Text & Photo © CM Cordeiro & JE Nilsson 2024

Introduction to the Peranakan Community

The term “Peranakan” in Singapore today often denotes individuals of mixed Chinese and Malay/Indonesian heritage, a legacy tracing back to the 15th century. The origins of the Peranakan people are deeply rooted in Malacca, where Chinese traders are believed to have married local women. This community has been known by various names, including the Straits Chinese, born in the Straits Settlements, and the King’s Chinese, reflecting their status as British subjects after 1867.

A Tapestry of Cultures

Interestingly, the term “Peranakan,” meaning “uterus” or “someone from a mixed marriage,” isn’t exclusive to the Chinese Peranakans. There were also non-Chinese Peranakans, including the Bugis, Arab, and Java Peranakans, as well as the Peranakan Indians (Chitty Melaka) and the Jawi Peranakans, who are of mixed Indian and Malay heritage. These communities highlight the diverse and rich tapestry of Peranakan culture.

Peranakan culture is usually described as a hybrid of Chinese, Malay and Western cultures. While specific cultural practices and customs may differ from generation to generation and family to family, there are a few elements common to Peranakan culture. One such element is the language. Besides English, the Peranakans speak baba Malay, a patois described as an adulteration of the Malay language with a liberal mix of Hokkien words and phrases.

Peranakan Identity

Traditionally, Peranakan men are referred to as ‘Baba’, while the women are known as ‘Nonya’ or ‘Nyonya’. Despite their diverse origins, many Singapore Peranakans have retained unique cultural practices, though some have assimilated into the broader Chinese community. From the second half of the 19th century to the mid-20th century, Peranakans, particularly those of Chinese descent, played a significant role in the British-controlled Straits Settlements. Many of the early Peranakans were entrepreneurial traders and shopkeepers. A significant number were also involved in the real estate, shipping and banking sectors. As most of the Peranakans received an English education and were fluent in the language, many of them were appointed by the British authorities as community and civic leaders.

As such, Peranakans were not only cultural custodians but also influential in the realms of business and politics. As intermediaries between colonial powers and local industries, they played a crucial role in the region’s development.

Inter-Marriages and Cultural Blending

These early intermarriages, believed to have occurred mainly up to the mid-19th century, were between Chinese immigrant traders and local Malay women or Bataks from Sumatra. The absence of Chinese women migrating overseas during that period contributed to these mixed unions, forging the distinct Peranakan identity we recognize today.

The Peranakan Museum: Exploring Heritage and Identity

A Gateway to History

The Peranakan Museum in Singapore’s Museum district is not just a building; it’s a portal to the past, housing the rich tapestry of Peranakan culture. Located in the historical Old Tao Nan School building on Armenian Street, this museum offers an immersive journey through the lives and times of the Peranakan people. The Peranakan Museum in Singapore is a must-visit for anyone keen on understanding this unique culture. Additionally, two more private museums in the region offer different perspectives on Peranakan heritage, each worth exploring.

Galleries That Speak Volumes

Gallery 1: Understanding the Origins

We began our exploration in Gallery 1, titled ‘Origins’. We went with a tourguide who introduced us in narrative to the diverse Peranakan communities and their spread across Southeast Asia. Personally, I had always thought Peranakan meant a mix of Malay and Chinese cultures. I did not expect that it included combinations of other racial heritages too. There were very many photos lining the walls of this gallery that made you feel as if you were stepping into a storybook, where each artifact tells a tale of cultural fusion and identity.

Gallery 6: Celebrating the Nonya

Gallery 6, dedicated to ‘Nonya,’ is a celebration of Peranakan women’s arts and crafts. From exquisite beadwork to the elegant Nonya kebaya, this gallery showcases the blend of Chinese and Malay fashion and artistic traditions. If there was any gallery that called up childhood memories most, it would be this one. My adopted grandmother for example, had several pairs of slippers that were beautifully hand beaded. She also had hand embroidered kebaya tops that took hours to create. All creations she could be proud of, and can today stand right next to the museum exhibits as excellent works of art.

The Porcelain Gallery: A Unique Collection

The gallery featuring ‘Straits Chinese Porcelain’ is particularly fascinating. Here, visitors can marvel at the unique designs and pastel enamels that are hallmarks of Peranakan porcelain. This collection is not just a display of exquisite artistry; it’s a reflection of the community’s affluent past and its role as a bridge between cultures. While there are many types of antique Chinese porcelain, Peranakan ware is highly distinguishable by their often frilled edges to bowls and plates, coupled with pastel rose colours or turquoise glazes. A particular shade of lime green called ‘Peranakan Green’ was also popular at the museum, where we had it explained that it was difficult to replicate the Peranakan Green from antiquity. Modern replicas come across as brighter and more intense in green, which could possibly appeal much less to some modern porcelain collectors.

