Visitors to our Archives since June 2003

 

Hello & Welcome to the "Thoughts" section of the The Peranakan Resource Library Archives !! We have countless posts from Peranakans worldwide on their thoughts about Peranakan culture. 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 !

 

THOUGHTS ON PERANAKAN CULTURE & FEELINGS OF IDENTITY

 

Hello Im in Canada, we immigrated here ten years ago from Singapore. Its almost impossible to impart Peranakan culture to our children in a western country. Ive tried to much dissapointment. Even my own husband who isnt Peranakan feels that there isnt any point in incalcating Peranakan culture to them. So the only thing Peranakan that I do at home is try my best to cook nonya food. Its also impossible to wear the kebaya in freezing cold temperatures so that is definately out of the question. I dont know much about Peranakan culture, my parents never did talk alot about it at all. So Im just left with the cuisine here. Its also rather difficult to get the ingredients needed for nonya cuisine. As such my children dont know anything about Peranakan culture. I try telling them about it but they just arent interested. I try my best, but it is very difficult to live a Peranakan life in the west. I dont think Peranakan culture will live on in my family. Thats something I just have to accept.

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I'd like to contribute this: I got this from my cousin when she came back from Australia. According to her, as a kid she and her friends used to play hide-and-seek ( a-chee-lok ). And one of their favorite place for hiding was behind doors. Well according to her Mom, if you ever hide behind the door then the Hantu Tetek will come for you ! The Hantu Tetek will then shove her "tetek"s at you and you must tell her which one is sweet and which one is sour !! ;P Else you will be in big trouble....She said that she actually had nightmare about this as a kid. :P Not too sure if she was pulling our legs at a family dinner.

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Hi, Im from Surabaya. My Malaysian Peranakan friend in my uni, Monash Malaysia told me about this site. As I grew up in Indonesia, I always knew I was chinese and that I was Peranakan as we dont speak Chinese. My grandma was always using the sarong kebaya before she died and cooked Indonesian Peranakan food at home. She always sopke in Javanese to me and told me about the life of my ancestors. She also told me that Peranakan culture was not allowed by the government during the Indonesian revolution and when Suharto took over, so I guess Peranakan culture died first before all other Peranakan communities. I have many Peranakan friends in Indonesia, most of Surabaya is Peranakan and we all speak javanese at home, in school and with our families. We dont have anymore Peranakan culture like my ancestors did but we still call oursleves Peranakan Cina even today. I think that almost 90% of jawa is Peranakan the rest like Sumatra and Kalimantan is maybe 50% Peranakan as they mostly speak hokkien not local dialects..

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Being Peranakan is more than having a Chinese-"Malay" ancestry (historically, there may be a non-Chinese female ancestor). There are Peranakans with no known "Malay" ancestor.Being Peranakan is more of a socio-cultural identity and heritage issue - it is being part of a community with similar ethnographic traits and social mores & norms. Here is a pantun I would like to share: melawat teman di Tanjung Pinang, duduk bersembang hingga kepetang, teman lama tetap dikenang, teman baru,diucapkan selamat datang. If you want to get a Baju Lok Chuan made contact Baba Philip Chia of Babanese to tailor your baju lok chuan. email him at the following : mailto:babanese@yahoo.com, or call him 9795 1611
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Im a Baba Jati from Singapore. I was born in the 1950's to Peranakan parents. My parents did not talk to me in Baba Malay neither did they teach me how to speak it. My grandparents were the only ones who spoke the langauge. I only got to speak it and understand it in a rather shallow way. My wife isnt Peranakan neither are most Peranakans of pure Peranakan extraction today. I am a person uninterested in culture so I dont think it is neccessary to pass my culture on to my children. I hope that at least one of them is interested in the culture so that it will at least live on for a generation or two.

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Just got to write this. Me and my brother went to this nyonya restaurant at Novena the other day, and the food was simply fa-bu-lous!!!! Name : Baba & Nyonoa Venue: Opposite Novena Square. Just cross the road towards Revenue House and turn right. The place is rather cheap too! Each dish cost about $6 only!!! So very value for money lah! And we had the ayam curry, which was thick and rich, as well as the itek tim which wasn't that great (too much asam). But we tried something called "Hati Babi Bungkus" which roughly translate to "Wrapped Pig's Liver". Yeah, sound disgusting! But taste great!!!! It's minced hati babi, wrapped in, what my brother proclaim as, chicken skin! Yummy! Fried to perfection!!! Anyway, just wanted to share a great place for makan! Two of us ate came up to around $25? A great deal!!! Unfortunately, they only have one branch.

