Peranakan: Origin Story Of The People Of The Straits

Not many people can say that they have met a Peranakan before let alone hail from that lineage. Growing up in a Peranakan household meant that I had a unique upbringing. Everything from culture to food and fashion had a deep impact on my life. It never occurred to me that I was different. That was until the teachers in school could not understand my version of Malay. The Peranakan population is small. There are an estimated 2,000 Peranakans in Singapore. The numbers in Malaysia are unknown, although the Persatuan Peranakan Cina Melaka (Straits Born Chinese Association) has around 1,800 members. Thus, Peranakan culture is lesser-known around the world. Curiosity about my own heritage sparked a desire to share the rich history of Peranakans while exploring my roots.

A typical Peranakan celebration will feature women wearing the Nyonya kebaya.
A typical Peranakan celebration will feature women wearing the Nyonya kebaya.
Pictured here is my family celebrating my grandmother’s 70th birthday. She is seated in the centre of the front row. I am wearing a purple floral kebaya on the far right of the second row.
Source: Denise Lee family archive

Who Are The Peranakan?

The term ‘Peranakan’ is an Indonesian or Malay word that means “local born”. It generally refers to people of mixed Chinese and Indonesian or Malay heritage. Many Peranakans are able to trace their origins to as early as the 16ᵗʰ Century. Most originate from the Straits Settlements of Malacca, Singapore and Penang. While many Peranakans are of Chinese descent, you can also find smaller communities of Peranakan-Indians known as “Chetti Melaka“. It is worth noting though that meeting one is extremely rare these days.

Peranakan-Indians or “Chetti Melaka” are also small in numbers. Even smaller than those of the Peranakan-Chinese.

Who Are The Straits-Born Chinese?

Historians and some contemporary writers have often used the term “Straits-born Chinese” synonymously with the term “Baba”. However, Felix Chia, author of “The Babas” begs to differ. He agrees that ethnic Chinese born in the Strait Settlements are considered Straits-born Chinese. After all, they were born outside of China. However, not all of them are Baba.

Who or what then, is a Baba?

A Baba can be said to be one whose first ancestor married or made union with a local woman. He speaks little or no Chinese at all, but speaks Baba Malay. His more immediate ancestors attended English schools, although his earlier forebears, if they were prosperous, had tutors teaching them the Chinese language at home, and some even received education in China.

Felix Chia, Author of “The Babas” (The babas, page 8)

On the contrary, the Baba’s Chinese counterparts were immigrants with Chinese wives from China. They are able to speak and write Chinese, while also upholding the Chinese ethos. While they do speak Malay, it is not their mother tongue. They would use conversational Malay predominantly for trading and bargaining purposes in the markets. So a Baba is a Straits-born Chinese but a Straits-born Chinese is not necessarily a Baba. By calling a Baba a Baba, all ambiguity can be removed.

This is also especially confusing because the term ‘Baba’ in Peranakan language means man while ‘Nyonya’ means woman. For the sake of clarity, the term ‘Peranakan’ now has a close association with Baba culture. Thus, you can use both terms interchangeably.

The Straits-born Chinese and Peranakans flourished in Penang, Malacca and Singapore. The three locations were known as the Straits Settlements, a group of former British territories located along the Straits of Malacca.

Origin Story Of Peranakan

The exact origins of the Peranakans are hard to pin down. However, academics and scholars believe Peranakans to be descendants of Chinese immigrant traders who married local Malay or Batak women. From the early 16ᵗʰ century, Chinese traders travelled to the ports of Malacca, Singapore and Penang, settling down there. These early Chinese immigrants who visited the Malay peninsula were mostly Hokkiens from Amoy and other parts of Fujian Province, China. The purpose of their travels was to seek a living or to make a fortune. Most of those who reached the shores of these trading ports were men. As sea voyages were considered to be too treacherous, women generally did not make the same journey.

It was customary for Chinese traders to return home in pursuit of a wife before returning to the Malay peninsula. However, this process was tedious, expensive and inconvenient. The wealthy often settled for a more accessible option, which was to take a local wife. Soon the less fortunate, started to follow suit. These men found that remaining in the settlements was the practical thing to do for the benefit of their livelihood.

