt to move with the times, i.e. to adapt the old Chinese views and ways to the requirements of modern civilisation. After a prolonged and careful study of the question, I have to confess that this is impossible unless and until the Chinese will make a clean breast of all ancient authority and will dare to stand on their own judgment, unswayed by the reproaches of those unwilling to reform. ‘Tis true and ‘tis a pity ‘tis true that in most countries, and particularly in China, the influence of the unprogressive majority has always had the effect of retarding necessary and beneficial reforms, which often can be initiated at the cost of martyrdom to the first fearless spirits that dared to act contrary to the accustomed way.

The tow-chang must go! Historically the continuance of the practice by British subjects is quite indefensible. The Ta-tsing Government looks upon the tow-chang as a sign of allegiance to the Manchu sovereign. The history of the struggles which were continued between Manchus and Chinese goes for nothing among us the unworthy and degenerate descendants of those patriots who preferred death to submission to the most ignominious condition ever imposed by the victors upon the vanquished. It is now time even for the Chinese who are Manchu subjects to stand up for reform, and like Kan-yu-wei and his colleagues, to face oppression and persecution, if need be. Therefore we should not hesitate on historical grounds to pronounce that the wearing of the tow-chang by British subjects is quite improper. Nor has the abolition of the tow-chang anything to do with religion. It is merely a sign that those who give up the custom are prepared to change their ways and views in any direction whatsoever in order to improve themselves and their people. But the reform must be a real reform within and without, not a mere adoption of an European external covering to hide the olds sores of an inner life. No, we want reforms on national lines. We have too much to lose to forget that we are Chinese. Our opposers say that we wish to renounce our race! No, we do not wish to do that. If we did, we would have wished in vain, for if there is one thing a man cannot do, it is to change physical features. A Chinese always remains a Chinese however he may dress and wherever he may live. Does anyone pretend that the long-queued European missionary in Mid-China is a Chinese? Certainly not.

The missionary despite his tow-chang is an European or American. Now the very reason which induces these good men to adopt the tow-chang in their travels among millions who know next to nothing of foreign countries except that the latter are the lands of savages is the justification for our doing away with it. When we are going to Mid-China, let us put it on! Reformers can adopt any religion they please. It does not fall within the scope of reform to enforce uniformity of religion. Nor indeed is such an attempt at uniformity desirable. The history of religion in Europe teaches too distinctly the dangers of enforcing a uniform religion amongst all manners and conditions of people. We must allow perfect liberty of conscience, and allow others to live in the faith they have chosen with the same freedom as we would that others suffer us to do in our own case. Therefore it is erroneous to say that the reform movement is a Christian movement. It is no more Christian than Confucian – but for the present many Christians are in favour of reform. The reform moment aims at the eventual emancipation of the Chinese from those social and intellectual restraints which now prevent their development in new directions, and as a first step towards the goal, the tow-chang must go!

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I met the late Mr Gwee Peng Kwee during the twilight of his life. He was 81 years old, trapped with weakened limbs and dimming eyesight but his mind was brilliant with memories of his youth, his passion for music and dance, and most of all, his superlative gift of composing dondang sayang verses. It started with an interview I had with a notable Baba on Peranakan Chinese New Year customs for the then Straits Times Section Two. Mr Gwee challenged one point on the nasi kunyit tradition which was mentioned in the feature by writing me a letter. This led me to question him further on subjects of Peranakan interest as he was already renowned among the Babas and Nyonyas as the doyen of dondang sayang singers.

I would, over a period of three years and armed with a tape recorder, attend to his summons as I focussed on the early carefree days of minstrel groups, Peranakan drama groups, and his wit and mastery of the Malay language that epitomised a great dondang sayang bard. Not many of my generation would have had the opportunity of witnessing a dondang sayang session. Musicians and singers are normally assembled in a circle while the non-participants follow every pantun or verse along the perimeter. The set-up is casual with audiences moving in and out with food and drinks and children scrambling at the adults' feet.