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Being Peranakan evolves having two races fusion into one.It is because of a immigrant Chinese man and Native Malay woman had an intermarriageAnd the last product is us the Peranakans.In which I must say that we are cina bukan cina, melayu bukan melayu.Another words, we also have the native malay blood running through our Veins whether we like it or not. Besides our mother tougue is baba malay.Why baba malay? The reason is that our foremothers are native malay And as such it is only natural that our foremathers have educated and inculcate Us with the malay ways of eating, food, language and mannerism (Etc.melata - to babble). Typical Singapore Chinese have the idea that we are Chinese because our forefathers Are Chinese national from china but they have not known or Don't recognize that it is the intermarriage with the native malay That transform us into another unique race that has a fusion of two cultures and Heritage.As long as the female counter part is a malay then it is right that his offspring is a Peranakan.


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Im married to a malay husband and am a true blue Peranakan. My children are all considered as malay and there is no Peranakan culture left as it has been muslimified. The Chinese aspect of the culture is not allowed so I only pass down the malay aspect of the Peranakan culture. I also cook nonya food but follow muslim halal dietary requirements so pork, etc are excluded from my cooking. I also use the sarong kebaya with my tudung and I also try to make my baju kurongs with peranakan motifs. I cannot however have unislamic motifs on my baju so only flowers are allowed. I also make halal nonya kuehs I learnt from my mum and am also a member of The Peranakan Association in Singapore.

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The statement of Peranakans are a fusion of Chinese and Malay cultures is not an accurate one and is a view that is over-simplified and is wrongly perpetuated by the tourist industry. The theories surrounding the origins of Peranakans has so far been more hilarious, romanticised, deluded and entertaining than anything else.I know of many Peranakan Jatis who do not know of any Malay female ancestors in their lineage; and those who claim they have, often say that their female ancestors were originally from the Indonesian Islands. Perhaps, this is manisfested by the fact that the Baba language is more Indonesian than Malay - for example "changkay" instead of "cawan"; "sendok" instead of "sudu". Likewise, the word "bibik" is Indonesian. This is also unscientifically supported by the fact that when some of my Indonesian friends say that our pronounciation is quite similar to the Padang dialect. The food too is closer to the Indonesian kitchen.To conclude, having DNA from 2 different races does not make one Peranakan. Likewise, any Chinese marrying a Filipina does not make their offspring mestizo; neither will my offspring be Eurasian if I get myself a Dutch wife.

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Hi ! Im a Peranakan studying overseas. Like many other young Peranakans I dont know much about my culture. My mum's the only Peranakan in the family so I dont really consider myself Peranakan as I consider my Dad's ethnicity in detremining my race and he isnt Peranakan.. The only thing Peranakan that she practices is cooking Peranakan nonya which I totally find delicious ! I was brought up in a family that did not practice the culture at all so I dont know anything about it. Peranakan: - Chinese assimilated to Malay Culture. i.e. been around for ages, ancestrial-wise. Read it of one of the peranakan books. My uncle in Malacca is quite a peranakan materials collector. Ok just my 2 cents worth, its a heritage thing not blood.

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I would like to say this, Im a young Peranakan from Malacca and am totally uninterested in my culture. My parents and family are trying to get me interested but am unable to incalcate that interest in me. I dont speak in baba malay at home and I also do not have any interest in culture for that matter. If I were more interested in my culture I would try my best to pass it on, sadly I am not. I also think that Baba Culture is dying out even in Malacca. So i dont think preserving a culture is effective especially when its dying. I would like to see it in musuems but not as a part of modern day living.

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I am one of the above 30s Hokkien-Peranakan. Nostalgia for the past, especially the rich peranakan heritage passed down from my grandmas jolted me to be more conscious of my own sense of belonging. What the peranakan assoc. is doing right now is very positive in bringing awareness to this rich heritage. We need other young babas/nonyas today to come to the fore and stand proud of their heritage. The Peranakan spirit is as strong as its people who care to live it up. Keep up that 'semagat'. We may bemoan the fact of the present nonchalance attitude of our present generation towards this valuable Peranakan heritage, but it is undeniable that our culture-- 'second-to-none' is alive and well. No societal influences or norms can diminish the life of a culture. It will live on. Yours and others like you, with continual enthusiasm for the culture will fan the spark (and hopefully) and ensure its continuity. Though at times, it may be frustrating but may the thoughts of the glorious past of the Peranakan culture spur all of you on to give it life for the future. Yes, we're all witnessing Peranakan culture in its death throes. But the culture of yesteryear will live on in museums and to be sure, the government will not let it disappear since it is a great tourist attraction and thus self-sustaining

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I am Peranakan only by the Peranakan parentage of my mum. She cooks delicious Peranakan nonya food now and then and uses the sarong kebaya on occasion. As an individual with English - Scottish - Peranakan blood, I feel that Peranakan culture isnt part of my identity. I feel proud of my Asian roots but at the same time am more inclined to English and Western culture than to Peranakan culture. I dont know how to speak the Peranakan patois nor do I practice anything that identifies me as Peranakan. As Im only half Peranakan and am living in a western european dominated society I forsook my asian roots a long time ago and embraced western culture with open arms. I am also more accepted in western society than a person who is completely oriental in parentage. From a half blooded Peranakan in Glasgow, Scotland, Great Britain.

