Who Are The Peranakans and What Are Their Traditions?

Generally, the term Peranakan refers to the Chinese people with Malay/Indonesian heritage. Literally translated to as 'locally born descendants of foreigners’, the term is thought to have been used by the locals of the Straits Settlement and Malay Archipelagos to address foreign immigrants that established families and businesses in the Straits of Southeast Asia. Peranakan males are known as babas, while the females are known as nyonyas.

Most of these descendants, although retaining their Chinese beliefs, also adopted local indigenous lifestyles. There are also many Western influences in their culture since many parts of Southeast Asia used to be ruled by the British and Dutch Empire.

To find out more about the Peranakan heritage and way of life, we made our way to Kim Choo Kueh Chang in East Coast Road!

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How is Peranakan a way of life? "A lot of times people don’t know how to associate ourselves in Singapore. And what we try to do here as part of converse and to share that part of our heritage, is to share that we have a common culture here," Mr Edmond Wong, third generation member of the Kim Choo family business explains. "There’s no real suggestion that says one has to marry a local indigenous and then their offsprings are known as Peranakans. Nobody can be Peranakan by blood. But anybody can be a Peranakan by being part of a local community."

Other than their renowned rice dumplings, Kim Choo shares the Peranakan culture by offering workshops through Culturally. One of them being the Traditional 9-layer Nyonya Kueh Appreciation class, and the other is the Peranakan Beadworks Workshop!

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Did you know? The 9-layer Nyonya kueh is actually a fusion of Chinese and Western cultures! The concept of it having 9 layers is traditionally Chinese, as 9/九 is considered an auspicious number. It shares the same enunciation as ‘久’ in ‘长长久久‘ (which stands for longevity), and there’s a longheld belief that you have to eat the kueh layer by layer so as to have an especially long life! If you were to bite off an entire piece of kueh instead, you would shorten your lifespan.

Jacin, our founder, has been doing it wrong all this while.

On where Western culture comes into play, Edmond says that when the Westerners arrived in Southeast Asia, they brought along the concept of baking. More specifically, the layered sponge cake, which we now know as kueh lapis! Kueh lapis is usually associated with Indonesian culture, but it was actually the Dutch people who influenced its creation. In order to improve business relations between the foreign friends and locals back then, some aspects of the Western culture were adopted, which contributed to the creation of the 9-layer kueh!

In this kueh appreciation workshop, you would not only learn how to make the 9-layer kueh from scratch, but the ondeh-ondeh as well!

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On the history behind the ondeh-ondeh, Edmond tells us that the pastry was actually inspired by the Chinese tangyuan! "When our forefathers arrived here, they weren’t able to find ingredients from China. So they made use of local ingredients to create their own version of the delicacy," he says. "Instead of using sesame seed, which in the early days they weren’t able to find, they used Gula Melaka which is brown sugar as well as coconut. There were plenty of coconuts in those days!"

We also learned that since tangyuan is typically boiled and consumed hot, our forefathers thought that it wouldn't suit Singapore's hot climate very well, thus their own version of it can be kept and consumed cold. 

Yummy food aside, what about beading? How did it become such a crucial part of Peranakan culture? It's entirely Western, Edmond says. Once upon a time, those beads could only be found in Europe. And somewhere along the way, the Europeans completely lost the tradition, but the Peranakan people retained it! Today, the best beads can only be imported from Japan or Czech Republic.

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Peranakan beadwork was a tradition practiced by the nyonyas in the past, when it was customary for women to make their own pair of shoes to get married. Before their wedding night, nyonyas would not only hand-bead a pair of Kasut Manek (Peranakan beaded shoes) for themselves, but for their husbands-to-be too!

In the workshop offered through Culturally, you will learn the basic concepts behind Peranakan beadwork with Kim Choo's fashion designer and also Edmond's brother, Mr Raymond Wong. You will gain the basic skills required to venture beyond creating a small piece of beaded-design, to a pair of Kasut Manek that you can wear on your feet! All the materials will be provided for you.

There are simply too many aspects and fusions to Peranakan culture for us to adequately cover in one article (we would need a book for that!) Why not learn more first hand, by making your booking with Culturally today?

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