Slavery: A Debate On The Origin

There is a saying that the Peranakans are Chinese in tradition but Malay in form. This observation came about because Nyonyas wore sarongs as Malay women do. In addition, members of the community didn’t speak Chinese very much at all. Instead, Peranakans predominantly spoke Malay and in later colonial times, English. However, this observation is merely superficial. Based on accounts by Malaya’s early historians, we can unanimously agree that the Peranakans are not of pure Chinese blood.

While many historians opined that Peranakans were mainly of mixed Chinese and Malay blood, not everyone was in agreement. Sir Richard Winstedt found it difficult to reconcile with the fact that Malay women would readily marry Chinese men without first converting him to Islam. As quoted by Victor Purcell on page 87 of “The Chinese In Malaya”:

Most of the local “wives” of Chinese must have been pagan slaves from the Archipelago, Islam forming an insuperable bar against marriage with respectable Moslem Malays. The abolition of slavery removed the opportunity for such alliances.

Sir Richard Windstedt, British Educator

Despite this, Felix Chia, states that this hypothesis does not rule out the possibility of Peranakans having Malay blood. There were loopholes as cohabitation was a possibility and thus, marriage was not such a far-fetched idea. During the time of Windstedt, owning slaves was commonplace. Slave traders would bring Batak women over from neighbouring Sumatra to the Malay settlements as slaves. It was highly probable that Chinese immigrants married them.

The End Of Intermarriage

However, along the course of history, intermarrying stopped as abruptly as it had begun. Early Peranakan families had the confidence and security of community, which they worked very hard to preserve. They found that intermarriage could upset the equilibrium of the society that they have so carefully created. This ideal, along with the desire to preserve their wealth, inevitably led to Peranakans marrying their own kind. This tradition would carry on for many generations, well into the mid-20ᵗʰ century.

My maternal grandparents are a good example of this custom in practice. My grandmother grew up in Singapore. Her Peranakan mother thought it would be good if she could marry into the well-established Chee family in Malacca. My grandfather’s Peranakan mother also agreed that he should take on a Peranakan wife who was already accustomed to the Peranakan traditions. A Chinese bride simply would not do for a descendant of Chee Yam Chuan.

My grandparents grew up in traditional Peranakan families.
A photograph of my grandmother, nyonya Tan Kim Neo and grandfather, baba Chee Kong Hoon. They both came from Peranakan families.
Source: Denise Lee family archive

In addition, the Emancipation Act passed in 1834 was unfortunately lax. Rich Peranakan men who disregarded the law still acquired and kept female slaves. More often than not, these slaves were poor girls from the Batak community, China or of Jawi-Pekan descent (Malay-Indian mix). Thus, intermarriage had become unnecessary because these poor women became concubines of their masters! It was far easier for Peranakan men to marry Peranakan women from families of equal status while keeping concubines.

The Alternative Peranakan Origin Story: Hang Li-Po

Historical records found that Princess Hang Li-Po came to Malacca in 1459 to marry Sultan Mansur Shah. This is after her conversion to Islam, of course. Hang Li-Po, the daughter of a Chinese emperor, had 500 handmaidens accompanying her. They were part of the marriage dowry to the Sultan. These handmaidens later became the brides of the Sultan’s court officials. It is natural to believe that the descendants from this first wave of Chinese immigrants were the early Peranakans. However, in reality, they are Malay. This is due to the fact that they had adopted the Islamic religion and Malay way of life. Present-day descendants of those Chinese brides and court officials have the privilege of using the prefix “Wan” before their names. Felix Chia, through his research, found that this title was given to great chiefs not of royal rank.

Princess Hang Li-Po's descendants were thought to be the early Peranakans.
While there are no actual records of what Princess Hang Li-Po really looked like, I would like to imagine that she was as beautiful as this illustration. Her descendants were thought to be the early Peranakans.
Source: All Free Downloads

It is also recorded that when travelling to Malacca, Hang Li-Po brought along her entourage of personal Chinese attendants. These people lived along the foothills of the famous Bukit Cheena (China Hill) in Malacca. There, they formed a small Chinese community in the 15ᵗʰ century. Due to this, it was highly likely the fusion of Chinese blood with other races happened. The descendants of the community might have married the descendants of those Chinese brides and Malay court officials. This theory could be another source of the Peranakan origin story.