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My mom is a bibik, but her elder sisters are the matriachs of the family. Myself? I've lost most of the culture, even though I took
Malay as a second language, and do occasionally sprout the 'gua punya' Baba culture is also about assimilation - blending into the envoronment at hand - sad to lose such a rich heritage, though (I'm glad I didn't have to go through 12 days' of wedding! What a dilemma, preserving the rich past whilst embracing the bountiful future.

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I think that its about time that we let Peranakan culture die a natural death. Im a true blue nonya in her 50's. My husband isnt Peranakan, neither are my children as they follow their father's ethnic identity. I think saving Peranakan now is a little too late. It should have preserved when the culture was dying not when its almost dead. My mum, sisters and brothers share this opinion thats why we arent in The Peranakan Association. Why must we support an organisation that is fledging? I howver still cook nonya food on occassion. My children arent interest in cooking nor are they interested in my culture so I dont see Peranakan culture living on in my family at least. even my own family who are baba jatis think so. Im just being practical here.

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I grew up in Sporepore at a time when there were the most changes. I was in primary school when the government started the speak Mandarin campaign. When I was seventeen and eligible for an IC - I had my dialect group tagged to it. Then the new computerised ID's with blood groups came in and the ICs only have the race indicated Chinese. You probably have friends who are part Indian/Chinese or Malay/Chinese for example virtue by vitue of the fact that their father is Chinese - they are classified as Chinese. I had a friend who had an Indian father and a Chinese mother - he was down as an Indian on his IC - even though he didn't look it. I can't exactly remember what happens to Eurasians with a Chinese father - I have the vague impression that they are classified as Chinese! all this was part of the government's effort to unify the Chinese and in the process of approximately twenty years of restructuring and immense socio-political change, some of the losses are irreversible.

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I am not speaking peranakan to my daughter. She stays with my mom-in-law who speaks mandarin to her. I am supposed to speak in english to her. Even then,since i spend very little time with her, she can't speak english that well, let alone peranakan. Only when we visit my grandmother that she is exposed slightly to peranakan. Yup, this is the situation though. My aunts and uncle probably are almost the same, their children speaks mainly english and some mandarin probably or the dialects of the main caregiver, be it the grandparents or so. I think the families that i still see a lot of peranakan influence are my granduncle families who are still in Malacca. I guess this is very much the situation that has transpired within this group. BUT... i do feel that food culture is one of the best ways to preserve! As there are far too many peoplewho only knows peranakan from the history books.

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I have been in New Zealand, Christchurch for the past 20 years. there arent any Peranakans here though I may be wrong. But the chinese presence here is not as strong as it is in Wellington or Auckland. I have 2 children and they arent brought up in the Peranakan way. I myself am not pure Peranakan being rather diluted as only my Dad was Peranakan and I was conisdered Peranakan as he was Peranakan. My mum was Cantonese so I guess im just half a Peranakan technically. Therefore I dont see it neccessary to tell my children about Peranakan culture as they would only be 1/6 quarters Peranakan. Agterall my own wife isnt Peranakan herself and is of Hakka extraction. So I guess Peranakan culture is pretty much dead in our family.

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We here in Penang has even seen more death of the culture and the dying of our Baba Hokkien than say in Singapore. On my part, I try to practise it but sometimes even some family members have accused me of being too fanatic about it and want to take things the easy way out on occasion like cooking, sembayang abu (hou chor kong)and others. However, my mum still don the sarong kebaya on occasion like family weddings and other events. I have my own baju lok chuan but haven't got any much event to wear it with my kasut manek. I guess my only time is on Chinese new Year when I go to Church for mass. When I was little, I could still see in Penang, people practising the culture and call ourselves Nyonya lang and people wear baju kebaya but today, you can't even see people in this clothing anymore. Its one or two old people who wear it with little embroidery. The only vestiges is when one goes to market and chances are you can see old ladies in colourful or floral prints of the baju dalam and the sarong with their bakul.However, when one goes to the antique shop you can still buy Nyonya jewellery and ketak ketik. There also Nyonya food on the offer like in markets and posh restaurants but it has become more of Penang food than Nyonya.Our Persatuan Peranakan Cina Pulau Pinang is incorporated into the Penang State Chinese Association and our members are all old people and with members who are pure Chinese you can't highlight the peranakan culture all the time what more coming out with events. I guess the only time the peranakan culture comes to limelight is on Chap Goh Meh with the cooking of pengat and Dondang Sayang.Now returning back to the question, yes , I would practise our beloved culture and speak proper Baba Hokkien with Malay words if I have children of my own and don them in baju lok chuan and baby kebaya on occasions. I would also teach them our baba proverbs just as teaching them how to weave our traditional jasmine and colourful floral garland and placed on their sanggul.

