SINGAPORE: “Are you Chinese or Malay?” people often ask me.
For many years, as a Peranakan growing up in Kampong Potong Pasir, I was caught in an identity crisis. I was taunted with the acronym, OCBC, Orang China Bukan China translated as Chinese person not Chinese.
My skin was more brown than other Chinese folks. I didn’t speak Chinese; only Malay. I didn’t even have a Chinese name. The only Chinese thing about me was my surname.
Peranakans fall in between the cracks of our traditional notions of race. Many of us in Singapore dress and talk like the Malays, and we struggle to identify with the Chinese. But we eat pork and celebrate the Lunar New Year so we don’t belong to the Malay or Muslim camp either.
Unfortunately, for me, my identity card (IC) says I am Chinese. But I personally would rejoice if my IC says Peranakan, not Chinese.
STRAITS-BORN NOT CHINESE
It is true; except for our long-ago heritage of ancestors who hail from provinces in China, no Singaporean Chinese in the Pioneer and Merdeka Generations see China as home. Most of us in Singapore see ourselves as Singaporeans first and foremost, and Peranakans are no different.
But wrapped up in the heritage of the Peranakans is a legacy that expands beyond Singapore; us Peranakans are proud to be Straits-born.
Peranakans share a link with the Chinese culture, but the imported customs, cuisine and even the decoration of our beautiful crockery have been customised and adapted to suit our life in Southeast Asia.
READ: The slow death of Peranakan cuisine? A commentary
STRAITS SETTLEMENTS, STRAITS-BORN
The Straits Settlements were British East India Company-controlled territories that comprised Penang, Malacca and Singapore, the three main areas where Peranakans resided.
In a broad way, any Chinese born in this region was called a Straits-born. However, on a stricter usage, Straits-born referred specifically to those who adopted the regional mores and customs of the local Malays and Indonesians, like the Peranakans did.
From this, the term, Straits Chinese was coined to differentiate those born in these parts to the Chinese who migrated here but retained their Chinese-ness through their language, religion, mode of dressing and food. They and their offsprings remained true to the concept of being Chinese.
To chelop, is the Peranakan patois for being dunked. For example, a piece of roti prata can be chelop-ed into a bowl of curry sauce. Thus, the piece of bread will take on the constituents of the curry.
So, in terms of being chelop-ed in a racial context, has a Peranakan taken on other racial and cultural characteristics than that of just being Chinese? I would most certainly say yes.
A Peranakan is not the same as someone who hails from a Singaporean Chinese family, since many of the older Peranakan generation can’t really speak Chinese nor do many follow strict Chinese customs.
The rich Peranakan heritage has elements of Chinese-ness but has traces of other cultural influences too. Therefore, one can say, quite unequivocally, I am Peranakan not Chinese.
ACCULTURATION OR HYBRIDS?
In recent years, there is a growing number of Peranakans in Singapore who adamantly say they are Chinese. They claim that the Peranakan culture is an acculturation - that there has been no proof of actual Malay/Chinese or Indonesian/Chinese inter-marriages.
They say that overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia adopted the Malay and Indonesian cultures and heritage to make living in their adopted country more viable.
Loosely, one can say that a hybrid race is one where interracial genes have been mixed via an inter-marriage of two different races. So, is a Peranakan a hybrid or simply a result of acculturation? I shall leave it to scholars to debate.
But there are many Peranakans, such my own family, who do not look Chinese in their features and complexion, and have ancestors who are not Chinese.
If you look closely, you can tell a Peranakan from a Singaporean Chinese. My own maternal grandmother was part Portuguese. This is partially a product of the colonial history of Malacca, where the majority of Peranakans can trace their lineage to.
ADMIRAL CHENG HO
Admiral Zheng He, formerly known as Cheng Ho, who lived from 1371 to 1433, was a Muslim Chinese explorer and Royal Eunuch in the Ming Dynasty in China.
He was responsible for depositing thousands of Chinese men outside of China. In Southeast Asia alone, his armada of over 370 ships brought 28,000 soldiers and merchants to the region.
Wherever his ships stopped, some men were left ashore. At a time when hardly any Chinese woman was allowed to travel outside China, you can imagine how lonely these 28,000 men were. Would you be surprised that they married local women?
Composed between the 15th or 16th century, the literary work, Sulalatus Salatin (Genealogy of Kings), more commonly known as Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals, is a fine record of the origin of Malays, though some scholars now claim that this work is more fables than history.
Whether mere myth or history, the origins of Peranakans was supposed to have come from one of the stories in the Malay Annals.
The Ming Emperor Zhu Di sent Zheng He, who made six trips to Malacca. On one of these trips, he took princess Hang Li Po, supposedly the daughter of Zhu Di, to marry Sultan Mansur Shah who ruled Malacca from 1459 to 1477.
On this journey, Zheng He sailed into the port of Malacca with 500 people, many of whom were merchants. Except for the princess and her handmaidens, the others were all men.
It was these men who married local women, some Malay and some Indonesian. Thus, the legend of how Peranakans came about was born. The place where the princess and her people settled was called Bukit China, which exists today.
POTTED HISTORY OF MALACCA’S COLONIALISATION
Without going into detailed history, the Malacca Sultanate ended around 1511 when it was colonised by the Portuguese who ruled for 130 years, from 1511 to 1641. The Dutch conquered it and ruled for 183 years, from 1641 to 1825.
In the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824, the Dutch traded Malacca for Batavia and the British took over Malacca from 1825.
The Portuguese, Dutch, Malay, Indonesian and Chinese have influenced Peranakan culture and heritage in several ways, even if some Peranakans have no such ancestry. Our Peranakan heritage is rich because of this.
The Portuguese words for a lady - senhora and dona mutated to become nyonya, the word for a Peranakan woman.
One of our most celebrated cakes is Love Letters but is traditionally called kueh belanda, Dutch Cake, a crispy crepe now rolled into a cigar shape. Our well-known Peranakan lady’s embroidered kebaya, is a product of Portuguese and Dutch lace-making techniques.
The assimilation of traditions is a story that is truly Peranakan. There are also the Indian Peranakans or Chetti Melaka, derived from Indian men who married local women and, like the Chinese Peranakans, have assimilated local culture.
Many Singaporean Chinese people see visible differences in a Peranakan Chinese, whether physical, cultural or social. They would say affectionately to us, “You are nyonya people! You wear sarong. Cook very delicious food!”
And for more than thirty years when I lived in the UK, I would correct the British if they called me Chinese, and insist that I was Peranakan.
My mother was a staunch Peranakan and kept up her Peranakan customs, and the long lineage of chelop-ed Peranakan traditions is a culture I am proud of.
And we Peranakan are indeed part of a diverse Singapore identity and rich legacy.
Josephine Chia is author of many books, most famously Kampong Spirit: Gotong Royong, Goodbye My Kampong and the children’s edition, Growing Up in Kampong Potong Pasir, and most recently, Big Tree in a Small Pot.