On Armenian Street in downtown Singapore stands an elegant three-storey white building a century old. It is the Peranakan museum dedicated to a community who has played an important role in the history of Singapore from its very beginning.
The Malay word means “child of” or “born of” and refers to people of mixed ethnic origin. They are the descendants of Chinese and Indians, Hindu and Muslim, who came to Southeast Asia and married local women. There are communities of them in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. This museum concentrates on the Chinese Peranakans of the city state.
They include some of its leading figures, among them Kwa Geok Choo, the wife of Lee Kuan Yew, founder of modern Singapore. Both were lawyers; her legal wig and the box she kept it in are on display on the third floor of the museum. She died in 2010, after a marriage that lasted 60 years.
The Peranakans played an especially important role during the period of British colonial rule. Many were educated in mission schools and were fluent in English as well as Malay. They became lawyers, merchants, bankers and civil servants; some became very wealthy. They were middlemen between the British rulers and the Chinese and Malays, were able to obtain passports and served in the local defence forces. They were known as “the King’s Chinese”.
“They were seen as higher in the social order than Chinese,” said Yap Jo Lin, a guide at the museum. “They sent their children to mission schools where they learnt English. They got jobs in the civil service and passports.”
One photo on display shows the foundation of the Straits Chinese Recreation Club in 1885, where the Peranakans played cricket, tennis and table tennis. It was only opened to Chinese in 1946 and renamed the Singapore Chinese Recreation Club.
Straits Chinese refer to those born in the Straits of Malacca and the Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca and Singapore. But Peranakan culture stretched beyond these ports, to Thailand and Indonesia.
History and origins
Many date the origins of the Peranakans to the 15th century. In Malacca, Sultan Mansor Shah took as his wife a Chinese princess named Hang Li Po, who arrived there with 500 attendants; he ruled between 1459 and 1477.
In 1511, maps drawn by the Portuguese of Malacca show “Kampung Cina” – a Chinese village. In 1645, the Chinese there built their first temple, Cheng Hoon Teng; it became a symbol of their community.
The Peranakans were descendants of Chinese men who came and married local women, mostly Malays. They developed a language, culture, customs and cuisine that were a mixture of the two races. They spoke Baba Malay, a unique Malay dialect significantly influenced by the Hokkien dialect of Chinese. In religion, they followed the Chinese tradition, a mixture of Taoism, Buddhism and ancestor worship. They retained Chinese names. In marriage, families chose for their children partners from their own community or sometimes Chinese, such as when they needed a son-in-law for the family business.
“In religion, they were syncretic,” said Yap. “They adopted Taoism, Buddhism and other religions. Their furniture too was a mixture of cultures, mixing Chinese and Western designs. Their pottery looks less Chinese. It has very dense decoration, using different colours. They liked strong colours, like green, red, deep pink and lime green. The rich people commissioned pieces of their own designs from makers in China.”
In 1786, the British established in Penang their first possession in Southeast Asia. In 1819, Stamford Raffles set up a settlement in Singapore; the Straits Settlement followed in 1826.
Among the native people, the Peranakans were the quickest to adapt to the arrival of the new colonial powers - the Dutch in what is now Indonesia and the British in Malaya, Singapore and north Borneo.
They went into finance, industry and trading. The colonial presence opened for them markets in Europe as well as within their own country. They sent their children to schools run by missionaries where they learnt English and Western practices and ways of thinking; this opened the way for them to move into law, medicine and banking. Some converted to Christianity.
In 1893, Song Ong Siang, a Peranakan, became the first Chinese admitted into the legal service in Singapore. In 1936, he became a Knight Commander of the British Empire, the first from Malaya. Another important member of the community was Tan Jiak Kim, one of the founders of the Straits Steamship Company and a member of the Straits Settlement Legislative Council from 1889 to 1915. He was also an active philanthropist in education, medicine and other fields; his financial contribution and lobbying were the basis for the city’s first medical school.
Between 1850 and 1900, mass emigration increased the Chinese population in Southeast Asia from 200,000 to over a million; the Peranakans became more conscious of their special identity. In 1900, they set up the Straits Chinese British Association.
After World War I, they joined the local defence forces and their leaders persuaded the British to allow non-Europeans into the civil service.