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Very often, I try to explain to people here that I am Chinese but have never been to China - I feel that I have more in common with the SE Asian culture including Straits Malayan and Indonesian customs that with the ethnic Chinese from Mainland China - it takes quite a while to get this across. Sometimes, it doesn't really get through as people outside of the region who have had no contact with our culture haveno idea what I am going on about!

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It is a sad but true fact which we all have to face. The peranakan culture is slowly dying out. Maybe in a few decades, it will become a lost culture. I agree that many of theperanakans now are not speaking the language or living the Peranakan life anymore. With government policies like "Speak Mandrin Campaign", taking Mandrin as the second language (because racially we are Chinese),most of them have assimilated into the Chinese community espcially the younger generation like me.Only the older genration are holding on to whatever is left of our culture. However, with their passing onthe chapter will come to a close. I really doubt that the younger generation will actually keep the flamegoing. The decline of the peranakan culture has become inevitable. A language is alive only when people use it. In the case of patois Baba Malay, the number of people using it is fast diminishing and sadly few spoke it in it's 'pure' form. In Singapore, Baba Malay has incorporated many words from other languages, especially 'Singlish'. Thus, though it may not technically be extinct, it is certainly being blended into other more common languages.

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I am from Palembang Indonesia and I am in Poly now. My grandparents told me that I was Peranakan Cina since young and not Cina totok. My grandma and my old aunties always used the sarong kebaya and they also had a sanggul on their head. They would also talk in a langauge mixed with malay, palembang dialect and hokkien. I was always happy to live in my grandma's home. She had many many old Peranakan things and I would look and admire the antiques she had. She told me that it was inherited by her by her father and that it was all very old. She told me stories about how Peranakans used to gather to play cherki and told me that Peranakan culture was disallowed and banned by the new order revolution. After that our culture faded from memory. I feel very sad that my culture died because the new government did not allow anything Chinese or Peranakan. At least now in the new era in 2003 it is better now and I think that I can at least show my children how the old culture was like. Peranakan culture in Palembang is very similar to Singapore Peranakan culture. My relatives are in Medan and they say that there are many Peranakans there too but they all speak hokkien. I am also hokkien but I do not speak it, I speak the palembang dialect and eat the food which my mum knows how to cook. I want to settle in Singapore as I dont think Chinese totok or Peranakan have a future in Indonesia. Im working on that to achieve my goal.
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Me thinks that Peranakan culture isnt alive and well. Me thinks that Peranakan culture is fighting for survival. Me also thinks that Peranakan culture cant survive in a modern westernised world. Im a Peranakan teen in Singapore and there isnt much Peranakan identity or culture left here. Most of my cousins and friends arent even Peranakan so Im not exposed to the culture at all since young. My Dad's Peranakan and my mum isnt so i speak cantonese to my maternal grandparents.. I'm only Half Peranakan by name and my Dad's family wasnt a traditional Peranakan family anyway so he's a pure Peranakan who knows zlitch about his culture. My nonya grandma told me that she left Indonesia for Singapore fifty years ago duing the war. My nonya granny didnt talk to me in Peranakan either and didnt tell me anything about the culture neither did my paternal gradfather. So im tottaly clueless about the culture and dont think its appropriate to have in this modern age. Thats all I have to contribute.

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My family was Peranakan, I am from Bandung Indonesia. I was born and lived in Indonesia and finally immigrated to Australia during the Suharto era. My parents always spoke in Indonesian and we lived in an old home with many many Peranakan antiques. But my parents home was burnt during the May riots and we do not have those things anymore. I remember that there were a lot of porcelian, silver, antiques and decorative objects. We also had two ranjang kemantins at home.My mum said that Peranakan culture was illegal during the Suharto Era and we all had to behave more Indonesian than Peranakan Chinese. I feel sad that my culture died with the problems of Indonesia. Thankfully I am in Australia now and my family and I feel very safe to be here. We have a Peranakan restaurant here in Perth and we go there to eat the food my mum used to cook once a month.The food is a bit different from what I ate in Indonesia but it still tastes the same just like my mum's cooking!

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Half the time there's this feeling of constant uncertainty in considering myself Peranakan because I've never used the language, I don't know half the customs, the clothes have almost all disappeared, and the food only features in my life when visiting my maternal grandmother. I'm sure some will know what I mean. So I'm still struggling with the idea of identity and where I belong, but I figure it's a start by finding out more about my community. My mother's a Malacca girl and her side of the family has Peranakan blood (from my grandfather) and they still converse in the patois on their side, so technically i'm 6th or 7th generation Peranakan, i'm not sure what defines a true blue nonya either right now. My father's side of the family was from KL or thereabouts and had Peranakan blood very very far back, and now they speak nothing but English. We lived in Malaysia and moved to Singapore so that pretty much stopped my learning of bahasa and I was made to learn mandarin in school the rest of my school life. As such, I only have a rudimentary knowledge/understanding of Baba malay. I'm really glad at discovering this community online at this point, because it really makes me feel a lot less unnerved to find out there are others facing the same state of confusion and "identity crisis"

