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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

At Home with the Peranakan Chinese



A review of The Peranakan Chinese Home: Art and Culture in Daily Life, by Ronald G. Knapp. Photography by A. Chester Ong. Tokyo, Rutland (Vermont) and Singapore: Tuttle Publishing. 2012.

Hybridity is the essence of cultural development, and it is largely for political and economic reasons that the process of cultural definition is carried, largely to include some and exclude others.

To name a culture and then seek its essence is therefore a practice that does not appear obviously vain only if culture is understood to be relatively timeless and unchanging. But that is not how culture necessarily works. Culture assumes change. To be more exact, culture is about evolution, understood as a process of responding to externalities. This progression is not palpable when cultures shift slowly in space and time. The changes are often too subtle and too gradual to capture political and academic attention.

However, when history brings the fringe of one civilisation to meet the fringe of a totally separate equivalent, then clash and compromise become much more undeniable. Such convergence happens often as the result of transoceanic sea travel. As we know, sea travel has been advancing tremendously over the last 600 years.

Where Malaysia is concerned, over the last few centuries, the western edges of European culture came over the oceans to encounter the eastern edges of Asian culture, leading to clashes that are not concluded yet. The cultural interactions were extreme indeed, leading not only to bloody wars but also to the birth of much that is new and valuable. The integration of cultural elements from far-flung parts of the world is interesting, not only in itself, but in what it shows us of human ingenuity and cultural adaptability.

In Malaysia, many such cultures abound, one of the most evident of which is the Baba- Nyonya – or what has in recent times come to be generically termed the Peranakan Chinese.

This hybrid is unmistakable because its features are exceedingly visual – in cuisine, in clothing, in colour, in furniture engravings and in architecture – and so clearly hybrids – being starkly peninsular and Chinese; wrought on the larger stage of European modernity under tropical weather conditions. The fact that the community was and is largely urban and prosperous in British colonies in the region, especially The Straits Settlements and in Dutch Indonesia, gave it an economic and political clout that was historically beyond what its numbers suggest.

And yet, this proud community was not always tightly defined. Variations abounded. While those living in Phuket or Penang would speak the Hokkien dialect, their cousins in Malacca and Singapore used the language blend known as Baba Malay.

In their latest book on Chinese houses, author Ronald G. Knapp and photographer A. Chester Ong study the homes of these Straits Chinese. After doing one on Chinese Houses, and then another on Chinese Houses in Southeast Asia; it is appropriate – and significant – that they now publish The Peranakan Chinese Home.

Such a tome cannot possibly succeed unless bound around good photography. Ong provides that in good measure. In fact, the reader is left wishing that the format were larger so that the pictures could be bigger and overwhelm his titillated eyes more thoroughly.

Having written several narratives on Chinese homes, Knapp capably weaves historical, philosophical and aesthetic ideas about the Peranakan Chinese home into an enjoyable read, full of stimulating details. Even the Dao De Jing is recruited to illuminate and to praise the value and centrality of the empty space, be this a door, a bowl or a courtyard.

Where architecture and interior decoration are concerned, the book makes it very apparent, both pictorially and textually, that the urbanity of the community in question allows Chinese and European – and to some extent Thai – influences to be predominant in their life and their aesthetic sense. Malay or Indonesian elements are more noticeable when one studies what this gourmand community cooks or wears – especially at leisure times.

Since most of the mansions and villas built by the most affluent Peranakans are now gone or transformed, this book will become an added library treasure for the Peranakan who wishes to know more about his or her hybrid culture.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


One thought on “At Home with the Peranakan Chinese

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