Peranakan Culture

November 22, 2009 / Culture, Media Events / 19 Comments

I realized I spent a lot of time being fascinated by other peoples’ cultures but have never really mentioned my own – and I don’t mean Chinese culture.

As with many Chinese people in South East Asia, I am not purely Chinese by descent. My paternal grandmother is Peranakan from the Indonesian Riau Islands and my maternal ancestors were Peranakan from a coastal province in Malaysia called Penang.

Peranakans are descendants of Chinese immigrants who married Malays. Together, they formed a unique heritage – a sort of melting pot of Chinese, Malay and later, colonial (i.e. Dutch or British) influences.

Despite my ancestry, I didn’t grow up practicing the Peranakan way of life, which is quite a pity since the last practicing Peranakan in my family is my grandmother, who’s about 90.

peranakan museum

But last week I was given the perfect opportunity to learn about my culture by the nice folks of the Peranakan Association, who invited me for an evening at Singapore’s Peranakan Museum.

And here’s a snapshot of my experience.

Peranakan Architecture

peranakan architecture

The museum is styled like a typical Peranakan home. Peranakans are very fond of pastel colors and intricate designs. When I first saw the building, I was quite shocked. It is strikingly similar to my old WordPress theme, Springley. It made wonder if it is possible for art to be passed down by blood…

Peranakan Wedding

peranakan wedding setting

This is the setting where lap chai occurs. Lap chai is a gift-exchange ceremony that takes place one day before the wedding day.

peranakan lapchai

And here is an example of the gifts the groom will bring to the bride’s family.

peranakan teh kuan

During lap chai, the bride and groom are to serve each other’s parents with tea as a symbol of filial piety and symbol of being accepted into the family.

peranakan wedding bedroom

This is the newlywed’s bedroom. So pretty! But the bed sure looks uncomfortable. :S

peranakan wedding procession

And here’s part of the wedding procession. I would like to point out that the groom’s clothes are very reminiscent of Chinese zombies. For the longest time, I’ve wondered why Chinese zombies are always portrayed with Qing Dynasty clothes. Do shed some light, if you know!

But I digress.

Peranakan Superstition

peranakan tangkal

Talking about zombies, Peranakans were highly superstitious people, which isn’t too surprising since they were heavily influenced by their Chinese ancestors. They had all sorts of amulets to protect themselves from evil. These amulets are called tangkal.

Peranakan House

peranakan house

Peranakans had a penchant for naming their houses. As an aside, this could be my house since that’s my last name on the nanyate-esque lanterns.

Peranakan Tableware

peranakan tableware

Here’s a shot of Peranakan tableware. As with their houses, most of the tableware are in brightly colored shades of pastel with patterns dominated by flowers, butterflies, phoenixes and dragons.

closeup of peranakan tableware

This is a closeup of a Peranakan kamcheng lid. The detail is amazing! Peranakans meticulously pay the same attention to detail in everything they do. I marvel at their patience and at the same time wonder how bored one must of been to design everything with such intricacy.

These people clearly have never heard of Facebook. :P

Peranakan Fashion

As with Chinese women of long ago, most Peranakan women were not allowed to leave the house. So they killed time by embroidering and making gorgeous wallets, shoes and clothes.

peranakan embroidery

Here are some Peranakan purses made with beads.

peranakan shoes

Here is more hand-embroidery to be later turned into shoes.

peranakan fashion

To save the best for last, this is how Peranakan women dressed. It’s a fancier version of the traditional Malay attire Kebaya. For the rich, it’s made of imported Chinese silk and hand-embroidered with all sorts of flowers.

My grandmother still dresses this way whenever she goes out. It’s very elegant. I really wouldn’t mind a modernized version of this as my future wedding dress.

But my hubby sure isn’t going to wear that Chinese zombie-inspired monstrosity though.

Anyway, I hope you found this entry enlightening. There are lots of more of the museum that I did not cover since the entry is already getting way too long. (It’s also taking me forever to resize, watermark and saturate those photos!)

So head over to my Picasa album to look at the rest of the 150+ photos I took.

There was an exhibit that I thoroughly enjoyed but wasn’t allowed to take pictures; it’s where all the bling’s at. So if you have some time, I encourage you to check it out yourself at the Peranakan Museum before it ends on December 13. There are also a bunch of interesting festivities going on from November 27 to December 6 – including a visit to a true Peranakan home.


  • http://www.peranakan.org.sg Budak Baba

    I would really suggest you go during the daytime, if you can, cuz the Peranakan House, holds deeper meaning than just grand entrances!

    Thanks for the post! :)

  • jing

    i can see u in peranakan inspired wedding dress! somehow it reminds me of ur mermaid dress, i don’t know why, lol, maybe the rich colour,

    the zombie part was really hilarious! lol!!!! ya why are the zombies all from qing dynasty?! and why must they jump?! lol

  • http://momo4ever.com Michelle

    Ah!! So this peranakan museum is not permanent arr? Would definitely love to go and have a look!! I’m always very fascinated with anything that is related to Chinese Culture, although I’m not really familiar with everything. Love love love the Kebaya though. I’ve always wanted one :)

  • http://nanyate.com Ivy

    @Michelle: No no, the museum itself is permanent. Just that the really cool jewelry exhibit and the festival which has cooking classes and other seminars are not.

