History has it that 500 young men from China's Fujian Province accompanied princess Hang Li Po in the late 1400s to what is now Malacca on her journey to wed Sultan Mansur Shah. A popular folk lore in Singapore gives legend that these young men became the forebears of the Peranakan Cina.
Peranakan refers to the descendants of the early Chinese who settled in the Malay Archipelago and integrated with the Malays. In Singapore, these descendants are known interchangeably as Peranakan Cina, Baba Chinese, Straits Chinese and Baba Nonya.
Through the past five centuries or so, the Peranakan culture has developed into a mix of Chinese and Maly cultures, with some influence from other cultures such as Dutch, Portuguese, and Thai, resulting in a rich and distinctive mix.
Most Peranakans are of Hokkien ancestry, whose dialect is one of the eight major dialects in the Chinese language and whose people inhabited the Fujian Province from where the legendary group of 500 young men originated. Present day Peranakans observe traditional Chinese celebrations and traditions, such as new year and August moon. At the same time, their food, language, and fashion have a strong Malay influence. The Nyonyas, a mix of women from the Malay Peninsula, Java, Sumatra, Burma and Thailand who married Chinese traders in the Straits Settlements of Malacca, Penang and Singapore from the sixteenth century, were true multiculturists. Their knack for combining the best of cultural influences from Chinese, Malay, and European contributed to a rich Peranakan heritage well known for its distinctive cuisine, architecture, furniture, porcelain, costumes, embroidery, beadwork, silverware, and jewelry.
On a warm and hazy day, with temperatures in the mid-80s, my informal tour guide Karen, met through a mutual friend, took me to Singapore's East Coast Road, in the heart of the Katong District. There, for about two city blocks, lined shops and restaurants where I could get a feel of the Peranakan experience. We entered Rumah Bebe, a shop decorated in traditional Peranakan style to showcase its culture and heritage. The sales clerk, a middle-aged lady named Doris who spoke perfect English, showed me kebayas, various exquisite items of beadwork, batik, jewelry, porcelain, and even furniture.
The kebaya is a long sleeved blouse with lace appliqued around the edges and generally worn with a sarong. It is the traditional costume of Straits Chinese ladies and other Peranakan women from Indonesia and Thailand. A sarong is a large sheet of fabric, often brightly colored, and is wrapped around the waist and worn as a skirt by men and women in southeast Asia and Pacific islands. Doris showed me a selection of sarongs with intricate patterns, images of animals and plants. If a sarong does not have ties, a pin may be used, or the fabric may be tightly tucked under itself in layers to hold it in place. For the feet, beaded slippers called "kasut manek" are a must. For adaptation to contemporary times, the kebaya can be worn with pants and over a tank top as a jacket.
At Kim Choo's Kitchen, next to Rumah Bebe, Karen suggested trying out spicy fish otah, soon kueh, and chendol. Otah is a spicy fish cake, comes wrapped in coconut leaves and blended in coconut milk and spices. Contrary to my preconception, the otah I had was quite gentle in taste and smell. I quickly finished it and called the waitress for another order. Kueh is a little dessert prepared using tapioca, rice flour, sugar and coconut cream, grated fresh coconut, pandan leaves, palm sugar, and mung beans. The word “kueh” (or kuay) describes the assortment of colorful savories and desserts that are a favorite among Malaysians and Singaporeans. Rice flour and tapioca form the main body of these sweets. They come in different colors, shapes and textures with fillings ranging from candied coconut to palm sugar and coconut custard or kaya.
Chendol is a dessert like drink that usually consists of white coconut milk, thin worm-like, pandan-flavoured, green-colored pea flour noodles and palm sugar (gula melaka). Karen had ordered my chendol to come with add-ons of red beans, grass jelly, and shaved ice. This is what a meal drink should be, as I thought about all the sodas, milk shakes and teas I had downed over the years. There is just no comparison.
In a short questions and answers session later on, Shirley Tay, resident Nyonya chef at the Furama City Centre Hotel in Singapore, told me that Peranakan cusine uses a lot of fruits, such as banana hearts to make salads, and sour rambutan (the yellow ones) to make a delicious assam dish with fish or crab. Two popular favorites are babi pongteh and buah keluak. Babi pongteh is port trotters stewed in a thick brown sauce. And buah keluak is a fruit from a nut tree found in Indonesia. It has a nutty and slightly bitter taste but is fragrant when eaten with freshly-cooked rice and gravy. It has an acquired taste and is cooked with meats such as pork ribs or chicken.
Karen told me that it was unfortunate that we could not visit and see the Tan Chong Lock Baba House, which she had heard and read about so much. The Tan Chong Lock Baba House is currently under restoration and scheduled to open in 2007, presently estimated to be in September but could be earlier. It is located at 157 Neil Road and is one of Singapore's last remaining and intact Peranakan terraced houses. The house is named after Tan Chong Lock, who was born in 1883 in Malacca. He was the founder and first president of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA - 1949) and a prominent business leader in Malaya (as Malaysia was known then) and Singapore. Mr. Tan was instrumental in negotiating Singapore's independence from the British in 1947.
The structure will incorporate features from southern Chinese and Malay cultures, as well as colonial Dutch and British architecture. A large part of the house will act as a museum, showcasing the rich legacy of Peranakan history, culture, lifestyle, food, and social customs. A must-see attraction of this house will be the bridal chamber revealing the important traditional customs, preparations and rites of a Peranakan wedding.