Peranakan Culture

Tamara S. Wagner, Research Fellow, National University of Singapore

"Peranakan" is a Malay word that means "born locally".

Recent years have seen a revival of both historical and cultural interest in the Peranakan Chinese, a fast dwindling ethnic minority in the former Straits Settlements, particularly in Malacca (Melaka), Malaysia, and Singapore. The Peranakan or Straits-born Chinese are the descendants of Chinese immigrants that settled in the Malay Archipelago at least as early as the seventeenth century. Since there was a law against the immigration of Chinese women until the mid-nineteenth century, intermarriage with the native peoples of the region was common and engendered a unique culture that combined various customs and traditions. "Baba" ("Nyonya" for women and "Bibik" for elderly ladies) was a honorific term first used by Malays to differentiate these locally born Chinese from later immigrant Chinese. The distinct Baba-Nyonya culture was rapidly being diluted in the 1930s and had almost disappeared by the 1940s, becoming further undermined by post-war Chinese nationalism. The autobiographical fiction of Shirley Geok-lin Lim and C.M. Woon's recent historical novel provide insight into the vanishing grandeur of the old Peranakan families in the course of the twentieth century.

A comparatively neglected group are the Melaka Chitty or Malacca Straits-born Hindus, the descendants of traders from the Coromandel Coast in Southern India who visited Malacca from the fifteenth century onwards. Like the first Chinese settlers, Hindu traders married Malays, Chinese, Javanese, and Bataks, creating a unique new culture. While many Melaka Chitty have now settled in other parts of Malaysia as well as in Singapore, the culture's historical centre is Kampung Chitty, Gajah Berang, near Malacca.

Related Web Resources


Postcolonial Web Singapore OV Singaporean Literature

Last modified: 30 September 2002