A Cultural heritage dating back to the 15th century. A melting pot of diversity and history. Iasmina Voinea interviews a resident to find out more…

By Iasmina Voinea: Culture Columnist

Peranakans (meaning “local born” in Malay) stand apart with their unique history, customs, and language.

Yet, from falsely being pegged as monoethnic Chinese people to not getting official recognition by Singapore’s government, the Peranakan community is still facing a lot of misunderstanding. An anonymous source sheds light on the matter.

What does it mean to be Peranakan?

There are so many stories about the beginnings of the Peranakan community, so I’ll save you that whole issue. Broadly speaking, there are two types of Peranakan: sinkeh (meaning “new guest”) and laokeh (meaning “old guest”). Sinkehs are monoethnic immigrants who settled in the port areas of Southeast Asia (mainly Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand) after colonialism. Laokehs are a historically mixed ethnic group that arose in precolonial times with a foreign father from India, China, the Middle East (or Europe to a lesser extent) and an indigenous mother.

For me, the point that makes us Peranakan in the first place is that regardless of the subgroup of ethnic makeup, our common bonding point is that we all practice an altered version of indigenous Malay culture.

What do people often misunderstand about your community?

First thing’s first, since the Peranakan community is beautifully diverse, it’s important to distinguish between race, ethnicity, and culture. Race is how the government deems you look like for official quotas (some of my mixed heritage friends would be classified as “Ceylonese” or “Other: Caucasian”). It doesn’t make any sense that Peranakans are sorted out into whichever racial category is most convenient – there are a lot of political reasons for why “Peranakan” is not an officially recognised community on paper. Ethnicity, I would say, is a closer and more personal response to the identity question. So, I’d say my mum is Baba (a subgroup of the Peranakan community) and my dad is Chinese. Culture, finally, is a set of practices established by a certain group that everyone can practice regardless of their ethnicity or racial category.

Going back to your question, the most common misunderstanding about my community is that we’re all monoethnic Chinese people in indigenous clothing (for purposes of simplification, I’ll use the government’s racial category of “Malay” to speak about the indigenous contribution to the Peranakan identity). I think that’s where the big controversy lies. The fact of the matter is that we’re not all monoethnic, we don’t all have Chinese ancestry, and we don’t all practice the same Chinese-influenced culture. To keep things simple, I won’t list any more. This is truly the main issue.

What was it like growing up Peranakan?

Just to preface all of this: living as a Baba isn’t exactly a tortured existence here. The more Chinese you look, the easier your life is in Singapore, where there’s a great deal of Chinese privilege in society. I’m light-skinned and more Chinese looking as I age, so that’s that. Anyway, I was pretty fortunate in the sense that I grew up in a historically Baba school from ages 7 to 16. My school curriculum was wonderful, and I got to learn a lot about traditional housing, how to cook traditional dishes, and I even got the chance to go to Malacca with my class, where a lot of Peranakans are from (and where my maternal side’s from, too). A lot of my teachers and fellow peers were Peranakan as well. I never really felt bad about who I was growing up, mainly because I didn’t know that I was Baba. People would make comments about how I looked (why my eyes, hair, and skin were so light) or why I couldn’t speak my government assigned “mother tongue” of Mandarin (my real mother tongue is Baba Malay), but I just kind of shrugged and couldn’t explain why.

Later (ages 17 and up) it got kind of embarrassing when I moved to a different school. There was also this prominent state narrative of there being “overly Westernised” and ungrateful Chinese people who couldn’t speak Mandarin and wanted to be angmoh (white).

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the Peranakan community is beautifully diverse, it’s important to distinguish between race, ethnicity, and culture.

So even though I could laugh things off in public, inwardly, I was really confused and upset because I didn’t mean to be bad at Mandarin or not understand the cultural references and inside jokes of the Chinese community.

Baba culture is revived, but only superficially.

Then I found out I was Baba – thank God – and everything made sense. But that also opened my eyes to the inward shame my whole maternal family felt for not being able to fully fit into the Chinese community here. This was more so the case for my grandparents since they lived during the community’s heyday, as well as the crash and the false racial categorisation of the Peranakans.

What actions could people partake in to preserve your culture?

That’s a difficult question because a weird longing for the Baba colonial past (we were fools and colonial collaborators during British imperial rule) has arisen in recent years. People like the aesthetic of the Baba community – you practice Malay-ish customs but look less brown than Chinese.

A lot of Baba restaurants and clothing shops have sprung up in recent years, some owned by fully Chinese people who know little about the Baba culture. Baba culture is revived, but only superficially. Our food and clothing from a very specific time in colonial history are also very trendy right now. It’s used liberally by government agencies and everyday people to make them seem more multicultural or multi-ethnic. In a sense, we’re being reified and used to symbolise all these ideas that our ancestors probably were against (Babas were very racist!).

So, to truly keep the real culture alive, everyone should read up on the complicated history of the Peranakans in general. By getting woke we’ll hopefully have less of these horribly misinformed people trying to rebrand Malay food as Peranakan food by jacking up the prices or even erasing Malay culture completely by smacking a Chinese person in there and calling it Peranakan. Besides reading up on history, Babas themselves should start contributing to more living culture by taking part in Baba Malay classes and wearing batik/baju panjangs and sarong kebayas. Learn about past customs, like how to pose in photographs, and implement that back into everyday life.

Lastly, how has the pandemic impacted your community?

As I’ve been answering the questions, I’ve been using mainly a Baba perspective because that’s what I am and what I know. I don’t think the pandemic has affected the Baba community that much because being a Baba also mainly connotes historical wealth (for being colonial collaborators). However, because of everyone being indoors during the pandemic, there has been a spike in anger against the Baba community. There have been random groups of people mocking Babas for being monoethnic Chinese people trying to appropriate Malay culture (uncalled for, since laokehs and monoethnic sinkehs were mainly forced to adopt indigenous customs to avoid being massacred by colonial powers).

In general, a lot of people are getting angry (rightfully and wrongfully so) because no one has a clear idea of what it means to be Peranakan. Why? Because people want somebody to be angry at. It’s easy to point fingers at this awkward group that has never fit anywhere and has made a name for themselves as betrayers and collaborators during the British rule.

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