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As I move towards intergrating myself towards being more Singaporean, the ability to identify with the various races, I ask myself, how much do I know about my Peranakan roots?Besides wearing a kebaya and pounding ingredients with the pestle and mortor, I don't go beyond that. However, I cannot deny my roots, I am who I am. I'm still making efforts to learn more about our history ( Not just the poplular notions ). Much has been said about the practices of ancestral worship by Peranakans and talk of pantang and not. That too has not been my experience and neither the few generations before me.My family has been Catholic since the 1800s maybe even earlier and what the current elders dictate of how a Peranakan should be, sadly makes me even more left out. As with different families, our practises will differ. Us as the younger generation can only hope and try. In general, English and Mandarin are my medium of communication. Even though I'm spoken to in Baba Malay, I'll still reply in English. Seldom would you hear me speak in Malay, except when buying kueh kueh.

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I am a Chinese girl from indonesia in Jakarta. My oma and enchim used to use the sarong kebaya. I never knew I what Peranakan as my parents never told me. Only when I travelled to malacca for holiday my mum told me that my ancestors used to have houses and cloths like this. Then I asked her what Peranakan is and she said thats what you are. I asked her what it meant then she told. I also saw the people in the nonya baba museum using sarong kebayas and I remembered my grandma.When we arrived back to Jakarta, she showed me the things my grandma used to use. I saw all her kebayas, her sarongs, and her old pictures and other things. I never knew that culture was so pretty. Now my mum using the kebaya enchim when we go for functions and birthdays. I also use my grandma's kebaya enchim and I think it is very pretty. I want my children to use it to later. I now put the old things in my home to display. My mum said that they had to hide all this thing as the government did not allow. But we can now and I am very happy I can show my culture to anyone comes to my home. I asked my friends about this Peranakan thing and they said that their parents are Peranakan Cina too. My boyfriend also said that his grandma used to use this Peranakan thing last time when he's young. I think almost everyone I know is Peranakan except for my freind in Medan who speaks Hokkien. the rest all speak jowo or Indonesian all days !

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Im a peranakan from Singapore. I find that most people classify Peranakans as Chinese even though both cultures are completely different from each other. This maybe the case as the government groups the peranakans with the chinese. Over time, peranakans lose their identity and adopt the Chinese culture. When most Peranakans are approached and asked of their race, they would most certainly say that they are Chinese. The government should be more active in promoting Peranakan culture and by making Peranakans as a totally seperate race, the pride of our culture will be returned to us.

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I m a young Dutch Chinese citizen born in the Netherlands. My whole family immigrated here since 1960's. I know about this site from my uncle in Singapore. Most of the Chinese in the Netherlands is Peranakan. I am still young and my Parents told me a lot about Indonesia my homeland and a little about my Peranakan Culture. They ran away when the revolution swept Indonesia. I like living here in Holland and I also like Ducth food as well. I only know a bit of Indonesian as I speak Indonesian at home and Dutch in school. We have a Chinese Indonesian organization here and most in it are Peranakan too. I meet other Peranakans in the association and eat the Indonesian - Chinese food. Ik lekker hier in Holland. Many Indonesian and Indonesian malay language survives. I have many relatives in Indonesia but have never met them before. I dont know about Singapore and Malaysia but heard that there are many Peranakans there.

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I was getting nowhere. Was there such a thing as a Nyonya? Could I not like our so-called "experts" come to some conclusion and get on with my life? Could I not say that the term Baba and Nonya refer to the Chinese who had come from China many years ago who had little or no Chinese education but their own Hokkien dialect and therefore developed culturally by speaking the lingua franca of South East Asia like the Chinese of Singapore who married nyonyas who mostly spoke no Chinese but Malay and conclude that they were those who came many years ago and married the local women of South East Asian origin, probably Malay women and choose Winstedt as my support and let things be? Of course not. That would pass as scholarship but it would be cheating and I could not cheat.

So, when I was taken to a terrace two story house built in 1895 and met the owners, I threw myself almost at their feet and to their mercy. As soon as I was introduced and my name announced, I said, "I give up. I thought I could find out who is a Baba and who is a Nyonya was but I was always contradicted at every turn". "Ah" said the husband, indicating me to a hup soo ee traditional chair with a marble seat without any cushions. "That is because you looked for the proverbial generic person. If you do that, you are bound to get as many contradictions as listeners. What you should have done is to ask any specific person the question are you a Baba, or a Nyonya. Then you'd get the answer!"

"Ah, I get it. Just like the hup soo ee" I replied. "As soon as you ignore the need of any chair to have cushions you forget the need for cushions and no longer feel the hardness of your seat." I was not sure if they understood and thought I was joking or I really no longer felt how hard my seat was but I was no longer really feeling my seat. "What will you have for a drink" asked the wife. "I'll have a tea" I said, not thinking. "With or without milk" she asked, getting up to prepare the tea. "I'm sorry" explained the husband. "We don't drink plain tea in this household. I originally come from Indonesia, Medan precisely and we drink coffee there, not tea. Tea with milk and sugar is what my wife drinks because she is a Penang Nyonya and they follow the English habit".

