SINGAPORE - From what I remember of my late grandmother, she was a petite Nyonya woman with a fiery personality - much like her favourite snack, the chili padi. She was also very vain, and made sure that all her sarong kebayas, which she wore every day, were tailor-made to fit her perfectly.
As fastidious as she was about certain cultural practices, no one from the next generation really carried on the tradition. So a few years ago when I discovered a stack of her old kebayas, I decided to start wearing them again as an homage to the culture that my grandmother once practiced.
But recently, a member of an online Peranakan group commented that the way I wore the kebaya - casually thrown on over a tank top and a pair of skinny jeans - was “gauche” and looked “uncouth”.
She was right - my grandmother would probably turn in her grave if she knew that I was taking her beloved kebayas to the nightclubs.
Gripes like these are increasingly common in the Peranakan community, some of whom in recent years have taken to policing their culture against a wave of modern spinoffs – including cheaper knock-offs of embroidered kebayas, and watered-down versions of its food.
Some attribute this sudden interest in the culture of the Peranakan Chinese, or Straits-born Chinese, to the popularity of the 2008 drama series The Little Nyonya. But some traditionalists fear that these new, ‘trendy’ interpretations of their culture might misrepresent or dilute a rich and centuries-old tradition.
“Being Peranakan is not just a question of superficial accessories, it’s a culture,” said Ms Sharon Ong, the person who made the online comment.
“When you wear somebody's ethnic dress, you are expressing a culture… so to interpret anything in a meaningful way, we have to understand the original version first,” she added.
WATCH: Tips on donning that kebaya (2:13)
Another online user said: “Wearing a Kebaya or batik shirt alone is not complete if you do not have a connection with its culture and history. It is like an outfit with no soul, no bau (Malay for smell)”
And it’s not just these tangible aspects of the culture that have come under scrutiny by the community - some debates even extend to the “purity” of a person’s ancestry, as though you have to meet certain standards in order to qualify as being Peranakan.
THE TRADITIONAL FAMILY
For Mrs Lilian Wong, whose cultural heritage is half Peranakan and half Hokkien, it’s an issue that she’s thought about before.
“I do feel happy when people call themselves Peranakan, but of course when you dig deeper, you form your own opinions as to how Peranakan or not they really are,” she said.
Mrs Wong grew up in a Malay kampong in the late 1960s where Baba Malay was the main language spoken at home and mealtimes were always a feast of rendang and sambal dishes. So she has always identified more strongly with her Peranakan roots.
“If you ask me, I would say I am more Peranakan than some of my friends who are (so-called full) Peranakan but can't even speak the language, cook the dishes or know what a kebaya is like,” she said.
I wanted to see what she meant by being “more Peranakan”, so one Saturday afternoon, Mrs Wong had me over for a family gathering.
When I arrived, she was in the kitchen with her mother, Mrs June Gan, preparing laksa - a family specialty. Both set in their own ways of making the broth, they got into lively arguments as they cooked, and were full of criticism for each other’s methods.
Mr Gimson Gan, Mrs Wong’s brother, said: “We’ve never had a bickering that was calm and collected. That's the way we speak, the way we are, that's our culture. But the important thing is that we don't get angry at each other.”
Mrs Wong added: “It might be a generalisation but I think Peranakan ladies are little bit more assertive (than other Chinese ladies) – ask a Peranakan lady anything and she will tell you exactly what she thinks,” said Mrs Wong.
WATCH: Inside a Nyonya kitchen (2:15)
When the laksa was ready, the entire family swarmed over to the kitchen, hovering over the pot as Mrs Gan scooped the gravy into their individual bowls. With extra sambal piled on top of the already-spicy gravy, their meal was complete.
As they were eating, what was striking was that the older generation spoke almost exclusively in Baba Malay, and cracked jokes that the younger generation didn’t understand.
“When we were young, we had nicknames for everyone - mine was cicak kering (shrivelled lizard) because I was very thin,” said Mrs Wong.
“Someone with small eyes would be called sepet, someone without a nose bridge would be called pesek. This was very prevalent in Peranakan families more than anywhere else,” added Mrs Judy Teo, Mrs Wong’s sister.
Even grandmother Mrs Gan chimed in with jokes that she picked up from the kampong boys. While her children shrieked in laughter, the younger in-laws of the family were silently confused. It turned out she was making a joke about caucasian men's’ private parts - the sort of dirty humour that Peranakans are known for.
“The language that we use, you don't know how it hits the heart when you go somewhere and you hear someone speaking in Baba Malay and you feel like ‘ah this is it, this is me’,” said Mrs Wong.
WATCH: How to melatah like a pro (2:26)
Then I was asked: “How good is your Malay? Do you eat with your hands?”. It was as though I had been put through a test, and failed.
I was starting to get a sense of what Mrs Wong meant by the “Peranakan-ness” of her family. But does it make you less Peranakan if you don’t speak the language, wear the kebaya, or cook the food?
THE NON-TRADITIONAL FAMILY
Mr Joachim Leong, 30, likes to think not.
Although these days he’s often seen in batik shirts and loves bragging about his family’s Peranakan feasts, it was only recently that he started practising the culture. “I’ve only been wearing batik shirts for a year and I may be only half Peranakan, but you’re as Peranakan as you think you are,” he said.
“Growing up, I never really knew what being Peranakan was, because my family didn’t outwardly proclaim it,” he added.
This was apparent from what I saw at one of Mr Leong’s family feasts.
His cousin had just gotten married, and the family was holding a wedding tea ceremony at home. I didn’t expect the simplicity of the affair. No one - not even the bride and groom - had dressed up for the occasion, and people seemed to be more excited about the food than anything else.
