Sons of the Lion City: Special Exhibition of Singapore's Peranakan Culture
About this exhibition
Southeast Asia has been a crossroads for trade since time immemorial. Its ports were a confluence not just of goods, but also of people, ideas and cultures. Its communities were profoundly shaped by these interactions, and till this day are characterised by diversity and openness. Within these communities, the line between the “indigenous” and the “foreign” often blurs. Singapore’s Peranakan Chinese community is a prominent example.
The exhibition is divided into three sections. The first section traces the migratory origins of the Peranakans. It tells the extraordinary story of how the immigrant Chinese culture integrated with local culture, then give rise to the new Peranakan culture. The second section is a showcase of Singaporean Peranakan cuisine; through the displays we will see how the Peranakans combined a variety of ingredients and cooking traditions to create dishes that are uniquely theirs. The third section is on Peranakan fashion. The displays of Sarong Kebaya (traditional costume) not only illustrate their evolution through history into their current modernized form; they also shed light on the cultural significance of the Sarong Kebaya today.
Taiwan, like Singapore, is also an immigrant society that was forged through multicultural integration. The cultural distance between Taiwan and Singapore is not far from each other. To a Taiwanese visitor, each of the three sections of this exhibition should evoke a combination of familiarity and strangeness, and invite them to renew their understanding of Singapore and its culture.
Who are the Peranakans?
In Malay-speaking parts of Southeast Asia, the term “Peranakan” means “child of”, or “born of”. The term is used to refer to the locally-born descendants of foreign communities. Given the diversity of foreign communities, the term “Peranakan” is not monolithic, but designates distinct groups. Jawi Peranakans are descended from Indian Muslims. The Chitty Melaka are descended from Hindu traders. The Baba-Nyonya, or “Peranakan Chinese”, are descended from Chinese who settled in the trading centres of Java, Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula.
Chinese have travelled to Southeast Asia for more than a millennium. Most had no intention of settling. Among those who did, most assimilated into local communities within a few generations. The Peranakan Chinese are an exception. They are descended from Chinese who settled in the region’s cosmopolitan port cities. Here, the indigenous and the foreign could interact as equals. There was no pressure to assimilate, and the local-born descendants of foreign communities found space to develop their own unique culture.
Peranakan culture is a fusion of diverse cultures. It is a combination of Chinese traditional culture and local Malay culture, with significant European influence from the colonial period. It is also constantly evolving, changing with the times to become what it is today – a unique blend like no other. The Peranakan culture is a living culture, and continues to capture the imagination of modern Singaporeans. Its essential ingredients - the local, the foreign, and their fruitful interactions as equals - continue to animate conversations on Singapore’s emerging cultural identity. The photographs in this section portray Peranakans from different ethnic groups. Their words offer us valuable insight to the simple yet elusive question: Who are the Peranakans?
Peranakan cuisine is a hybrid of Chinese (mainly Hokkien), Malay, Indian, Thai and Western colonial (Portuguese, Dutch and English) culinary traditions. It combines Southeast Asian ingredients such as belachan (dried fermented shrimp paste) and daun limau purut (kaffir lime leaf) with common Chinese ingredients. Its basic technique is the rempah, a mix of spices and ingredients pounded into a paste, then fried till fragrant over a gentle fire. Its best dishes are a labour of love and a feast for the senses, at the same time rich, tangy, spicy, savoury, and aromatic.
In Taiwan, a better-known Peranakan dish is laksa, which are noodles served in a curry-based soup. In Singapore and Southern Malaysia, the curry is prepared with coconut milk and is creamy. In Penang and Northern Malaysia laksa curry is prepared with fish stock, tamarind and pineapple instead, giving it a sourer taste. Other famous Peranakan dishes include ayam buah keluak (chicken braised in thick spicy gravy made with the black Indonesian buah keluak nut), babi pongteh (a pork stew seasoned with taucheo or yellow bean paste) nyonya kueh (cakes made with ingredients like gula melaka and coconut), and also the humble pineapple tart.
The table presented here is a tok panjang, which means “long table”. Tok comes from hokkien, and simply means table (桌). Panjang is the Malay adjective meaning “long”. In Peranakan communities, the tok panjang is laid out as a traditional feast during festive occasions. It is above all a family meal, shared over the recipes that while diverse in inspiration, are the taste of home.
“Sarong” means “sheath” in Malay. It is a length of fabric sewn into a wide tube, and is commonly worn as a skirt by both men and women. Today, Peranakan sarongs are made of batik cloth. This dates to the industrial revolution, where cheap European cotton fabrics became widely available and spurred batik production in Java. Batik motifs have been as diverse as the region’s cultures. In Java, batik artisans included not only Javanese, but also Peranakans, Chinese, Eurasian and European.
The kebaya draws its origins from the qaba, an Islamic robe worn since at least the 9th century across the Middle East, Central Asia and northern India. In the 19th century, European and Eurasian women in the Dutch East Indies began to wear kebayas of lace, pairing these with batik sarongs. This combination was later adopted by Peranakan women. In the early 20th century, thin, sheer European organdie brought new colour to the kebaya. Finally, in the mid-20th century, chemical dyes and sewing machine embroidery transformed the kebaya into the exuberance of colour and pattern that it is today.
The sarong kebaya has come to symbolise Peranakan culture. Like Peranakan culture, it continues to evolve. A new generation of kebaya makers are rediscovering and renewing its traditions. Today, sarong kebayas are commissioned and worn not only for marriages and other significant events, but also as a representation of modern Singapore.