"But my mother drinks plain Chinese tea without milk or sugar as a typical Chinese nyonya". "I see" I was no longer trying to argue if nyonyas drink coffee but I seem to remember someone telling me that there was always a pot of tea to quench the thirst of the workers in the house. But I suppose that must have been before the advent of the electric kettle and the fridge. "The way to distinguish the Nyonya is to find out what they eat at home. It's the fare that counts?" said his wife on her return from the kitchen with coffee. By that time I had really forgotten what I had asked for."Do they have a special fare?" I asked in innocence."Oh, I'm sorry" she replied." That was long ago. Now fast foods have taken over. But we do see those foods still - once in a way. Salt and curry fish or chicken, fried cuttle fish and banquan, lorbak, fried shrimp paste, stewed pork legs, yam and pork, salt fish curry, stewed duck and yam, and so on and so forth"."With moderation, of course. Not everyone eats all those dishes nowadays" .

"By the way,"interrupted the husband, not wanting to contradict her with criticism, "What did you say your surname was?" "Wanandi" I replied sensing something was amiss. Wanandi? What name is that?" he insisted. There was no way out. I had to come out with my fiction. "It's a Javanese name of forest. Its a Lim which is written with two trees. You know, Lim - forest. Forest - wanandi in Javanese. I use that name to show that I came from Indonesia and because I understand that Winstedt wrote that Chinese men married Malay women. So why not they use Indonesian names?" said I meekly."Oh?" they exploded in unison and in surprise. "Actually I came from Sumatra" the husband added solo. "My grandfather came to Penang and a marriage was arranged for him to marry someone's daughter from China and a junk was used to take her from China to marry him. I never heard of anyone marrying Malay women!"

"Well" I said meekly. "Winstedt said Chinese never brought their women out South and so the Chinese men had to marry local women". My voice was getting smaller. "Haven't you heard of Hang Lee Poh who has a street after her name at Bukit China and have you not heard of Bukit China, a cemetery named in honour of the five hundred maidens brought from China to accompany the princess who was marrying a royalty in Malacca in the time of Cheng Ho?" "And could not the Chinese return to China to find a bride?" asked the wife, her expression innocent.

"I understand that Princess Hang Lee Poh was a legend. A fiction." I was defiant. But so was my name and I did not tell them that. I could not say that I had to pretend that I was a baba from Indonesia and did not know local custom. It was all a fiction. If it was so, were the names baba and nyonya also fiction. The local man was Ah Ba and the woman was Ah Nya and could it be that the towkay became the Baba and his wife became a Nyonya? I withdrew from their home no wiser. Except in the belief that the term came from Penang, which was established earlier than Singapore and it applied to the Chinese here of hokkien parentage because they were predominant and they soon developed a culinary taste for certain foods with curries and thus came the babas and nyonyas that spread to Malacca and certain parts of Singapore and, like all human social beings, identification by labels was bound to contradictions now and then and my Wanandi disappeared and I became a Lim again.


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ONE EVENING, I went along to a well known kopi tiam called Sri Intan run by well known Baba. It was a Drive In at Pulau Tikus, a well known Baba and Nyonya district. It was full of exotic foods. There was the famous duck koay teow soup, wan t'an soup, hokkien prawn mee soup, fried koay teow, lor bak, fish curry, popiah, and so on and so forth - all the favourite foods which delight the Baba. Sitting under huge fans in the open air, sweating with some profusion and imbibing the smells and the warm noise of children that Saturday evening, sitting with the fast, rich and fluid clientele with their families, I was in a Baba atmosphere, only to have a now familiar disagreement reaching into my ears.

"To tell you the truth," whispered my informant, one of the frequent diners, into my ears. "it is doubtful if the owner is a true Baba. You see, his mother was never a real Nyonya. She wore sarongs but she did not know one word of Malay!" "Rubbish" said the manageress who was with us and whose sharp ears had picked up the whispered confidence. "My female forbears also did not know Malay. They were true bred Chinese. All Nyonyas are Chinese through and through". "Ah!" replied my diner, as if he was upset that his whisper had been picked up, even if he had spoken loudly enough, intending to be overheard. "But your mother wore a sarong kebaya".

The truth was that until the British came with their sailors and set up their Pax Britannia, apart from Malacca and Sumatra, there were but few Babas. They were mostly emigrants from China and there were few Chinese women. There was also not much culture. When, after Pax Britannia, the immigrants prospered they also began to develop their culture. They were mostly Hokkiens and so the culture they developed was also Hokkien. There were pockets of such culture in Singapore, Malacca, Penang and Sumatra. But we are mainly talking of Penang. They did not bring their women from China but when they prospered, they could return for their brides or have them brought out. If they had any liaison outside their race, it was hardly as brides. The informer friend was indignant; in fact, angry. His wife was sitting with us at the same table, happily drinking her coffee. He interrupted her drinking and called for her support. She resented his involving her in his conflict. But she was dutiful and came to his support.

