If you’re a true Malaysian, then the term “Peranakan” shouldn’t be foreign to you.
Peranakan comes from the Malay root word “anak”, which means child or “locally born”, and they can be found across Southeast Asia. In Malaysia, the Peranakan community is commonly known as “Baba Nyonya” – “Baba” is the term for men while “Nyonya” is used for women – which refers to the descendants of merchants from China who came to Malacca and married local women in the 15th century.
Just in case you’re new to this unique and diverse culture, here’s 5 things you need to know about the Peranakans:
1. Aside from the Baba Nyonya, there are other smaller Peranakan communities
While the term Peranakan is most commonly used to refer to those of Chinese descent (Baba Nyonya), there are also other comparatively smaller communities, such as the Indian Hindu Peranakans aka Chitty; the Arab or Indian Muslim Peranakans aka Jawi Pekan; the Eurasian Peranakans (Portugese-Malay) aka Kristang. Despite being relatively small, each of these groups have added to the diversity of the region by infusing their own unique blend of elaborate customs, traditions, and speech.
2. The Peranakan society is a matriarchal one
Though most Asian families are known to be patriarchal, the Peranakan households are headed by the women. The head of a typical Peranakan family is usually the grandmother, who is known as the “Bibik”. In the end of colonial days (between the 1950s to 60s) the women would earn money by cooking, making handicrafts, and sewing.
3. Food is the Peranakan way of life
Widely known as “Nyonya Cuisine”, Peranakan dishes are considered as one of the earliest fusion dishes in Southeast Asia as it is the combination of Chinese ingredients with distinctive Malay spices such as pandan leaves, cincaluk (shrimp paste), star anise, curry leaves, and candlenut. There are regional variations in Nyonya cooking: dishes from in Penang possess Thai influences, such as more liberal use of tamarind, while dishes from Singapore and Malacca show a greater Indonesian influence, such as the use of coconut milk. Some of the most popular Nyonya food include Laksa, Chicken Kapitan, Pongteh, and Ang Ku Kue.
4. Peranakan communities have strong beliefs in “pantang larang” (taboos and superstitions)
Did you know that the Peranakans believe that biting your nails at night will bring you bad luck? Or that children are not allowed to point at the moon because the moon God would cut the child’s ear? Just like in any other cultures, the Peranakans still believe in “pantang larang”, especially among the older generations. Though most modern Peranakans no longer practice complex customs, many still use it to scare children.
5. The Peranakan language is a combination of Malay and other influences such as Hokkien
There is one very distinct difference between the Peranakan language spoken in the south (Malacca and Singapore) as compared to that of the north (Penang). In the south, Malay is spoken with very few Hokkien words whereas in the north, it’s the other way around.
To celebrate this unique culture, Astro and the National Geographic Channel (Astro channel 553/575) will be airing a series of specially produced and curated programmes, titled “A Peranakan Heritage”, this July and August.
The documentary series consists of 3 parts, which are:
- “In Search of the Straits Born, With Julian Davison”
Historian and anthropologist Julian Davison embarks on an odyssey to uncover the history of the Straits Born, and to learn more about their stories.
The programme premieres on 27th July at 10pm.
- “Gok’s Chinese Takeaway – Malacca Malaysia”
British fashion stylist, TV presenter and Chinese cookery writer, Gok Wan, explores the fusion food of Malaysia, and that of a group of Chinese immigrants known as the Peranakans who settled in the region some 500 years ago, and who have since adapted Malay-style language, clothes and food.
The programme premieres on 3rd August at 10pm.
- “Potraits of the Peranakan, With Sherman Ong”
In a series of 5 vignettes, including Kristang, Tiles, Antique, Potehi, and New Baba, award-winning photographer Sherman Ong travels across Southeast Asia, pointing his lens to catch the essence of fellow Peranakan descendants and the culture that they are still upholding till this very day.
The programme premiered on 20th July.
For more information about the programmes, visit National Geographic’s “A Peranakan Heritage” website.