Who Are the Peranakans?

In the late 15th to 16th century, there were Chinese who immigrated to the Indonesian archipelago of Nusantara in order to trade and escape the hardships back in their homeland. Many have started to build their new lives and there communities in Malaka and modern-day Singapore.

In the late 15th to 16th century, there were Chinese who immigrated to the Indonesian archipelago of Nusantara in order to trade and escape the hardships back in their homeland. Many have started to build their new lives and there communities in Malaka and modern-day Singapore. In time, they began to address themselves as "Nyonya Baba," wherein nyonya is referred to the women and baba for the men.

Peranakan referes to the ethnic Chinese populations of the British Straits Settlements of Malaya and the Dutch-controlled island of Java and other locations, who have adopted partially or in full Nusantara customs to be somewhat assimilated into the local communities. Many people associate the Peranakans as the local Chinese elites of Singapore. As most of them have lived for generations and most have not intermarried with Indonesians, Malays, and other races, the Peranakans held a distinctive custom and tradition that is totally unique to the recent influx of mainland Chinese immigrants.

They were usually traders, the middleman of the British and the Chinese, or the Chinese and Malays, or vice versa. Being British-educated, many of them have the ability to communicate with their colonial masters and many of them have lost the ability to speak Chinese as they were assimilated to the Malay Peninsula's culture.

The term is usually refered to the chinese and so they can be also called as Straits Chinese. There are other races that can be called "Peranakan" in their own way with Hindu Indians are Chitty, Muslim Indians as Jawi Pekan, and Eurasians as Kristang. Even though their native language has gradually disappeared in recent years, many have maintained their culture.

What's with the Term?

Basically, the word means "descendant" in Indonesian and Malay without any connotation of the ethnicity of descent unless followed with the identifying race so "Cina" for Chinese, "Belanda" for Dutch, and "Jepang/Jepun" for Japanese.

A Persian loan word "baba" used in Malay is an honorific for grandparents, which is then used to refer to Straits Chinese men. Its etymology is traced back to Hindustani speakers who used it to refer to Chinese vendors and traders, who were mostly male. Nyonyas were referred to the women and this term is Javanese loan word from the Italian "nona" (grandma) and Portuguese "donha" (lady). Since most Javanese referred foreign women as nyonyas, the term were obviously referred as honorifics to Straits Chinese women.

Straits Chinese were defined as those born or living in the Straits Settlements: a British colonial construct of Penang, Malacca and Singapore constituted in 1826.

Tracing their Ancestry

Most Peranakans trace their ancestry to their Hoklo (Hokkien) parentage while a sizable minority are of Teochew and Cantonese descent. Basically, the Peranakans were mixed-race - part Chinese, part Malay/Indonesian. The Baba Nyonya is a subgroup withing the Chinese communities that trace their descendants to the unique Sino-indigenous unions in Melaka, Penang, and Indonesia.

Mixed race communities usually possess a mix of cultural traits as written records show. Many Peranakan men took brides from within their local community while some imported brides from China. Some send their daughters to China to find husbands.

Many historical sources suggest that early Peranakans married local Malays since some servants, who settled in Bukit Cina, travelled to Malacca with a Yunnanese admiral, a Muslim Chinese. Other experts believed that the Peranakans' Chinese ethnicity has hardly been diluted in the racial mixing. Some Peranakans can be distinguished from those with part Malay ancestry and those without any Malay ancestry.

What they Speak

Peranakans speak a creole dialect of Bahasa Melayu called Baba Malay, which contains many Hokkien words. This rare and dying language is usually spoken by older generation Peranakans while the younger generation speak Singaporean English.

Famous Peranakans?

Here are some of the famous people with Peranakan heritage in Singapore as well as some prominent individuals from Indonesia and Malaysia:

Goh Keng Swee - First Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore
Lee Kuan Yew - First Prime Minister of Singapore
Lee Hsien Loong - Third Prime Minister of Singapore, son of Lee Kuan Yew
Wee Kim Wee - Fourth President of Singapore
Dick Lee - Celebrity pop singer, composer and playwright
Pierre Png - Mediacorp artiste
Tony Tan Keng Yam - 7th President of Singapore

Tun Dato Sri Tan Cheng Lock - Founder and first President of Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA)
Tun Tan Siew Sin - Third President of Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA)
Nyonya Chuah Guat Eng - Novelist

Agnes Monica - Indonesian recording artist and actress
Chris John - Indonesian professional boxer
Kwik Kian Gie - prominent Indonesian economist
Rudy Hartono - former Chinese Indonesian badminton player who won the men's singles title at the World Championship in 1980
Liem Swie King - former Indonesian badminton player who excelled from the late 1970s through the mid 1980s
Susi Susanti - Indonesian badminton gold medalist in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics
Mari Pangestu - Indonesian minister of Tourism and Creative Economy
Soe Hok Gie - Indonesian activist who opposed the successive dictatorships of Presidents Sukarno and Suharto
Titi DJ - Indonesian pop singer 

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