In Asia, a gilded history lies hidden in plain sight

What does it mean to be a Peranakan? When I was growing up in Singapore in the 1980s, there wasn’t a simple definition for this community which colorfully merges Chinese, Malay, and Western aesthetics, heritage, and values.

As a kid, I’d hear about their vibrant hybrid culture in history class and taste their foods on Lunar New Year, when my Peranakan aunt served aromatic stews of lemongrass and blue ginger, spiced pineapple tarts, and paper-thin wafers called “love letters.” I’d walk by old Peranakan shophouses, with their ornate carved doors and cheerful floral tiles, and wonder how these magical, old-world structures existed amid the skyscrapers.

Even though Peranakan design details are visible in the modern city, the community’s identity has long been shrouded in mystery. Even some Singaporeans who identify as Peranakan, which loosely indicates being of Southern Chinese heritage, can’t quite define the term, let alone explain the fascinating history underpinning the community’s traditions.

Until now, perhaps. DNA profiling is yielding insights into Peranakan ancestry in Singapore. Based on findings by the Genome Institute of Singapore, researchers have confirmed that Peranakan Chinese have Chinese-Malay ancestry. What has also emerged is that being Peranakan is cultural, not ethnic. This research sheds light on the genetic identity of the community and its long history. The findings might help advance historians’ understanding of the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia.

The best way to experience Peranakan culture, though, is to dive into the sights, sounds, and tastes of the culture that is undergoing a revival around Singapore.

Ethnically Chinese, culturally Peranakan

The term Peranakan dates to the 15th century A.D., when a legend says that a Chinese princess married the Sultan of Malacca in what is now a port city in Malaysia. Men from her entourage married local women and their children were called “peranakans,” translated as “local born” in Malay.

Some of these early Peranakans eventually moved 150 miles south to Singapore, while others relocated to Penang, a vibrant port city to the north. Today, travelers interested in learning about the evolution of Peranakan culture can visit Melaka and Penang’s capital George Town, both UNESCO World Heritage sites.

In the 19th century, China was battling foreign invaders, floods, droughts, famine, and political unrest. Thousands of single Chinese men emigrated from their homeland to places like Singapore to work at plantations and docks. “These early immigrants intermarried with the local ladies, and their offspring were also known as Peranakan,” says Angeline Kong, a guide at the Katong Antique House, an antique shop/museum in southeast Singapore.

(Learn why the U.S. has so many Chinatowns.)

According to a 2021 study of DNA profiles of 177 Peranakan Chinese, an average of 5.6 percent Malay ancestry is detectable in present-day community members. Researchers found that the Malay generic markers came primarily from females. That result raised doubt about the Chinese princess myth but gave credence to the theory that Peranakans descend from mixed-race Chinese settlers and Malay communities in the Malay Archipelago. The study also found that 10 percent of the Peranakans had 100 percent Chinese ancestry.

But this finding doesn’t diminish their claim to their heritage. “Being Peranakan is a cultural identity, not an ethnic identity,” Baba Colin Chee, president of the Peranakan Association of Singapore, told the Straits Times.

Peranakan men are known as Baba (an honorific with Persian origins), while the women are called Nyonya (from the Portuguese dona). Traditionally, they speak Baba Malay, a blend of Malay and Hokkien (a Chinese dialect). Like its language, Peranakan fashion, design, art, and cuisine also borrow freely from multiple cultures that successively settled in the region—Malay and Chinese, as well as Portuguese, Dutch, English, and Indian.

Many community leaders in colonial-era Singapore were Peranakans—shipping tycoons, plantation owners, and bankers who could speak Malay, Chinese, and English and act as liaisons between locals and the British government. “They were the original crazy rich Asians,” says Alvin Yapp, owner of The Intan, a Peranakan museum in southeast Singapore.

“Peranakans love beautiful things,” Kong says. “With the creativity of the early days, they started to hybridize a lot of things into culture language, food, and fashion.”

In Asia, a gilded history lies hidden in plain sight

These cultural connoisseurs imported glass beads from France, enamel dishware from Poland, embroidered lace blouses and sarongs from the Netherlands and Indonesia, intricately carved teak furniture and porcelain from China, and floral tiles from England. “In the 19th and early 20th century, Peranakans were big spenders and shoppers,” says historian Peter Lee.

The Peranakan community’s socioeconomic status peaked in the 1920s and 1930s, but plunged during the Japanese occupation in the 1940s. To survive, many Peranakans sold off furniture, antiques, and expensive clothes. “After the war, everything started to slow down, especially after the British left,” Kong says. “The lifestyle changed, and we lost touch of whatever was left behind.”

In the 1960s and ’70s, Singapore’s Peranakan culture was endangered. Free from British rule after more than 140 years, the country was hurtling toward modernization and eager to leave antiquated traditions—and cultures—behind. Colonial-era Peranakan buildings were supplanted by high-rise apartments and mega malls. Fast food replaced slow-braised dishes. The new generation wore Reeboks instead of Peranakan kasut manek (beaded slippers).

