Profile: Irene Ong

Published on 23 December 2014

The Nostalgic Nonya : Irene Ong keeps Peranakan culture and heritage alive through the arts.

BY pamela ho

You may have seen her on television. Irene Ong, 61, has appeared in the 29-episode Ways of the Matriarch on TV12 and Bertha’s Nest (where she played Bertha) on Channel NewsAsia.

She has also been an active member of The Necessary Stage’s Theatre for Seniors since 2010. But away from the glitz, Ong is a strong advocate of preserving Singapore’s Peranakan heritage.

“The Peranakans have a rich culture but much has been lost in the last 50 years,” says Ong, who grew up in a household of 17, helmed by her grandmother — the family matriarch.

Her mother sewed beaded slippers and embroidered kebayas (traditional Nyonya blouse-dress) and passed on to her the skills of making Nyonya kueh and desserts. At home, her family spoke Peranakan patois — a unique combination of Malay and Hokkien.

But it was only at age 48 that Ong started thinking seriously about preserving her roots. Being involved in a play by the Gunong Sayang Association (a Peranakan culture group founded in 1910) in 2001 rekindled her interest in Peranakan culture.

She went on to write scripts for Peranakan plays like 2008’s Makchim (The Stepmother) and Pasang Ayer Surut (Good Times, Bad Times) in 2009. In both, she played the matriarch.

In 2005, her cousin Benjamin Seck founded Peranakan Siblings, which became a full theatre company in 2012. “We started with Taik Judi (Gambling Addict), which was 70 per cent in English and 30 per cent in patois. In 2013, we decided to do Peranakan plays in English.”

Their 2013 production, Oh Singapore, enjoyed full-house performances at The Substation, as did Anak Mak Satu (My Only Son), which played at Raffles Hotel’s Jubilee Hall in 2014. Ong wrote and acted in both.

“After three years of doing Peranakan plays in English, I’m certain it does not dilute the purity of Peranakan theatre. In fact, it reaches out to more non-Peranakans,” asserts Ong.

Besides keeping culture alive through theatre, Ong preserves culinary heritage through her co-owned Peranakan restaurant, True Blue Cuisine, at Armenian Street. “Peranakan cuisine is a dying art as most Peranakan cooks are not willing to share their recipes!”

Ong is grateful that the Peranakan Museum has helped create awareness for Peranakan culture but is hopeful for more. “What we need now is a building for the Peranakans to call home, where we can perform shows, sell our cuisine and pastries, and teach patois to those who are interested,” she says. “It will not be total immersion but it will be good for a start.”

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