Peranakans of yore loved lavish and merry making. They loved nothing better than to meet relatives and friends for a game of cherki a popular gambling sport with nonyas, singing pantuns, chewing sireh that the old bibiks loved so much, dancing joget to the tunes of dondang sayang or just listening to the ronggeng band or the many Wayang Peranakan that was and still is being performed today.


The picture above shows you Peranakan sireh sets in the malay inspired style of workmanship. Sireh was a popular form of pleasure and entertainment used originally by by the malays as a form of past time. Sireh then became part and parcel of Peranakan culture when intermarriages between the Chinese and Malays increased and it soon became incorporated into the Peranakan way of life. Peranakan households always had one or two tempat sireh sets at home.Like any other item of functional use it had to be intricately carved and was made of either silver gilt, silver or was even gold plated. Such sireh sets would be used to store the sireh leaves, tobacco and chalk needed to complement this past time. It was actually the chewing gum of today !! Sireh would make one's mouth red as if one's mouth was covered in blood. Sireh became obsolete by the 1940's and sireh sets can only be found in the homes of collectors or in museums. Sireh chewing a favourite past time of nonyas is now a thing of the past.



Cherki is a card game played by some members of the Peranakan Community today. It was notoriously known in the past and many a nonya and bibik were caught and taken to jail in black pariah vans as gambling was soon outlawed by the colonial government. Cherki was so immensely popular and was so influential that many nonyas pawned or sold their jewelery just to try their luck at the game. Playing Cherki is not easy as it has many hokkien and baba malay words that are used in the game. It is rather difficult for Peranakans not conversant in hokkien or baba malay to be well versed in the game. The symbols and characters used in Cherki cards denote such names that are used while playing. Nonyas of old would gather around the cherki table to gossip, chew sireh, or chit chat while playing the game. You can still get Cherki cards from Malacca till this very day. Afterall the game originated from Malacca.

.Cheki is a card game created by the Babas and Nyonyas of Malacca : the popular names granted to the Straits born Chinese or "Peranakan", who incorporated unique features from the Chinese, Malays and English into a prosperous culture that flourished till the early days of the 20th century in the former Straits Settlements of Malaya. The game itself is played using a deck of 60 cards, each measuring about 60mm X 24mm, with three suits and nine numerals for each suit. The game is rather similar to the western "Gin Rummy" and still is a popular leisurely pursuit of the Babas and Nyonyas today. In the golden age of the Babas however, Cheki was as addictive as Mah-jong is to the Chinese of today, and such was the gambling craze associated with this game that small fortunes were often lost over a hand.

The Syair in a book tries to chronicle the foolishness of a lady who manages not only to lose a small fortune from playing Cheki, but also fails in her attempts to deceive her husband after she is caught by the police for illegal gambling. The syair is filled with humorous and sometimes bawdy anecdotes of this sequence of events, and is often marked by verses of caution for would be gamblers to take heed of the sins of Cheki !The uniqueness of this particular book lies not only in the fact that it chronicles a unique feature of Baba life , but also by grace of the fact that the Syair is written in Baba Malay, a creole version of Malay characterized by the usage of words from the Hokkein dialect of Chinese in its speech. Books printed in Baba Malay are extremely rare to come by and this edition of the Syair could well be the only copy around.


Chongkak is a game whereby small crowlie shells are put into different compartments that look like holes. This game was originally Malay and the Peranakans adapted it and made it their own. Chongkak boards can be either plain or ornate and can consist of up to 14 or 16 holes in total. What is done is that the holes are filled with 7 shells in total. Only two persons can play the game at a time and each person has his base or house in the cavity at the outmost cavity of the board. The object of the game is to fill one;s house with as much shells as possible. The winner is the one with the most shells at the time when there are no more shells in the 14 or 16 holes. Chongkak boards can still be bought now in Malaysia and parts of Indonesia. It was actually brought over to the Malay Archipelago by Arab Traders in the 16th Century and adopted by the local Malays. It was subsequently adopted by the Peranakans who were heavily influenced by local malay culture through the frequent intermarriages and close cultural contact that occured between the two races.



Peranakan Pantun or poems of yore was actually similar to malay pantuns in sturcture and grammar format. The only thing that difefrentiated the pantuns from each other was that the Baba way of pronouncing the malay words. The pantuns were expressive and involved much meaning, emotion and sentimental value. Peranakan pantuns were recited by both young and old Peranakans of old. As the rate of proficiency in Baba Malay has declined drastically, the use of pantun in the Peranakan community is practically nil. It is only performed occasionally during Wayang Peranakan performances as a legacy of a bygone era. The below picture shows you modern day Peranakan performers singing the pantun at a Peranakan event in Singapore.


A typical Peranakan Pantun is as follows:

Api api sepanjang pantai, Nibung terlentang di Tanjung Tuju, Niat di hati jikalau sampai, Apa mantek tentu tertumbuh. It translates to: Lights flickering along the beach, Huts on stilts on the Cape of Seven, Full of passion I am when I reach it, My dreams and Happy Destiny await me.

An example of Dondang Sayang is as follows:

Tingi, tingi rumah Chek Long Long, Di bawahnya dibuat keday kaen, Alangkah bisa ulair tedong, Boleh kah di tangkap buat maen? Tingi tingi rumah Chek Long, Dibawahnya dijuair pokok, Goa tak takot ulair tedong, krana goa uliar sendok. It translates to: Mr Long's house is very high, under it is a cloth shop, maybe there is a snake, can i catch it to play with? Mister Long's home is very tall, under it is a tree, I am not sacred of a little snake as I am an even bigger snake than it is !!

