Introduction to the Peranakan Heritage
Peranakans refer to the descendants of the early Chinese community who settled in the Malay Archipelago from the 17th century. The Peranakan culture is a rich blend of the Chinese and Malay cultures with some influence from the Portuguese, Dutch, British, Thai, Indian and Indonesian cultures as well. What has evolved over time is a community of people who observe traditional Chinese festivals and traditions but show a strong Malay influence in their food, language and dressing.
Culture and Tradition
All the seasonal festivals of the Chinese lunar calendar and the major rites of passage from birth to death are celebrated by the Penerakans in a fastidiously traditional manner that in China has long become extinct. Of these, the most elaborate were weddings, birthdays, ancestral rites and funerals. The wealthy Peranakans enacted these rites with great ostentation, and acquired the finest items for these purposes, leaving a fabulously rich legacy of material culture from textiles, to jewellery to ritual vessels and furniture in expensive materials such as gold, silver, porcelain, silks, velvets, teak and blackwood.
Most of the artifacts were commissioned but Peranakan beadwork and embroidery were actually made by members of the community. Unmarried Peranakan women, known as Nonyas, often dedicated their time to beading and embroidery and produced many intricate and exquisite items, combining European and Chinese motifs in a totally unique and vibrant way. The quality and quantity of beadwork and embroidery was a mark of their eligibility for marriage. Many of these items were created in preparation for their wedding, such as beaded shoes, beaded panels for the bridal bed and embroidered ceremonial handkerchiefs or covers for fine vessels.
Whether in gold or silk or porcelain the favoured motifs were auspicious symbols of fertility, wealth, happiness and longevity, such as the phoenix, bats and cranes, and flowers like the peony. All these have of course become treasured heirlooms.
The Peranakan house is an electric mix of architectural details and ornaments from East and West. Corinthian columns and Mediterranean looking windows and shutters are juxtaposed with Chinese glazed tiles, and plasterwork with ornamental Chinese symbols. With the unique pintu pagar, a fence-door, the Peranakan Chinese combine their love of decoration with a practical response to living in the tropics. The half-height doors of the pintu pagar would be closed during the day, allowing air circulation through the house without compromising privacy. Walk around Emerald Hill, Tanjong Pagar and Koon Seng Road in Joo Chiat districts that showcase rich and baroque Peranakan
Dress was a significant form of cultural and self expression for the Peranakan Chinese. In the 19th century, Peranakan Chinese men, or Babas, dressed in the style of fashionable men from southern China, with suits of loose jackets and trousers in silk and brocaded satins known as baju lokchuan. In the 20th century, they adopted Western dress, such as the colonial drill cotton suit they called baju pinjang (long tunic) and sarong with a wide array of jewellery and accessories like hairpins, bracelets, brooches, belts and anklets.
Another unique feature was the footwear the embroidered slippers of the 19th century gave way to the modern beaded slipper or kasot manek. The sarongs were the finest floral batiks from Java. The silhouette of this garment has evolved with time and remains popular to this day. Both the bride and groom wore elaborate wedding costumes. The traditional Peranakan wedding ceremony took place over 12 days and took weeks to prepare. Often it involved the collective effort of all women in the extended family. The brides costume, in particular, featured a great deal of jewellery. On its own, this bridal ensemble could weigh as much as five or six kilograms.