Peranakan Culture in Singapore: A Brief History
- Chinese traders began arriving and trading in Southeast Asia from the 10th century.
- From the 13th century, many Chinese sailors and traders began settling in Java and the Malay Peninsula, and intermarried with local Malay women. The marriages resulted in a blend of Chinese and Malay cultural elements that would eventually form the unique regional Peranakan culture.
- However, while Peranakan is commonly used to refer to the Straits Chinese population, the word Peranakan doesn’t have any racial or religious connotations. In fact, there are Indian Peranakans and Jawi Peranakans and Eurasian Peranakans, and the common denominator amongst these cultures is their unique fusion of regional cultural practices with their own.
- Singapore’s Peranakan population is mostly of Chinese ancestry.
- Today, most Peranakans have been assimilated under increasingly controversial regional racial profiling practices, identifying as Chinese, Malay, Indian, or Others.
What is Peranakan Culture
There’s no singular marker of Peranakan culture (for the purposes of this article, we’ll take Peranakan to refer to Singapore’s Chinese Peranakan culture). In fact, this writer has trawled through several blog posts and web pages written by Peranakans and while they agree on the influence of the rich Malay culture on their heritage and cultural practices, some reflect on their cosmopolitan mindset and largely Western education while others highlight traditional superstitions and practices such as hiding unmarried adult daughters from public sight.
Peranakans are also known as Babas and Nyonyas, honorific terms meaning Mister and Madam respectively. This recognises their status as Straits-born children, and differentiates them from the large wave of Chinese immigrants who arrived in the 19th century. Because of their status as early immigrants and their predominantly Western education, Peranakans could acquire civil service jobs easily, and many of them served as middlemen between the British and the local non-English-speaking population. This helped them acquire wealth and assets and it’s why so many crazy rich Singaporeans are Peranakan.
Many Peranakan families are Catholic today, but some still worship gods and deities from different religions as per the surprisingly traditional practice that honours the diversity of religions and cultures of the Straits.
Fun fact: Did you know that Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, was Peranakan?
Peranakan cuisine is also known as Nyonya food as culinary duties traditionally fell to the women who would spend hours in the kitchen grinding spices and making gravies. It’s full of regional influences both in culinary skills and ingredients used. The rempah (spiced sauces) are characteristic of Malay cooking, while ingredients such as rice noodles and pork reflected Chinese influences. Peranakan cooking is available mostly at Peranakan specialty restaurants, However, nyonya kueh and dumplings can be bought at street food stalls or in mall shops. Here are some acclaimed eateries to patronise while you’re here:
Candlenut is an oily nut not unlike macademia. It’s predominantly used in Southeast Asian curries and stews, as the high oil content allows the base to thicken and become creamier, giving the region’s cuisine their distinctive richness. Candlenut restaurant, on the other hand (sorry for going off-topic), is Singapore’s only Michelin-starred Peranakan food establishment. Helmed by Chef Malcolm Lee, the restaurant serves Peranakan classics refreshed for the contemporary palate. Only fresh ingredients are used, so you can be assured of quality. However, a meal at Candlenut doesn’t come cheap, and for cultural purists, the updated recipes may not satisfy. That said, gourmet seekers will undoubtedly find dining at Candlenut a unique experience.
17A Dempsey Rd, Singapore 249676
Opening hours: Sun-Thu 12 to 3pm and 6-10pm, Fri-Sat 12-3pm and 6-11pm
Violet Oon Singapore
Violet Oon is Singapore’s authority on Nyonya cuisine. Cutting her teeth on journalism, she quickly found her niche in food reporting, and eventually started her own food magazine in the 80s. Her passion in food seeps through every aspect of her life, and eventually led her to start the Violet Oon chain of restaurants in Singapore. Now with four outlets each with its own special menu, the business is still growing steadily, and Violet’s children contributing to new ideas relevant for the modern connoisseur. Diners love the consistent quality of dishes such as Buah Keluak Ayam, Dry Laksa, and Kueh Pie Tee, though they note that the some of the flavours may be acquired tastes. Again, this is a pricier option, but a good, authentic way to sample Peranakan food in Singapore.
Violet Oon Singapore
Various outlets including ION Orchard and National Gallery Singapore
Check website for addresses, menus, and opening hours
IVINS Peranakan Restaurant
For those on a tighter budget, IVINS Peranakan Restaurant offers great bang for buck. Traditional Peranakan dishes such as Udang Masak Nanas (prawns cooked with pineapples in tamarind gravy) retail for less than $10, and the communal nature of Peranakan dining means you can place orders for several dishes and plates of rice, and share them amongst your companions!
21 Binjai Park, Singapore 589827
Opening hours: Fri-Wed 11am to 3pm and 5pm-9pm, closed on Thu
Singaporean Peranakans have mostly been absorbed into the country’s racial categories and mainly converse in English today, but each community (Chinese, Chitty, Jawi) have their own Malay-based creoles inflected with other languages and dialects such as Hokkien, Portuguese, Arabic, and Tamil.
Peranakan Culture in Singapore: Where to go
Itching to learn more about Singapore’s Peranakan culture? Here are the places committed to educating both locals and travellers on Peranakan culture in Singapore.
Rumah Kim Choo
Rumah Kim Choo (Kim Choo House) hosts workshops and activities such as food tastings and kebaya fittings to provide an immersive experience for visitors. They also have an in-house boutique and gallery for all your souvenir needs.
109 / 111 East Coast Road, Singapore 428800 / 428801
Check out the activities available and book your slot here.
What’s a visit to Singapore without the mandatory photo of gorgeous pastel-coloured Peranakan shophouses? Take a moment to admire the colourful tiles adorning the facades of the buildings and snap as many photos as you will. It’s free!
Koon Seng Road, Joo Chiat
Katong Antique House
Katong Antique House belonged to Baba Peter Wee until his passing in 2018. He was the ex-President of the Singapore Peranakan Association and was very committed to preserving Peranakan tradition and educating the public about Peranakan daily life. The Katong Antique House is testament to his efforts. It contains multitudes of everyday objects donated by Peranakan families and offers an insight into the lives of Singapore’s Peranakan population back in the day.
208 East Coast Rd, Singapore 428907
Opening hours: Daily 11am to 4.30pm by appointment only
Phone: +65 6345 8544 (call for appointments)
The Baba House is managed by the National University of Singapore. It once belonged to Peranakan shipping tycoon Wee Bin, and its exterior and interiors have been carefully preserved to reflect a typical Peranakan home of the time. The original furniture and household objects are still intact and on display. However, curious visitors are required to book an appointment in advance for a heritage tour conducted by historians.
157 Neil Rd, Singapore 088883
Visits by appointment only. Book in advance here.
Book an immersive experience with us and learn more about Peranakan culture in Singapore through heritage site visits and mini food tours!