Are the Peranakans more Malayan or more Chinese? The jury’s still out on that one, but first things first: who exactly are they? They’re the offspring of the marriages between Chinese men and Malay women that took place mostly in 18th century Singapore, as Chinese settlers – traders, workers and merchants – arrived from all parts of South China in search of new opportunities. And what’s so special about them? They’re a minority in today’s Singapore, but they’ve left their stamp on craft, architecture and cuisine in the tiny island-state. Also called Straits-born Chinese, they’re every bit as colourful a community as our Anglo-Indians.
The uniform of Singapore Airlines air-hostesses is derived from the traditional Peranakan costume, and every major department store is sure to have a stall devoted to Peranakan desserts. Though Peranakan is a catch-all word to describe the community, the males are called Baba and the women Nonya. Something that I couldn’t figure out was why, in Singapore, Baba appeared to be a slightly pejorative term, though it was quite acceptable to ask around for a Nonya restaurant: in true blue chauvinistic tradition, cooking was the exclusive domain of ladies, and so the cuisine has come to be named after them!
In fact, the first time I encountered the desserts was in the unlikeliest of places: the swish all-day diner at Singapore’s Shangri-La Hotel. The Line, with its all-white décor with flame orange highlights has dozens of counters, all serving a fair representation of every cuisine that Singapore has to offer. Amidst the sophisticated patisserie and cakes featuring pastel-coloured sugar paste work were a row of brightly-hued desserts. Flavoured with coconut milk, palm jaggery and pandanus leaves, their vivid colours would have given a mithai shop a complex. They were too flamboyant by far to have been Chinese, yet the preponderance of glutinous rice flour was not quite Malayan. That was my first brush with Peranakan culture.
Thanks to the extremely articulate, well-informed staff at Singapore Tourism Board (I walked into their office in Orchard Road, but there are others as well, all centrally located) I found more information on the community. The Peranakan community lived in shop-houses, the residence-cum-store that is a common enough feature all over our neck of the woods. So, in fact, did every other community in Singapore. The difference lay in the details. Thus, in Emerald Hill, where the staff at the Tourism Board suggested I visit, every house had a swing door in addition to the main front door. The main door would be kept opened throughout the day, yet the ladies inside the house would have their privacy (and fresh air) because of the swing doors.
Peranakan houses had all the feng shui trappings of a Chinese residence: the sloping roofs had bamboo-shaped tiles to encourage prosperity, mirrors above the entrance deflected evil eye; cactus overgrowths repelled bad spirits. However, there were a few other elements, so subtle that I would have not noticed them. Some of the houses had peepholes on the first floor, for the ladies to see who was at the door, without themselves being seen. Peranakan floral motifs were more European than purely Chinese ones were. The colours of the glazed tiles – lemon yellow, turquoise blue and shocking pink – set them apart immediately.
While shop-houses on Emerald Hill and Joo Chiat (the other place where Singapore Tourism Board sent me to) have either been retained by members of the community or been sold to buyers who have treated the properties with reverence, InterContinental Singapore is a group of Peranakan shop-houses that have skillfully been converted into a luxury hotel. I wandered up and down the plethora of wooden staircases that is one of the features of the hotel’s lobby area, to get a feel of what a Peranakan house must have been like. Ronda Chua, spokesperson for the hotel, pointed out the details. “The community was far more westernized than their Chinese counterparts, so mirrors with rococo embellishments were quite common in Peranakan homes.” Many of the rooms and suites of the hotel’s low-ceilinged first floor are unchanged parts of the original shop-houses, with ornate wood carvings adorning windows.
It was as quaint as any haveli hotel in Rajasthan, except for the seamless fusion between luxury and ethnicity. But then, the hotel was only a metaphor for Singapore’s awe-inspiring ability to bridge the gap between modernity and ethnicity. And the genesis of the hotel sprang from the strict heritage laws. Around the time when a builder had snapped up a chunk of the Bugis Junction area, a law was passed making it illegal to tear down a shop-house. The best way around the law, the builder reasoned, was to make a hotel using the shop-houses as a base. Employees swear by the feng shui generated by the ground floor: at least ten of them have won so much at Singapore’s national lottery that they never had to work for a living again!
Though Singapore encourages its citizens to maintain their own cultural identity while belonging to the larger umbrella of Singapore, the Peranakans are a dwindling breed because of intermarriages. Somewhat like our Parsees, once you marry outside the community, you tend not to be considered a part of it anymore. Peranakans were always somewhat better off than anybody else, a fact that was reflected in the sheer wealth of jewellery and artifacts that they collected. They were the first ones to speak English – necessary because many of them worked for, or did business with, the British. Singapore’s best-known Peranakan was its first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew. History would seem to have come full circle: his grand-daughter Shermay has a cooking school where her endeavour is to teach Peranakan dishes to Singapore’s expatriates, tourists, or just young Peranakans who have lost touch with their roots.
You don’t have to be a member of the community to wear the body-hugging, brightly-coloured sarong-kebaya, though you do have to have a perfect figure! It’s the footwear that has become an international fashion statement in recent times, though the original still wins hands-down because of the bead and embroidery work on them. You can poke around in shops, particularly in Joo Chiat, the stronghold of the community, for accessories like Peranakan hair pins and the kebaya clips that are known as kerosang.
Joo Chiat is the prime area for Peranakan food. It’s not a cuisine that lends itself to quick cooking like Chinese and Thai stir-frying, which is why there is no Nonya hawker stall. Instead, it’s a piquant blend of Chinese and Malay: the Chinese preponderance of pork is a hallmark of the cooking, which also has Malay spices. If you ask me, Nonya food is a couple of notches away from Chinjabi: one is Chinese married to Malay, the other Chinese married to Indian.
Singapore Tourism Board supports a couple of the more interesting of the places in Joo Chiat. I walked hesitantly into an unassuming eatery cum bakery with a museum upstairs called Kim Choo Kueh Chang, fully expecting to be assailed by touts. Instead, I was fed with a dumpling made of glutinous rice and a pineapple tart and sent on my way.
The sourness of the pineapple blended perfectly with the buttery smoothness of the short crust. On the face of it, they were two disparate elements, but given the skill with which they had been combined, the whole was far, far greater than the sum of its parts. And I guess you could say that about the Peranakan community and its culture too.