"Yes" she replied dutifully in support. "The old Nyonya women always wore sarong kebayas and had a Malay headdress with huge skewers which I was told was used to cut down ......" "That's enough" her husband interrupted. For she was about to say "the excess sexual exploits of their husbands." It would not have been good form. The Babas are polite people. To give full weight to her argument, she could not help adding "Windstedt? I don't know who he was and I am sure he did not know enough Chinese to know our taste!" "That only applies to the men," interjected my dining friend, scornfully. "I don't think the women could really count". "My grandmother came from Burmah and she had this coiffeur," interposed the manageress. "That headdress, if you study it closely enough, comes from the immigrant Burmah women. I ought to know." "How do you know if all headdresses are Burmese? What about the headdresses of the Nyonyas of Malacca? Where do they come from?" No one would ever know. We had not seen Sumatran Malay or any other head wear and how they originated. In any event, they were no longer relevant.

But the manageress was a lady and ladies are particularly sensitive and proud. "My grandfather," and she held herself up proudly as she intoned, "my grandfather told me Chinese men never married outside their race - especially not Malay women because he would have to be converted in the first place. Their habits and language were too strange and dissimilar. Intermarriage was not the done thing. To marry we had to match families with the horoscope and all sorts of things and Malay women had different religions and did not have birthdays. They counted rings on the coconut trees to tell their age." Tempers were fraying and Burmese and Javanese women had been thrown into the equation and it was time to change the subject.

"You know" I spoke softly, to quieten the atmosphere. "The coffee tastes very nice. You Babas and Nyonyas have very fine taste"Little did I know I was introducing another possible storm. "Who told you Nyonyas drink coffee?" she asked loudly. I was flummoxed. "I thought that was coffee she was drinking" I protested meekly, pointing to the cup on the table. "Isn't that coffee?". "No, that's our local tea with condensed milk which I seldom drink. I like plain tea, not tea with milk and sugar like English women," clarified her friend pointedly. "Only men drink coffee and that is not all men." I was on the point of explaining that English women did not normally drink such thick tea with their dinner and certainly not with condensed milk but I thought it safer to end the discussion there and then and quickly thanked them for the enlightening conversation and, accepting an invitation earlier for me to visit one of their friend's home the next day, indicated that I hoped I might get a picture of what one of their homes looked like. "By the way, how come you have such a funny name" asked the husband.. "Well. It's a long story," I said and quickly I mouthed my "good night" before they had time to ask any more questions and disappeared into the night

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I was also told that even those who could not speak English could very well also be Baba and Nyonya, and so I did not go very far with that definition. In fact the first stranger I met along the road after my experience in the Kopi Tiam who spoke English and looked Chinese corrected me for assuming he was a Baba."I beg your pardon," he said abruptly, correcting me, after I had asked, "Who are you?" " I am a Teochew and therefore not a Baba", he replied, and went his way in a huff. The rebuff was salutary; I could not assume anything, not even in the looks.

I began to wonder how stupid my quest was. Perhaps I should give myself a self effacing identity in order not to surprise or affront anyone. So, on the spot, in order not to stir up suspicion and I decided to give myself the name of Ah Gong Kow. The "Ah" because it was a true Baba prefix. It signified that I did not come from a learned family. "Gong", the middle name, meant stupid and it showed I was self effacing and humble; and, "Kow," a dog, which meant I could be insulted and still wag my tail. With a name like that I was sure I would be accepted in any Baba and Nyonya company and ask any question and discover the truth for myself. The Dodo could be defined easily, but not the Baba and Nyonya. Everyone seemed to know who they were but yet were unable to clearly define them. It seemed that each had his own view yet seemingly appeared to disagree as to who was or wasn't.

Ask anyone who was a Baba and everyone seemed to know the answer. Yet, pick up someone and he could easily be one or not. "Are you a Baba? you ask and, if you are lucky, you can be answered by answers that tell you he is Hokkien and you can be rewarded by being told that "you are a Baba if your father and mother were Nyonya and Baba too. And you come from the island of Penang". But that is the easy part. Some will go on to tell you that Hokkiens in Malacca are included because we were all from the Straits Settlements. But what about those from Singapore? You might ask. Well some include them but others from Singapore are too aloof and proud to connect themselves to the Hokkiens from Penang and do not include themselves.