Differentiating Peranakan-Chinese And China-Born Chinese

Many Peranakans retained their Chinese surnames and cultural practices such as ancestral worship. Nonetheless, they were still considered a different group from the China-born Chinese. Historically, the Peranakans were also from a higher socio-economic class than most Chinese immigrants. They were extremely rich and lived in large Peranakan homes. Peranakan women were often spotted wearing intricate Nyonya Kebayas which are very different from their traditional Malay counterparts. It was common for Nyonya women to be laden head-to-toe in gold jewellery. Passed down from generation to generation, the pieces are priceless! However, the Great Depression and World War II hit the wealthy Peranakans hard. The younger generation of Peranakans were not very good at being prudent like their forefathers. They were mostly pleasure-seeking and irresponsible. The post-war era saw the beginning of the unfortunate decline of Peranakan culture.

While the modern Peranakan women wear modern-day clothing these days, the Nyonya Kebaya is still a staple in our wardrobes. This video is a quick guide on how to wear the kebaya and sarong.

Assimilating themselves to local culture, the Peranakan-Chinese community adopted the local way of living. It was only natural for language to follow suit. Unlike their China-born counterparts, Peranakans speak very little to no Chinese at all but instead speak Peranakan or Baba Malay. This unique language is a culmination of Malay and the Hokkien dialect. Hearing Peranakan Malay for the first time can be quite confusing. However, since the mid-20ᵗʰ century, the language has largely been replaced by local forms of English. Education became a popular status symbol among wealthy Peranakans. Soon English became the language of choice among Peranakan families. This is true of my own experience. My family’s first language of choice is English albeit my grandmother also speaks to us in Peranakan Malay.

The Start Of An Anthropological Journey

After two weeks of research, I found that the Peranakan origin story is not as clear cut as other civilisations. That said, there is no denying that the culture and legacy that it leaves behind is as thick as the beloved Peranakan dish pongteh — a staple in every true blue Peranakan household. The journey of discovering the mystery of Peranakan culture is only just beginning. There is so much more to uncover from food to fashion to language and beyond.

Pongteh is a well-loved Peranakan dish made with fermented soybean paste.
Pongteh is a well-loved Peranakan dish made with fermented soybean paste.
Source: THEMISSNISE

This is just the beginning of the Peranakan series. Stay tuned as we dive deeper into the Peranakan culture in coming articles.

Denise LEE

About Denise LEE

Law graduate who got seduced into the corporate world. Corporate minion by day, writer by night, Denise was raised listening to stories of old, before picking up storytelling herself. Self-proclaimed fashionista, foodie, shopaholic, and totally infatuated with all things Korean and Japanese.

7 Replies to “Peranakan: Origin Story Of The People Of The Straits”

  1. Pingback: Peranakan Malay: Keeping The Language Alive - Espoletta

  2. Hi Denise, thanks for an interesting article. I was writing something similar as well, when a friend pointed me to your article. It covers the ground quite extensively, which is good, but a few main problems I have been grappling with over the past three years has not been addressed: Different people use the term differently, as you have pointed out. Also, different terms meant different things during different points in time. You rely heavily on Felix Chia but he was portraying a much narrower view of Baba-Nonyas rather than the terms more commonly accepted today. For instance, how would a Straits-born Chinese in the 1850s be regarded? He isn’t Sinkeh but neither is he a Baba-Nonya type of Peranakan. Some say he is “other Peranakan”, while yet others even dispute the use of the term. So, as you can see, your essay is a nice entry point but a lot more complexities need to be unravelled. If you could give me and my friends any leads, we would be most happy 🙂 Notwithstanding, good job so far. Thank you!

    • Hi Shawn, I agree that there are still a lot of issues that need to be addressed. So far after my research, this is the best I could come up with. Would love to take you up on your offer to chat more about it if you are available because I have plenty of questions myself!

  3. This is an excellent summary. You lay out the opinions about the suggested origins of the Peranakans and let the reader decide! The matrilineal heritage of the Peranakans is not well documented. Khoo Kay Kim’s autobiography sheds some insight on it but my family does not have such a practice. You can read an excerpt here: https://ibb.co/SdqSrwr I would like to add that the inter-marriage between the chinese and malays could have happened before the adoption of islam, when the Malays were animists or hindu/buddhists or when they were less strict about their practice of islam back in the Melaka sultanate period.

    • Hi Matthew! Thanks so much for your comments and feedback. Your personal insight is also so valuable because it’s so difficult to find information about the culture. I think my grandmother has Khoo Kay Kim’s book. Will try to get my hands on that!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*