    You should go! I love kebaya too! But they’re so expensive when you custom make them. :S

  • http://mbtiforum.net J.C.

    Thanks a lot for this article, I’m going to Asia next month and your articles were really helpful, ty :)

  • http://anastasiaashman.wordpress.com/ Thandelike

    Thanks for this….when I lived in the old Straits Settlement of Penang I was charmed by Peranakan culture, cuisine, dress. Wrote about Jonkers Melaka for the Far Eastern Economic Review. It’s good to hear about the establishment of this museum, and your own personal history. I’ll be checking out your album.

  • http://nanyate.com Ivy

    @Budak Baba: No problem! Thank you for the invite! I really had a great time there. :)

    @J.C.: No problem! Glad to have been of help to you. Feel free to mail if you got questions.

    @Thandelike: Living in Penang must’ve been a gem of an experience in terms of learning about Peranakan culture. I used to live in Malaysia as well, albeit in Kuala Lumpur. Thanks for stopping by! :)

  • http://momo4ever.com Michelle

    @Ivy: It has actually been years since I’ve been to Singapore. Dunno when I’ll actually visit SG though :( But if I do, this museum is definitely on my “must visit” list :)

  • http://nanyate.com Ivy

    @Michelle: Am I on your “must visit” list too? :) We must catch up man! :)

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  • http://joelynalexandra.wordpress.com Joelyn Alexandra

    Hey!! I see the “Facebook” remark! Haha. I was telling my grandma that one of us was talking about learning to do beading. She was like, “you’ll go blind!” ~ Jo

  • http://www.inspirelight.net/ Kenneth

    Didn’t know that was Peranakan. Or maybe there are different definitions of Peranakan. I assumed it was something like Indonesian from Chinese descendants. At least that what I hear over here (Netherlands).

  • http://dorkinheels.com Thao

    Very cool interesting post! Thank you for sharing your culture.

  • Tia

    Oh I was given to understand Peranakan meant mostly Chinese Indonesians who adopted Dutch culture to the point of “being more Dutch than the Dutch themselves”, meaning Paranakan did not necessarily mean mixed with native Indonesians?
    Because was it not known that the Chinese were encourage NOT to mix due to the caste system? First owing to colonialism, then later because of discrimination by the natives resulting in further alienation with different Chinese groups, one of them being the Peranakans? Or am I totally wrong? Hoping to learn something new always. : )

    • Serene

      Well ‘Peranankan’ is not a race, rather it is a culture (despite the race). It simply means straits-born Chinese who had adapted the Malay way of life.

      I’ve been questioning the possible root of this rich culture. But as much as the tale of the becoming of the nonyas and babas (a Chinese princess married a local Malay prince in the 15th c. ) is beautiful and romantic, it remains uncertain. Historical facts simply does not add up, such as the law of indigenous marriage from the 15th c. onwards, and the social acceptance of inter-marriages during those times.

      There was no form of caste system in China compared to India but there was and still is a certain division between classes, which happen in all societies around the world. It is, however, possible for a Chinese princess to be married into a palace of different language and religion (and vice-visa), in the name of better relations between countries to establish and secure trades and alliances. But in the Islamic law, the partner would have to convert to Islam and adopt a Muslim name. Thus, it does not explain why Chinese peranankans today retain Chinese names, and babi ponteh’s one of the nonyas’ favourite dishes.

      Chances are the history of this culture came about when chinese merchants resides in Southeast Asia with their families way before the influx of immigrants (mainly labourers) from China and India, and eventually adapted a local lifestyle to suit the environmental and social changes. Same goes for the Chitty.

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  • Sec1 Gal :)

    Hi. I’m secondary 1 and I had to go to the peranakan museum to do my project with my group. Yes, I was new to it too (and im not a peranakan, though) but i think everyone shud go take a look, especially students. students can enter the musuem free with their student passes. awesome :) Also, it is really neat and full of artefacts u van take PHOTOS of unlike some other places. it is really enriching. everyone should try! try to salvage the peranakan culture! kudos to u for creating this post to spread awareness about peranakans! :)))

  • cait

    I’m a quarter Singaporean Peranakan :) was looking for a good info and this helped so much. Must get as much info from my grandma before the Peranakan culture dies.

  • Hor Zong Seng

    Why zombies are always wearing the Qing costume? Because it reflects the unhappiness of the Chinese towards the Qing. If you notice, older production of Hong Kong Movies such as “Huang Fei Hong” and Movies with story based on Qing Dynasty usually repeats similar expressions such as “The ManChu people snatched the land of the Han”, Qing emperors killing han woman, the “Tian Di hui”..etc, unlike recent shows which does the opposite, they sing praises of Qing.

    If we would notice more, the wedding costume of the Nyonya is actually based on Ming fashion, while the man wears the Qing fashion. The Qing fashion were brought over by the “Sin Kek” that came from China during Qing Era. Saddly, Qing fashion are Manchu attire. It is imposed on the Chinese by the “Queue Order”, where they were forced to abandon their traditional wear and adopt the manchu attire, those who disobeyed where beheaded… The Manchu rulers did a lot of destruction to the Chinese, I guess most people forgotten these history, younger people are loving the manchu princess and prince…..