Some with mixed Cantonese or Teochew or Hakka and Hokkien parentage have a mixed reaction. Some deny any connection whilst others claim they are all Nyonya and Baba because they were Hokkien and you begin to believe them only to be told by someone else that it depends on whether the father or mother was a Hokkien. Again, if one of them was a foreigner, then they were Quai Lo and therefore not eligible. It's all very confusing. So I went to the Straits Chinese Association. There, I was sure I would find a genuine definition. They all sing the kronchong on the Chap Goh Meh in Malay, though most of them no longer can sing those songs because they had been superceded by the songs of the karaoke lounge, and they eat (since most of them no longer know how to cook) otak-otak, assam prawn and gulai tumis, laksa, nyonya koay such as koay talam and sweet curry puffs, and all sorts of cakes now superceeded by Kentucky Fried Chicken and MacDonalds, at one time frowned upon.

It gets more and more confusing. I had been rightly warned and close questioning was frowned upon. A good mannered Baba does not ask embarrassing questions. In that way they hide behind a veil of good manners. Only real researchers, preferably English, could ask those questions because then they know they can say anything in reply without the embarrassment of contradiction as the foreigners would never know the real truth anyway, The true Baba and Nyonya, I learnt anyway, should come only from that island of Penang which thus excludes Province Wellesley on the mainland which is not within the definition of Penang until it was added in by the British, was it in 1786? No one can remember the turbid history.

Bingo, to the true Baba and Nyonya, they do not include Cantonese and products of mixed marriages even if such marriages were getting more confusing in the process of time as jungle meranti trees get more and more mixed as a result of cross pollination. How does one ever dictate to his children who they should be married to? If I was confused, I was told, I had only to remember the fundamentals. But fundamentals were more than what I have written. All Baba spoke Hokkien and mostly now speak in English, unlike the Cantonese who stubbornly speak Cantonese. But what of those growing groups that now speak only English? Well, if one spoke English with Hokkien accent, he was a Nyonya or Baba. The Nyonya and Baba took to English more readily. Well, I chose to ignore that, as it was not a definition, but described a trend.

Yes, I had to remember a Nyonya essentially could wear sarong kebaya.. Well, like Kentucky Fried Chicken had superceded inchi kabin so also had the blouse, gown and dress superceded the sarong kebaya.. I once saw a mother and daughter on the street, the daughter in a dress and her mother (or perhaps it was her aunt?) in sarong kebaya, so tremendous was the change in one generation. They thought I was a Baba because I could speak Hokkien. But my name confused me. It did not sound anyway Hokkien. Was my mother a Nyonya? I came from Indonesia, I explained. My father was a Baba, so he told us. Would that not do? Had my mother to be a Hokkien too? What if my mother had come from South America and was a Hakka and knew not one word of Hokkien when she first landed on the island? Well, if she had adopted Hokkien before her death, I suppose you could pass the test somehow, came the pontificated reply, and the question: Did your mother wear a sarong kebaya?

It was getting more difficult than I had imagined. Do they all have to wear such costumes? I asked, well knowing that many Baba I knew from Malacca wore English coats and ties, like Sir Tan Cheng Lock, who was fond of claiming himself as a Baba. The Hokkiens were very adaptable, it was meticulously explained to me. Provided the wife performed the tea ceremony and accepted the Chinese rites as accepted by the Baba, it did not matter who she was or where she came from. Rubbish, exclaimed someone else, a Nyonya must be not only be a Chinese but a Hokkien; and a Hakka was excluded from that definition even if her children qualified. So, with that Winstedt's claim that the Baba married Malay women because they did not bring their women along from China. Did the requirements of matching of birthdays and omens, of the tea ceremony and all those rites and ceremonies that had to be performed for a Chinese marriage by the bride exclude the Malay?

There was also a seemingly impossible story of Nyonya and Baba in the story of a Kelantan man marrying a Malay somewhere in Kelantan or Trengannu. In the first place, how could the marriage have taken place against all rites and Chinese traditions? Besides, what has the Kelantan man got to do with the Baba and Nyonya which terms refer only to those who were from Penang, especially in those days when travelling to Kelantan from Penang through creeks and jungle through tiger country was more difficult than sailing to China in a junk to fetch a bride from China? Well. I suppose, like all histories and customs, the culture and the history of Baba and Nyonya are riddled with legends.

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I was watching this skit and dance by a group, and I told my mother that it looked interesting. It was then that she told me that, like the performers, I am also a Peranakan," I never knew I was Peranakan until I went for the play that very day. The Peranakan community has always been evolving, changing with the current of history. It has even influenced the course of history's direction. The community has also consistently held other cultures in high regard and is very open to their inlfuence. Yet, it steadfastly maintains many traditions that are are at the very foundations of Chinese culture. These abilities to respect, adapt, and to keep alive what is important are, I feel, very relevant to modern Singapore, and are contributions to the cultural environment of the country that should not be ignored. "It is quite impossible to live the Peranakan lifestyle in this day and age. The language is dying, and the knowledge of complex customs has been lost through generations." "The hybrid style of the Peranakans is one that is unique to South-east Asia and one which we can truly claim as ours."

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