5 things I never knew about my Peranakan roots

Published on 20 June 2018

By: Jill Sara

1. Peranakan brides went through elaborate wedding rites.

Matchmaking was common in Peranakan marriages, with brides sometimes as young as thirteen. For such formal pictures to be taken, these weddings had to be very elaborate. A traditional Peranakan wedding is a 12-day affair that is usually carried out in the bride’s house. The ceremonies were often complex and required a Pak Chindek, and a Sang Kek Um (the wedding masters and mistresses respectively) to oversee the rituals, which include placing a rooster and a hen underneath the marital bed to predict the gender of their future child.

My Mama (grandmother) wed when she was in her late teens to my Kong Kong (grandfather). They were not well-off, so they could not afford an elaborate 12-day wedding. They made do with exchanging wedding bands in their traditional garments – the laki (husband) in a plain shirt and pants, and bini (wife) in her hand-sewn batik kebaya, a quintessential Peranakan outfit. My Mama sewed this herself using a manual Singer sewing machine, with the skills that her seamstress mother had taught her.

2. The Nyonya kebaya is a mix of Chinese- and Malay-style baju (clothes).

The old Peranakans I knew from the Straits of Malacca only wore the kebaya (Peranakan traditional dress) everywhere they went. My Mama sewed all her kebayas and even special lace ones in sheer black to wear to weddings. Her three-piece kerosang (3 brooches attached by a chain) are of intricate gold flower or nature motifs that act as fasteners for the blouse. The Javanese , however, usually wear baju panjang (long dress) that’s fashioned like baju kurung (a traditional Malay outfit), adapted with hand-embroidered buttonholes and seamless mandarin collars, using indigenous batik print kain (cloth). Nowadays, one can buy kebaya encim (Chinese-influenced) tops at major departmental stores, and sometimes modern ladies will pair them with jeans! My Mama would widen her eyes and exclaim “tak tau pakei baju“, or “don’t know how to wear [kebaya] properly”, whenever she spotted such an unorthodox ensemble.

Portrait of Oei Tiong Ham. Image courtesy of the Peranakan Museum. Gift of Mr and Mrs Lee Kip Lee.


3. . Affluent and well-travelled Peranakans could afford tailor-made Western-style attire. 

The orang kaya (the wealthy) favoured Western attire, as they were influenced by their travels to the West. My English-speaking Kong Kong only ever wore singlets and shorts when he went hunting for birds or fishing at the nearby beach. In the daytime, he was usually in modern Western dress – a short-sleeved white shirt and pants ensemble, a dress code dictated by his British employers. They offered to sponsor him and his whole family for UK citizenship, but my Kong Kong couldn’t bear to leave his home, so he stayed and chose the Singapore passport.

 4. Peranakans embraced British culture.

Many Peranakans were seafarers who in later generations became merchants. Through these ties, many Peranakans had working experiences with the British and were able to bond with them because of their willingness to embrace English education and culture. Some Peranakans received an English education toward the end of the 19th century and up till the mid-20th century, and were even sent to English mission schools. During the British colonial years, in the spirit of adaptability, they took on their fashion and architecture and participated in forms of entertainment such as horse riding, cricket, and ballroom dancing. Wealthier Peranakans, such as these people in the photo above, also had the luxury of practising photography, which was seen as a Western hobby.

Image courtesy of the Peranakan Museum. Gift of Mr and Mrs Lee Kip Lee.


5. Peranakans looked to European furniture for inspiration.

Many affluent Peranakan homes prided themselves on having solid teak wood furniture with a lot of gold and red embellishments, such as in the picture above. In my home, however, we never had furniture like that. Nonetheless, my Mama always took on a very Westernised approach to decor, sticking to fully carpeting the whole apartment and opting for an “enchanted forest” wallpaper in the living room and plastic 3D exposed brick walls in the bedrooms (very fashionable in the 1970s and 80s with average-income families).

European fabric settees were favoured over cold and relatively uncomfortable enamel mother-of-pearl furniture. These pieces were quite costly and intricately made. I do remember seeing one at my grand-relative’s home when I was a young girl, and avoiding it due to its formidable presence.

In my adult years, I found out that my great grandfather used to lie on it to smoke opium during the day and to while away boring nights.

Learn about the culture and history of the Peranakans at the Peranakan Museum.

Amek Gambar runs from now until 3 Feburary 2019 and is part of a special historical exhibit held at the museum.

For more information, click here.

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