However, in the 1980s, a task force of preservationists and civic leaders raised concerns that by demolishing architecturally significant buildings like the historic shophouses, Singapore no longer reflected an “Asian identity;” a decrease in tourism was attributed to the fact that Singapore had “removed aspects of (its) Oriental mystique and charm.”

Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, a development and conservation government branch, launched a program to preserve the colorful turn-of-the-century shophouses around Orchard Road and Emerald Hill Road. Built in Chinese Baroque style with decorative floral tiles and carved wooden shutters, these narrow two- to four-story structures held businesses on the first floor and residences on the upper ones.

The original fusion

As interest in Peranakan heritage increased, food writer Violet Oon debuted a Peranakan cooking show on Singapore TV in the 1980s, introducing Singaporeans to family recipes once guarded by Nyonya grandmothers. “Peranakan cuisine is a luscious combination of robust Fukienese country cooking with its dark soya sauce, soya bean paste, garlic, and prawn and pork stock with the spicy, coconutty, and sour flavors—tamarind, galangal, and lime—of Malay cooking,” says Oon, who has since written cookbooks and opened several Peranakan restaurants. “Meals provide a combination of textures and flavors.”

Unlike the homey food found in Singapore’s ubiquitous hawker centers, Peranakan cuisine often involves elaborate, labor-intensive dishes. “In the past, while the men were doing business, the women stayed home and took care of the family,” says Malcolm Lee, chef at Candlenut, the world’s only Michelin-starred Peranakan restaurant, located near the Singapore Botanic Gardens. “They tended to be well-off and have servants, so they were able to spend time creating feasts.”

(Get a taste of why Singapore hawker food is now recognized by UNESCO.)

Peranakan food usually starts with a rempah, a spice paste of chiles, shallots, candlenut, and fermented shrimp paste (belacan). It’s the base for rendang (spicy beef braised in coconut milk), laksa (coconut curry noodles), and ayam buah keluak, a tangy, earthy chicken stew featuring the buah keluak nut.

The National Kitchen by Violet Oon at the National Museum of Singapore serves old-school dishes including chicken buah keluak and beef rendang in a space decorated with 1920s chandeliers and floral Peranakan tiles. “I have chosen to be authentic,” she says. “We provide a taste of tradition that holds sentimental memories.”

At Candlenut, Lee puts a contemporary spin on things, using buah keluak in butter cake and a rempah to flavor fried barramundi. “Peranakans many years ago were open to new ingredients and techniques, and to innovation,” he says. “We’re maintaining the same mindset.”

From the old world to the new

Travelers can learn about Peranakan lifestyles and traditions at several house museums in the tony seaside neighborhoods of Katong and Joo Chiat.

At the Katong Antique House, Angeline Kong leads private tours of the 100-year-old former digs of a prominent businessman, revealing sumptuous mother-of-pearl Blackwood furniture, a grand ancestral altar, and a lacquered wedding bed.

A short walk west, the colorful Rumah Bebe boutique hawks sarong kabayas, books, and beaded shoes and hosts crafts classes. Directly next door, Kim Choo Kueh Chang sells Peranakan treats like pandan leaf-wrapped rice dumplings and kuehs (neon-hued coconut and rice milk cakes) from a shophouse with woodwork painted in a riot of colors. Walking tours of Katong and Joo Chiat depart from both spots.

Across the city from Katong, the NUS Baba House is tucked among a row of historic townhouses in a quiet residential neighborhood. The three-story 1895 Peranakan house was restored and converted into a museum in 2008. Its carved wooden windows and intricate ceramic trim set off more than 2,000 antiques, textiles, and artwork detailing a lifestyle born of migration. “We want to emphasize the diversity of the Peranakan culture,” says curator Peter Lee. “History is not just a singular vision but a range of stories. Our identity isn’t fixed. As more people write and document their experiences, the narrative of the Peranakan culture will become even clearer.”

Singapore’s Peranakan Museum holds some of the historical documentation and artifacts that Lee points out. The museum is currently closed for restoration, but for a glimpse of Peranakan history—and a virtual taste of their cuisine—watch The Little Nyonya, currently streaming on Netflix. The drama series chronicles the trials and tribulations of one Peranakan family from the 1930s to the 21st century,spotlighting the group’s traditions, fashion, and cooking.

The Little Nyonya was so popular in Singapore that, when I was home visiting relatives in 2009during the series finale, the streets were empty. Everyone was gathered inside watching it, eating pineapple tarts and enjoying being home. The Peranakans would definitely approve.

Rachel Ng is an award-winning Hawaii-based, Singapore-born travel writer. Follow her on Instagram.

Ore Huiying is a documentary photographer from Singapore and a National Geographic Explorer. With a particular emphasis on the Southeast Asian region, her work focuses on people and places affected by development. Follow her on Instagram.