First, there is the unmistakeable lead-to strain of the violin, a pause, and the opening couplet by a singer, male or female, followed by the musical accompaniment of a gong and a couple of rebanas (side drums). This refrain offers the singer a moment to refine the composition of the remaining two lines which hold the substance of the verse. There is clapping and exclamation of appreciation or mock disdain all round as the words are fully comprehended. Then someone takes up the challenge of the verse and signals to the others his readiness to banter verse with verse, always in keeping with the theme offered. Sometimes a pantun is directed to an individual to test his mettle. Compliments or sarcasm are given in metaphors that the young or ininitiated might not catch.

This poetic banter can go on for hours, the tension and laughter made all the more merry with stengahs of whisky or mugs of beer to clear the throat and loosen the tongue. Sometimes the subject matter can be ribald when not in mixed company. At other times, as Gwee recounted, there were tears and singing as when he brought a group together for his brother's funeral in 1972. The subject of the pantun can be on love, budi (virtue) and death. Silver and gold, the sun and moon, trees, fruits, birds, animals and food are metaphors used in the pantun. Gwee's early entry into the esteemable group of pantun singers was memorable. In fact it was a downright humiliation. The taunt came like a slingshot.

Mabok daun, buah nya tak ’da,Buak ka-semak, di ramai-nya indah.(Full of leaves but no fruits,You are an encumbrance to the beautiful garden.)Quick on the mark, young Gwee thought up his repartee. Ini tahun tak berbuah, Lain tahun berbuah lagi. (If I don't bear fruit this year, I’ll flower next year, And when I flower, then there will be fruits.)

His biggest move into the world of dondang sayang came when Gwee moved to Carpmael Road in Katong, heartland of the Peranakans. The Gunong Sayang Association was just a few doors away from his house which he had not realised. Standing by a telephone post, he heard the familiar voices of his uncle and cousin who spotted him and promptly invited him to a party. 'The next day, there was a satay party. I enjoyed the satay and after that we sat around and listened. I had heard dondang sayang before but I had never sung a pantun. Sure, I knew a few pantuns, every Baba has a few in his repertoire. My uncle gave me a few verses which I memorised a few minutes later. After a while I beat them hollow. I learned quick.' At the age of 40 Gwee joined the Gunong Sayang Association. He was the youngest pantun-singing member out of a handful of old-timers. 'You must have a good command of the Malay language -- its proverbs, idioms and expressions. I ate, slept and dreamt dondang sayang. I learned my Malay through the unabridged dictionary by R.O. Winstedt. From there I formed my pantuns,' Gwee recalled.

Chempedak di-luar pagar,Ambil galar tolong jolok-kan;Saya budak baru belajar,kalau salah, tolong tunjuk-kan. (The chempedak fruit is outside the fence, Bring me the bamboo pole, help pull down the fruit; I am a boy who is still learning,
If I am wrong please show me the way.)
Budak-budak di-luar pagar, Ambil galah, jolok kelapa, Budak-budak baru belajar, Kalau salah, tak ’ kenapa. (Children outside the fence, Take the bamboo pole and pluck the coconut; Newcomers are just learning, Nevermind if they falter.)

Challenges soon came his way. 'I was at a wedding party with the dondang sayang players and I was invited to sing. A Malay gentleman agreed to start the singing and another from the party must reply. He directed himself at me: "Encik nyanyi dulu. Saya jawab." 'I was struck, I blushed. The music was playing and the audience urged me to reply. It was shameful. The Malay gentleman was asking: Baba pandeh, saya tanya: Bulan berjalan, mana kaki-nya? (Baba is clever, so I ask of you: The moon moves but where are its legs?) 'I answered: The moon moves not a length of padi, The clouds move, the world revolves; The moon moves through the power of God The snake crawls, where are his feet?'

So profound an answer was given that soon Gwee's formidable reputation as a stylish pantun composer grew. During the peak of pantun singing, competition was rife with contests held in Malacca and Singapore. Gwee was equally proud to say that he had coached some Malay singers with his original work. Occasionally, he sent a few verses to the local radio station for broadcasting. Later, he viewed with disdain the decline of dondang sayang as he watched prepared pantuns sung by singers for the televised dondang sayang programmes. Mr Gwee passed away in 1986 leaving behind about 7,000 handwritten pantuns, most of which were his own compositions, in specially bound volumes. The majority of the verses have not been published.

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