Porcelain design and colour have also been shown to influence appetite [1]. It could be theorized that the colours and designs found on Peranakan porcelain dining wares were intended to make food more attractive and enticing. It is however, difficult to imagine the level of ambition of how enticing and palatable food should be when prepared and presented, with nonya food being already quite flavourful and spicy.

Other Galleries: A Journey Through Lifestyle and Beliefs

As you walk through other galleries, you’ll encounter stories about religion, public life, and the unique ‘Food and Feasting’ gallery. This culinary exhibit is a testament to the innovative and flavorful nyonya cuisine, combining Chinese cooking techniques with Southeast Asian ingredients.

The Centerpiece: The Peranakan Wedding Bed

In the heart of the museum stands the Peranakan Wedding Bed, once belonging to Mrs. Quah Hong Chiam of Penang. This artifact is a symbol of family, tradition, and the continuity of cultural heritage.

Peranakan Cuisine and Artistry

A Culinary Adventure

An outstanding feature of Peranakan culture is the cuisine, which is also known as nonya food after the ladies who cook it. Peranakan cuisine, known for its rich and spicy flavors, with foundational Malay and Indonesian influences, which can be seen in the use of rempah (spices) and coconut milk.Pork is an oft-used ingredient in nonya cooking, unlike in Malay cuisine, where its use is strictly forbidden. Some of the signature nonya dishes include babi pongteh (braised pork with salted bean paste), ayam buah keluak (chicken braised in a thick, spicy tamarind gravy with buah keluak nuts) and beef rendang (beef stewed in coconut milk and spices). The nonyas are also well known for their sweet cakes, often referred to as nonya kueh. In the past, most nonyas were expected to know how to cook as this skill was seen as an accomplishment, else risk remaining unmarried. Traditional Nonya dishes are not just meals; they are stories of a people’s journey and adaptation. Cincaluk for example, a distinctly Malay condiment made of fermented tiny shrimp (udang geragau), salt and rice, is also a favoured cooking ingredient used by the Kristang Eurasian community of Malacca. There are varieties of cincalok can be found along both sides of Malacca strait down to the southern part of Sumatra. It was observed at a recent family meal that if cinacluk was not served with the barbequed stingray ordered, the stingray would go untouched.

Of all recipes, the kaya recipe (coconut and screw pine leaves custard) is arguably the one recipe and product that has caused the most emotional and mental trauma in the adopted family. I was once instructed by my adopted grandmother to stand by an open fire with kaya pot on top, and stir consistently for 2 hours. Threatened with the fact that it was all bad luck, and the roof of the house will fall down if I didn’t do it, and if I left it, the product would curdle and we would end up with lumpy kaya which was a family embarassment etc, I found myself frozen in fear as a child, stirring that pot of kaya. And no, I do not eat kaya today, have never liked it and probably never will like it.

Artistic Expressions

The museum also sheds light on Peranakan beadwork and embroidery, showcasing intricate designs and vibrant colors. This artistry reflects the community’s appreciation for beauty and detail. It was also a useful tool to keep young daughters busy for hours on end, and off the streets after marketing hours.

Peranakan girls in particular, were expected to excel in embroidery and beadwork, the two distinctive features of Peranakan fashion. At risk of not landing a husband should they not be excellent seamstresses or cooks, Nonya women were expected to sew their wedding outfits, and traditional clothing. The traditional wear for Peranakan women is the nonya kebaya, which began replacing the baju panjang (Malay for ‘long dress’) as the outfit of choice from the 1920s onwards.

Originally from Indonesia, the kebaya was adopted by both Malay and Peranakan women but with important differences. The Malay kebaya is a loose-fitting long blouse made of opaque cotton or silk with little or no lace embroidery. On the other hand, the nonya kebaya is a shorter, tighter-fitting sheer fabric blouse that is often decorated with embroidered motifs (known as sulam) such as roses, peonies, orchids, daisies, butterflies, bees, fish and chickens. Being semi-transparent, the kebaya is usually worn over a camisole and secured with a kerosang (spelt as kerongsang in Malay), which is a set of three interlinked brooches.

The kebaya top is traditionally worn together with a batik sarong skirt and paired with intricately hand-beaded slippers known as kasut manek. However, younger Nonyas can be observed pairing the nonyakebaya with Western dresses, skirts and even jeans.


Visiting the Peranakan Museum is like walking through the pages of history, some of which were my history, too close to home. Each gallery, each artifact, tells a story of resilience, adaptation, a lot of times, trauma, and the blend of cultures that define the Peranakan community. It’s a journey that not only educates but also inspires a deeper appreciation for the diverse tapestry of cultures that enrich our world.

[1] Hansen, Frøiland, C. T., & Testad, I. (2018). Porcelain for All – a nursing home study. International Journal of Health Care Quality Assurance, 31(7), 662–675. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJHCQA-10-2016-0160