But even that was a mishmash of cuisines - from tom yum pasta to Cantonese steamed fish - and ironically, most of the Peranakan dishes on the table were prepared by Mr Leong’s Hakka aunt-in-law.
Mrs Patricia Lim, Mr Leong’s aunt, said: “My mum never taught her children to cook, but would quietly go to my brother's house to teach my sister-in-law her recipes so that she would be the one cooking for all of us. Quite naughty, right?”
While this family didn’t seem to mind letting tradition slip, the younger ones showed interest in their heritage - throughout the night, Mr Leong and his cousins were eagerly trying to practice their Malay with the Indonesian helpers.
Said Mr Leong: “More of my cousins are also showing interest - mostly the girls - probably because they’ve come to an age where they appreciate the kebaya.”
“And I take the effort to learn more, to cook more,” he added. “I feel strongly about preserving the culture because, if nothing is done, then it will just become a lost word in the future.”
Still, the older generation seemed nonchalant. “I don’t really think there is a Peranakan identity these days; it’s more like an open culture for everyone and that’s okay,” said Mr Michael Tan, Mr Leong’s uncle.
THE GREAT DEBATE
Conflicting views like these pose a dilemma when it comes to how Peranakan culture should be practised today - should people be allowed to be innovate and create new aspects of it, or should there be a greater effort to maintain its purity and authenticity?
Take the incident of the online comment about the kebaya for example - the user who made the comment, Ms Ong, said that she herself had been told to “fix” her kebaya at a community association dinner.
“Although I rolled my eyes at it, I also very much appreciated it as that is in fact how we learn, (but) if we Peranakans have a unique trait, it's a fixation on orthodoxy,” she said.
That is the reason why Mrs Lim, the non-practising Peranakan, gave up wearing the kebaya: “You are expected to wear it in a certain style - you have to pin it here and there, and when I wear the Sarong, I am so afraid it would drop off!” she said.
One could argue that the sticklers for the “right way” are misguided, because the kebaya style we know today is merely one aspect of a fashion that has been evolving for hundreds of years.
Culture expert Mr Peter Lee said: “We need to break the myth that the kebaya (of today) is traditional.”
In fact, he pointed out that for a period of time, it was the batik sarong that was the most important part of the attire. “Now it's sort of the reverse - there is a lot of emphasis on the kebaya, and today it's all about a riot of colours and often very badly matched - it's very garish,” said Mr Lee.
THE NEW PERANAKANS
So when Ms Stephanie Choo, founder of a Singapore-based jewellery brand EDEN + ELIE, released a line of Peranakan-inspired jewellery, she was hoping to catch the attention of the new generation.
“I think in Singapore, we want very much to be connected to our past. But at the same time, we want to create designs and objects of our own day and age. So taking elements of the old and creating it anew is something we find meaningful,” she said.
Indeed, it would seem a shame to not re-imagine the beautiful colours and patterns of Peranakan artefacts into something today’s generation can wear and be proud of.
Mr Lee said: “When I hear Peranakans saying ‘oh, that's not very Peranakan’, it’s such a contradiction, and this has created a whole fear of the Peranakan tradition. Sometimes, defining culture is a bit dangerous if you start including and excluding things.”
Mr Lee, who has authored books and curated exhibitions on the evolution of Peranakan culture, says his work is about showing that in the past, people did not actually have fixed ideas of the culture.
“In those days, people didn’t say ‘today, I am going to try to be Peranakan’. It was just a way of life found in colonial port towns - it was a very shared culture,” he added.
So when it comes to other aspects of the culture, like the food, Mr Fred Lam - an antiques collector and owner of Baba Fred Antique House - is all for innovation. “What's wrong with having buah keluak sauce over spaghetti?" he said,
"And what's wrong with buah keluak ice cream, when there are other types of buah ice cream - like Macadamia nut ice cream? People have the right to express their own cooking style.”
But other experts are more sympathetic to the traditional school of thought.
Associate Professor Daniel Goh, of the NUS Department of Sociology, views it this way: “At any one point in time, practitioners of a culture will have fixed ideas of what their culture is - if they don’t then they can’t practise the culture!”
But, he added, there has to be a “delicate balance” between preserving the past, and letting the culture evolve. “When authorities and community associations try to prevent change, then over time, the cultural practices will lose their relevance and become mummified in museums.”
And so, cultural producers should be allowed to “be as creative as possible, as they are the ones who will help us best preserve culture as a living culture”.
Mr Lee noted: “I think it is unlikely that you will find people who would want to behave like a 19th century Peranakan.
“Why would you, when you can enjoy so many various aspects of today, and form your own culture which could be very unique?”
ESSENCE OF A PERANAKAN
So, once you strip off all the “superficial accessories”, what are the bare bones of Peranakan culture?
Said Mrs Judy Teo: “I wouldn't say there's a right or wrong but I think the gist of it is that Peranakan families are very fun-loving people. We like to gather, to bond, to joke.”
Which is probably why, even though the Peranakans are a community notorious for being finicky and critical of each other, they are brought together by their desire to eat, drink and be merry.
“We are the people who are taught to biar dia orang cakap (to not mind what others say),” as Ms Ong put it.
For others, it’s about contributing to the diversity of the country. “Being ethnically Chinese, but practicing some sort of Malay culture, gives us that open-mindedness to our surroundings and other cultures,” said Mr Leong.
Or perhaps it's about being part of a community that has ridden the tides of change in Singapore, as Mr Lee put it: “There is a beauty in that - that our ancestors are people who have had a stake in the long history of this island. That's something that I feel very proud about.”
This is the second part in our two-parter on Peranakans in the modern age. Read our first story about resistance to innovation in the food culture.