A cultural identity that functions at once as metaphor and reality, with a complicated and tenuous relationship to race, unanchored by religion, shared language, social status or even neighbourhood, so amorphous and difficult to pin down, is inevitably vulnerable to disappearance. Occupying an in-between, Peranakans risk becoming culturally illegible, even to themselves. With Singaporean independence came the erasure of Peranakans as a sociopolitical group validated and uplifted by the British under colonialism, and so in the 1970s a new way of thinking about Peranakan identity took hold, in which they were defined less by their outer than inner lives, by what took place in their sitting rooms and kitchens rather than in the public square. To be Peranakan became a matter of knowledge — whether one could still speak the community dialect, say, or prepare buah keluak. Some Peranakans have doubled down on this notion of identity, priding themselves on being Peranakan jati, “pure” Peranakan, as opposed to Peranakan chelop, only partly Peranakan. Both words are derived from Malay, jati meaning “genuine” and chelop from the Malay celup, “dipped” (or, idiomatically, “fake”, as when a westernised Malay is labelled with the epithet “mat salleh celup”: “wannabe white”).
To the scholar and curator Peter Lee, Peranakan jati is “as ridiculous as the idea of a pedigree mongrel”, as he has written. The very definition of Peranakan is based on a dual inheritance. “To the ‘chelop’, Peranakan ‘jati’ is an oxymoron. How can mixed bloodlines be ‘pure’?” Colin wrote in a 2020 letter to members of the Peranakan Association Singapore. “If our Chinese forefathers had a closed mind-set . . . there would not be any babas and nyonyas or Peranakan culture as we know it.”
After dinner at the Chees’, Colin took me for a walk through the condominium gardens, on paths winding around lamplit pools. Peranakan Chinese merchants built bungalows with turrets and stone balustrades along the coast in Katong in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, two of which remain at the heart of the complex, the former property of a man whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather all had local roads named after them. (One Singaporean told me that a childhood jab, when a classmate sauntered cockily down the street, was to say, “Your grandfather’s road?”) Under the Japanese occupation during the Second World War, thousands of local Chinese men, including Peranakan Chinese, were rounded up and shot nearby. Years after the war ended, unexploded artillery shells lay mired underwater along the shore. In 1966, the fledgling government began razing hills for earth to fill the sea and extend the land — to expand the country’s footprint; to literally enlarge its claim on the world. When we reached the fence, Colin said, “This used to be the beach.” I listened for the waves, now a mile away, but the night was silent.
Identity is a colonial notion,” Lee said. “A power play. The elites start constructing boundaries, getting other people to comply. That’s all culture is, really, who’s top dog.” A rainstorm of extraordinary furore had descended on his home in the leafy suburb of Bukit Timah, whipping the wooden blinds of the terrace, but he spoke without hurry, never even glancing outside, as if we were adrift on the calmest of seas. Knowing that I had been constantly plied with food from the moment of my arrival in Singapore, he had graciously promised me “a simple lunch”, which proved to be three courses: a tamarind fish stew paired with impeccably crisp yam fritters; bee hoon (skinny rice noodles) anointed with sambal (chilli paste) and calamansi (a small, tart, limelike citrus whose genealogy goes back to the kumquat); and hati babi bungkus, minced pork liver rolled into balls and enveloped in pork caul, which Lee mused might have some connection to Yorkshire, England, and a recipe for orbs of offal and herbs called savoury ducks. For dessert, there were crescents of unripe guava, to be dipped in sour plum powder, and steamed mooncakes to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival, wrapped in glutinous rice flour snow skins that dissolved in the mouth like icing sugar.
In 1942, Lee’s father, Lee Kip Lee, then 20 years old, was summoned along with his younger brother and other Chinese and Peranakan men for screening by the Japanese as potential insurgents. The brothers were released unharmed, but in his 1995 memoir, “Amber Sands”, Lee Kip Lee recalled hearing, from the safety of their home, the sound of gunshots when the other men were executed. He was president of the Peranakan Association Singapore for 14 years and held the title of honorary life president until his death in 2018. Preservation of Peranakan heritage is likewise important to his son: Peter is the honorary curator of the NUS Baba House and has written extensively on Peranakan culture and history. Still, he questions whether people can truly be defined by “what they wore, ate, spoke, read or what houses they lived in”, as he writes in an essay for a forthcoming edition of “The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia”. “Identity is a fiction,” he told me as the rainstorm subsided. To invest one’s identity in the furniture and clothing of another era is just “cosplay and drag”.
Certainly part of the appeal of Peranakan culture to non-Peranakans is the sumptuousness of those costumes and their evocation of a distant time. In China, “The Little Nyonya” was such a hit, it was remade for broadcast on Chinese state television in 2020. To some mainland Chinese, the Peranakan Chinese are a historical curiosity since, until recently, they still practised elaborate wedding and funeral rituals (the combing of the hair of the bride and groom, the cloaking of household gods in red paper to shield them from exposure to death) that on the mainland were repudiated and lost in the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. The Singaporean government has made a push to market Peranakan culture as a tourist draw, a unique homegrown culture in a nation with low birthrates and an unstable population, dependent on constant immigration, with around 40 per cent of residents foreign born. Peranakan restaurants have proliferated, among them Candlenut on Dempsey Road, which has been awarded a Michelin star.
To some Malays, the attention given to the Peranakans ignores their roots in Malay culture — wilfully. For all that the government frames Singapore as a paragon of racial harmony, a hierarchy persists. According to the 2020 census, the median household income of Malays is around a thousand dollars less than that of the Chinese and the Indians. Nearly half of Malays earn below subsistence level, and 96.2 per cent live in public housing. Why does nasi lemak — a mound of coconut rice surrounded by crackly little fish, calming slices of cucumber, an omelette and the essential spoonful of sambal — cost $3 when made by a Malay woman at a hawker stall, “but as soon as you call it Peranakan, it’s $16?” the food historian Khir Johari, a Singaporean of Javanese descent, asked me.
I met Johari at the Malay Heritage Centre within the former palace of the sultan in Kampong Gelam; he grew up in a house on the grounds of the compound. “As far as Malays are concerned, Peranakans are part of the Malay world,” Johari said. (So am I, he pointed out: my mother is Filipino, and the Philippines, too, is part of the Malay world.) In his magisterial study “The Food of Singapore Malays”, published in 2021, he writes, “ ‘Peranakan’ is a Malay word, coined by Malays, for an all-embracing Malay social concept.” The migrants who came to the region were primarily men who, unable to bring wives from home across the sea, married local women, and it was those mothers who cooked and whose recipes were handed down through generations.
Johari hopes to see a more explicit acknowledgment from Peranakans of their cultural debt to the Malays. He pointed to an incident in the summer of 2020 when a high-profile Peranakan restaurant started selling what it called nyonya nasi ambeng — its interpretation of a Javanese communal platter of rice surrounded by side dishes of symbolic resonance, once reserved for significant occasions such as birth or recovery from illness, although of late it has become commercialised and “sold for a price”, Johari writes in his book. The problem for some Malays was the ownership implied in the term “nyonya”, since nasi ambeng was not historically eaten in Peranakan households. After an outcry, the restaurant issued an apology — “we have fallen
short by culturally appropriating this dish” — and changed the name of the platter, which it continued to serve.
“The food your grandmother cooked, that everybody cooked — suddenly it’s called something else,” Johari said. “It’s convenient for people to say, ‘It’s all shared.’ Of course it’s shared, but please give recognition where it’s due.”