Peranakan refers to a group of people that live in Singapore and on the Malaysian Peninsula who have Chinese ancestry. The group is also sometimes referred to as Straits Chinese because of the proximity to the Straits of Malacca. (It is also sometimes used for other groups too.)
Specifically, the term Peranakan is used for Singaporeans and Malays who are descended from the very early Chinese community that moved to these areas between the 1400s and 1600s. It is generally taken to mean something along the lines of “local born”. It came about because older, well-established groups wanted to show a difference between themselves and newer waves of immigrants.
What makes this group of people unique is that whilst they are ethnically Chinese and retain a large number of ancient beliefs, traditions, and customs, they have also assimilated into the local community and taken on the lifestyle of natives; this has led to a fused culture that includes elements from both the land of resettlement and the original homeland. This is very different to many Chinese communities around the world, where groups live in almost a bubble and taking on very few features from the new country. (Indeed, it is different to a large number of groups of immigrants, to and from numerous countries around the globe.)
Often said to be more modern and forward-thinking than other traditional Chinese groups, patterns and designs, belief systems, food, and architecture are just a few elements that help to make up the Peranakan culture.
There are several ways you can experience facets of Peranakan culture in Singapore:
There are many places where you can sample the wonderful flavours of Singapore’s oldest fusion cuisine. Based on traditional Chinese fare with elements from Malay cuisine and with dashes of British, Indonesian, Thai, and Indian influences, Peranakan meals also incorporate local ingredients when preparing tasty meals. Peranakan meals are ofte spicier than their original Chinese counterparts. There are several restaurants around the country that are dedicated to dishing up the finest Peranakan fare, although, of course, you will find great examples on some other menus and on a selection of hawker carts. Some dishes to try include spicy sambals, kari kapitan, a type of chicken curry, otak-otak, fish wrapped in banana leaves, bak chang, katong laksa, and jiew hu char.
The Peranakan Museum is the biggest such museum in the world, offering a fantastic insight into the culture. Filled with interesting exhibits and displays, you can see a variety of patterned items such as textiles, jewellery, other accessories, tableware, and furniture. Learn more about traditional celebrations, such as weddings and those associated with animism, and gain a greater insight into women’s (and men’s) role within society,
Katong Antique House is another place where you can peek into the past of early Peranakans. Housing an assortment of antiques and historical memorabilia, the private owner does a great job of preserving the memory of early settlers.
NUS Baba House is a beautifully restored and preserved shop house, lovely both inside and out. The interior shows what traditional homes looked like in times gone by and they are numerous artefacts and items on display.
The Intan is filled with Peranakan furniture and antiques.
Katong / Joo Chiat is home to many fine examples of Peranakan buildings. There are shop houses in an assortment of attractive colours and charming seaside homes. Koon Seng Road is a good place to take a stroll. You’ll probably also notice buildings that blend Peranakan styles with other designs, creating terrific architectural fusions.
Emerald Hill, near to the famous Orchard Road, also boasts a charming selection of Peranakan buildings and it is a pleasant place to take a break from shopping!