Sadly the use and knowledge in composing pantuns is absent in modern day Peranakan society. Old Baba Pantuns now only survive in old pantun books and texts in documentation purposes only. The use of Pantuns is not only fading in the Peranakan Community but it is also fading in the Malay Community as well. Only a handful of Peranakans today are able to recite and sing the pantuns of old. Ronggeng was also a popular dance form that the Peranakans of old loved. It was a dance step similar in style to joget but it was more fast tempo than joget was. Usually ronggeng was danced to the music of the kronchong. another Indonesian inspired musical form that the Peranakans of old adored nad cherished.



Peranakan Dondang Sayang is performed once a year at the Annual Peranakan Food & Craft Fair held at the ACM Museum in Armenian Street. Dondang Sayang consists of 2 persons singing of a prose of songs sang individually until all 6 lines of the prose are completed. Dondang Sayang also consists of a Dondang Sayang Band that plays the tunes which are in turn sung by the 2 persons involved.

Joget are the dance steps used while the Dondang Sayang is being performed. It is a highly stylised form of dancing that uses dance steps similar to that of swaying your feet and hands up and down in a frontal and backwards direction. It is done however in a very slow but graceful manner. Joget takes some getting used to and the songs sung are mostly in Baba Malay. Popular melodies are Begawan Solo and other Pantun proses.Sadly Dondang Sayang Events are only attended by the old or few of the middle aged. It does not appeal to the young and is in danger of fading with time.



Wayang Peranakan was only performed and became a staple of Peranakan culture in the 1910's. This was a period when Peranakans were exposed to the movies of hollywood and wanted to have their own theatre fiasco with Peranakan elements.The above picture shows you the cast and crew of the recently staged Bibik Behind Bars. It was organised and produced by the Peranakan Association of Singapore. As women were not allowed out of the house as it was considered a tabboo for women to be seen on stage, men instead played the roles of women in a kind of gender reversal role. Till this very day plays in Peranakan Wayang still retain this old tradition though women are now allowed on stage to perform roles. However the role of the family matriach is always and mostly is given to a man.

Peranakan Theatre has seen a revival in recent years with as many as 2 plays a year in Singapore. They play to packed audiences who flock to see a Peranakan culture of a bygone era. Such plays are extremeluy popular and reflect the current revival in Peranakan identity. However the plays have subtitles as most young peranakans are not conversant in the labguage of their forefathers and Baba Malay is losing ground in the Peranakan Community as a whole. Wayang Peranakan plots and story lines always revovle around the trun of the century and shows ushow family life was like in aPeranakan household of the time. It is therefore a reenactment of the past that is only revived momentarily during the course of the play.

Below are pictures from the ever popular Emily of Emerald Hill. It was written by Stella Kon a true blue Peranakan and is performed here in the pictures by the actor Ivan Heng. The ever popular Bibiks Behind Bars was performed by the Peranakan Association of Singapore in 2002 and early 2003. It sold out to sell out audiences and received rave reviews in the press and media.

The future of Wayang Peranakan however is considerably uncertain as most young Peranakans are not interested in carrying out gender reversal roles nor are the majority of them conversant in Baba Malay. Most are also unable to write scripts in Baba Malay or if they do are only semi conversant in it and are unable to write in the patois that their forefathers did. However the current prospect and revival of Wayang Peranakan is brighter and more encouraging than it ever was. The current revival that is occuring now is indeed very encouraging but it remains to be seen if the younger generation of today is able to sustain and carry on this tradition into the future.


This form of entertainment was popular in Malaya and Indonesia by the 1890s and early 1900s but it reached its peak in the 1920s and 1930s. Its popularity was indicated in many newspaper reports. When a new troupe, the Sree Penang Theatrical Co., was formed in 1895, 'hundreds of people went to see it and there was not even one empty seat'. When Comedy Pusi Indra Bangsawan performed in Palembang, the 'wayang hall was so full some had to stand for lack of places' {Bintang Timor, 13 February 1895). In 1904, even though there were five wayang in Penang. The Wayang Yap Chow Thong in Penang drew 'crowds' which 'attended in full force and late comers had to be refused admittance' Another correspondent reported that 'inside the theatre hall the air was simply stifling and seats were so much huddled up together that it was simply impossible to move one's own elbow without touching one's neighbour. Tickets were sold over and over again when it was quite apparent there was no more room'. These descriptions testify to the great popularity of bangsawan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Indeed, 'the visit of a bangsawan or opera company' was 'an attraction' that never failed 'to draw the crowds in any town either of Malaya or the Dutch East Indies'

Although the main language used was Malay, bangsawan performances attracted a multi-ethnic audience. Besides Malays, locally born Babas and Nonyas … , Jawi Peranakan, Chinese, Indians, Arabs and Europeans were drawn to it. Baba Nonya Fans In fact, the ‘Babas and Nonyas who spoke and understood Malay’ were such great fans of bangsawan that they were motivated to set up their own amateur bangsawan groups. When the Chinese Babas of Penang performed a Malay bangsawan play called Princess Nilam to collect money for the China Flood Fund at the Anglo-Chinese School Building in May 1918, a review article commented that even ‘the Malay professionals present’ admitted that ‘the piece… was fairly well performed’ In 1919, the same group staged Nyai Dasima and in 1920, Ginufifah or Herto Brabant. In 1926 a party of Chinese ladies calling themselves Penang Nyonya Bangsawan presented Juli Juli Bintang Tiga, Nyai Dasima, and A Merchant of Bagdad

As we have seen traditional Peranakan games and past times are on the decline. The only aspect that is still surviving till this day is the once a year Dondang Sayang held at the Peranakan Fair and the few people who still know how to play Cherki. Wayang Peranakan and to a lesser extent Bangsawan is the only form of Peranakan Entertainment that has survived till this modern day and age. If you have any opinions or contributions on this topic fill up the Submission Form and we'll put it in the archives section.


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