Their education, fluency in English and family links enabled them to flourish during the colonial period, often as a middleman between the colonial ruler and the native Malays. Some became very wealthy and built large, sumptuous houses. They played a prominent role in commerce, politics and social affairs in 19th century Southeast Asia. They established strong relationships with colonial merchant houses and the British administration; interaction and identification with the colonial powers became an important part of their cultural blend and identity. They managed temples and clan associations and their ability to speak Malay, the lingua franca of the region, meant they could do business effectively with indigenous Southeast Asians.
The Japanese invasion of Singapore during World War II was a disaster for the Peranakan community. Many lost their businesses, their homes and their assets.
The world changed radically after 1945. Colonies in Asia, as elsewhere, became independent states; the Peranakans became a less distinct social and political group. They were absorbed into the larger racial category of “Chinese”.
At school, children learnt Mandarin and English and fewer could speak Baba Malay. As Peranakans moved into smaller flats with their nuclear families, collections of furniture and other treasures that had been handed down for generations became fragmented, divided or were sold.
“During the modern era, the Peranakan identity has almost been forgotten,” said Mary Cheung, a business consultant. “With the end of the colonial period, they lost their special status. They became members of the Chinese community. They made a great contribution to the development of Singapore.”
But the community did not forget their history. In the 1980s, there was a revival of Baba Malay plays, dance and music. Restaurants and shops specialising in Peranakan food and fashion opened. Several productions featuring Peranakan themes were produced for television, notably The Little Nonya; its last episode was reportedly the most-watched one-hour programme in the history of Singapore television.
The Peranakan Museum opened to the public in April 2008; it is in a building in the classical style that was constructed from 1910-1912 as the Tao Nan School by the Hokkien community.
It has galleries on the history, weddings, language and fashion, religion, public life and food of the Peranakan community.
The gallery on weddings includes a tablecloth from Penang in the early 20th century, in which more than one million glass beads were used. It is the largest known example of Peranakan beadwork; its design depicts a variety of European and South American birds and flowers, as well as a few Asian species.
It also features a set of three brooches, also from Penang in the late 19th or early 20th century. It is adorned with a tear-drop element and three circular clusters of diamonds.
The gallery on religion shows the mixture of faiths in Peranakan families. It has an altar sideboard with a devotional image of the Holy Family in the centre of a traditional wooden piece, which has typical Daoist motifs like dragons, phoenixes and the three gods of good fortune, prosperity and longevity. It was made in Singapore in the 1920s for a family that had converted from traditional Daoist deity and ancestor worship to Roman Catholicism.
The museum also has a rare copy of the New Testament in Baba Malay that was published in 1950 by the British and Foreign Bible Society, an organisation that has produced Bible translations in many of the world’s languages. In 1894, a Baba church was founded. This edition was produced to meet the needs of those Peranakans who had converted. The next edition only appeared in 2007, when a new, revised text was released.
Baba Malay publications flourished from the 1890s until the 1930s with the economic prosperity experienced by the community; but there was no standard orthography for the language and no reference grammar. In recent times, it has gone into decline. Now monolingual speakers can only be found among the very elderly. It is estimated that there are about 10,000 speakers left in Malacca, with less than half that number in Singapore.
Peranakan cuisine, however, continues to flourish, with many restaurants offering it. It combines Chinese, Indian and Malay elements, resulting in a wide variety of flavours.
The gallery on public life shows some of the many Peranakans who left their mark on the city. Among them is Lim Kim San (1916-2006) who received the Order of Temasek, the highest honour of Singapore for distinguished public service. The medal is on display. It was in honour of his tenure as the founding chairman of the Housing and Development Board (HDB). The board is responsible for public housing and is credited with clearing the squatter homes and slums of the 1960s and resettling those who lived in them in low-cost state housing. Now more than 80 percent of the population live in HDB homes.
“Given the unpopularity of Peranakan material half a century ago, it is heartening that the collection of the museum has resonated with both local and international audiences,” wrote curator Jackie Yoong in its official guide. “Records indicate that the local population makes up the majority of visitors… It is also a popular choice for school excursions, since several Peranakan Singaporean and regional pioneers are featured in school textbooks.”
The museum is fulfilling a worthy mission – informing Singaporeans and foreigners alike of this important page in the city’s history.
By Mark O´Neill in Singapore
Photos by Courtesy of Peranakan Museum
(Issue N. 29, July 2015)