Who Are the Peranakan Chinese?7 min read

Deep roots and many routes – Rebecca Choong Wilkins

Between 1850 and 1940, almost 20 million people journeyed from mainland China to Southeast Asia across the South Seas, known in China as the Nanyang or “Southern Ocean.” Mostly hailing from coastal cities and villages in southern China – including Amoy (now Xiamen), Swatow (Shantou), Hainan and Hong Kong, over ten million of these migrants travelled to Malaya (now Malaysia), and roughly three million headed to the islands of the Dutch East Indies in modern-day Indonesia.

When they arrived in Southeast Asia, they were called sinkeh (xīn kè 新客) – “new guests” – or the more derogatory cheena gerk (“low-class Chinaman” in Baba Malay) by Chinese settlers with much deeper roots in the region. These earlier Chinese communities formed in the 15th century, when Chinese merchants emigrated to Southeast Asia and married into indigenous families. Forming sui generis cultures that embraced Chinese and Southeast Asian traditions as well as contemporary colonial trends, they developed their own distinctive clothing, cuisines and languages.

These communities were known as Peranakan Chinese, after a Malay term meaning “person born here and descended from elsewhere.” Although the Peranakan Chinese deliberately cultivated and preserved Chinese traditions, they were also closely connected to other “mixed” communities, such as the Kristang Peranakans (of Portuguese descent),  the Chetti or Indian Peranakans, of Tamil descent and the Jawi Peranakan of Indian and South Asian descent. In part, this is because the Peranakan Chinese defined themselves by difference, setting their Chineseness against indigenous and colonial influence. In particular, they accentuated a Dutch and British inheritance against any association with the waves of sinkeh that arrived from China in the 19th and 20th centuries, sending their children to English or Dutch-speaking schools, for instance, and using Western cutlery instead of chopsticks.

Peranakans challenge our assumption of who counts as Chinese: they are both the émigré and the native, slipping between the gaps of a taxonomy.

Peranakan influence on material culture in Southeast Asia is especially tangible today – we can see it, wear it, taste it. There are the opulent interiors in Crazy Rich Asians, largely shot in old Peranakan-style homes; the colorful sarong kebaya worn by Peranakan women (and Singaporean airline flight attendants); laksa noodles, a spicy noodle soup that I can’t get enough of; and colorful, steamed fingercakes called kueh.

It may not be self-evident, but much of Southeast Asia’s most beloved clothing, cuisine, and architecture all have Peranakan roots. These features have tended to focus our attention on the matriarchal, domestic spheres of Peranakan life where women still compete to make the best kueh lapis, a lightly spiced cake with 20 to 30 layers each individually baked, or udang garam assam, prawns cooked in a spicy-sour tamarind sauce.

It’s become less socially and politically expedient for men to self-identify, but Peranakan men have been some of the region’s most successful. Keen to stress a coherent, unified Singaporean Chinese identity, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s so-called founding father, never publicly declared his Peranakan ancestry. It wasn’t until 2008 that his son Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s current Prime Minister, openly laid claim to this heritage at the opening of the newly-created Peranakan Museum.

From the 15th until the 18th century, the Peranakan Chinese settled in ports across Southeast Asia including Melaka, Penang, Singapore, and Cirebon. They are also known as the Baba Nyonya, after the honorific terms for Peranakan men (babas, probably borrowed from Farsi) and women (nyonyas, probably borrowed from Portuguese). Babas were traders and businessmen dealing in the region’s most lucrative goods, including rubber, tin, bananas, tapioca and precious stones. Speaking a mixture of their own creoles, such as Penang Hokkien or Baba Malay, they were often multilingual and embraced colonial trade, travelling between ports and acting as middlemen, and sometimes civil servants, for the Portuguese and later the Dutch and British.

The Peranakan Chinese are often described as hybrid, but this kind of terminology exposes a shortcoming in the English language – they are only hybrid if we insist on thinking along nationalist lines. This raises the tangled question of defining a diaspora in a world of nation states. Peranakans challenge our assumption of who counts as Chinese: they are both the émigré and the native, the local and the travelling merchant. They risk being neither here nor there, slipping between the gaps of taxonomy. And yet, from the mid-19th to the early 20th century, the Peranakan Chinese were called the orang ada ada, the “people of wealth.” They dominated key spheres of influence: business, politics and the media.

At the height of their influence and affluence, photographic portraits of Peranakan men showcase the cultivation of a very specific Chinese identity. They are a performance of wealth, culture and influence. Uncovered and dissected by historian Peter Lee, these portraits show a China that was open to world, championing maritime trade networks and complicit in colonial cosmopolitanism.

This photo of Cheang Hong Lim (1841-1893), a businessman and philanthropist from Singapore, shows us the deliberate performance of Babas’ political kinship with imperial China. After Singapore’s first Chinese consulate was established in 1877, Chinese men were able to acquire imperial titles for themselves and their ancestors, and wealthy Babas were first in line. This portrait shows Hong Lim dressed as a mandarin of the fourth rank, represented by the wild goose on his badge, wearing almost every item of an imperial official: canonical summer hat, flared collar, surcoat with rank badge and informal dragon robe. Yet Hong Lim also underlines his Peranakan ties with the crumpled handkerchief in his left hand – a typically Southeast Asian accessory for men. Look carefully, and you’ll see the handkerchief is machine-printed copy of an Indian bandhani cloth, almost certainly a British import.

If Babas couldn’t earn imperial rank through official channels, there was a “fake it ‘til you make it” attitude. In this portrait taken in 1860s Semarang, in the Dutch East Indies, an affluent Baba poses in a dragon robe, without the required surcoat or rank badge. Flouting imperial regulation, his winter court hat also has an especially plush feather decoration. Wealthy Babas in the Indies even crafted such decorations out of gold or set them with diamonds – a luxury traditionally reserved for the imperial family. Again, the crumpled handkerchief and a ring worn in the European style on the index finger show a characteristic Baba swagger.

A more coercive connection to the Chinese empire among Peranakan Chinese men was the queue – a Manchu custom required by all Chinese males from 1644 to 1911. In mainland China, refusal to wear one was punishable by death. Resistance to the queue, as in the mainland, pervaded Southeast Asia, particularly in the late 19th century.

This final portrait, taken in the 1860s, depicts a queue coiffed up to crown the head of this very modern Baba gentleman. While he wears the more casual, voluminous tropical adaptations of Chinese-style garments, usually produced in silks, the neoclassical sculpture and Homburg hat, popularized by King Edward VII, indicate the performance of a particular kind of European sophistication.

These portraits are the declaration of a different kind of Chinese luxury – the luxury of modernity. In the last century of European colonialism, Peranakan Babas cultivated a distinctly fearless Sinophone identity. They were unafraid to enjoy the spoils of colonial commerce, in a celebration and performance of the Chinese cosmopolitan. ∎

This column was made possible by the generous support of Stephen O. Lesser on Patreon.
All Baba portraits reproduced with thanks to the collection of Mr and Mrs Lee Kip Lee.

Header: Portrait of Peranakan family in Singapore reproduced with thanks from Peter Lee & Jennifer Chen’s ‘The Straits Chinese House: Domestic Life and Traditions’.