By Wong Kah Wei
My mother is a Peranakan from Penang. My maternal grandmother wore a sarong, cooked fantastic assam laksa, jiu hu char, nasi ulam and spoke Penang Hokkien.
I cannot call myself a Peranakan because I do not speak the language, cook the food nor wear the costume. I know nothing about the culture except from the stories my mother tells me or memories of my grandmother. One day, I decided to find out.
Seek and you shall find. Digging into NUS Libraries’ collections of Singapore and Malaysia books, journal articles and rare books, I started with primary sources – original and authentic.
I discovered a wide range of books on the Peranakans in Penang, Malacca, Singapore and Indonesia. The communities included the Chinese Peranakan, Jawi Peranakan, Chetty Melakas and so on. A description of these communities is provided by National Heritage Board’s Peranakan Museum.
While scouring the Singapore-Malaysia collection, I gravitated to the memoirs of Babas and Nyonyas. These stories tell of the lives of these Singapore Chinese Peranakans before the Japanese Occupation until just before self-independence. I read about Tan Kim Seng, William Gwee Thian Hock and his mother, Lee Kip Lee, Betty Lim and Katherine Seow. Their stories describe the food they joyously prepare for weddings and birthdays, the clothes and jewelry they wore, the homes they lived in, the music they loved, the sports they played and their rituals and superstitions. These brought out the color and richness of the Chinese Peranakan culture in detail.
This detail presented in literary text compelled me to seek the visual. I looked up books on their material culture such their sparkling jewelry, fancy kebayas and sarongs, beautiful beadwork, colourful tableware, houses they lived in and even the delicious food they ate. In these books, there were old photos of bridal couples weighed down in their wedding finery, matriarchs with stern faces, dapper men in their Western suits and families posing in front of grand houses.
As I immersed myself into the stories of these Chinese Peranakans of the bygone era, characters were already forming in my head – the shy young bride, the commanding matriarch, the Anglophilic father, the match-making aunties and even the fussy Hainanese cook. What were the “voices” of these characters? What did they have to say?
For this, I scoured for plays written about the Babas and Nyonyas. My favorite is Stella Kon’s Emily of Emerald Hill. As a young bride, a society hostess, a matriarch and finally, as a grandmother, Emily is the quintessential Nyonya. But the liveliness, humor and rhythm of the Baba Malay language is best enjoyed by reading Felix Chia’s play Pileh Menantu. Because I know Bahasa Melayu and a smattering of Hokkien words, reading Pileh Menantu was a thrill. It was as if the drama was being enacted right before my eyes.
The fun I had reading Baba Malay prompted me to find any book I could get my hands on that was in Baba Malay. I found Chrita chrita Baba: a collection of short stories in Baba Malay, a compilation of stories of the macabre published in 2019. This is an excellent book to learn Baba Malay as Kenneth Y.K. Chan, the author, uses a wide range of Baba Malay words to show varying nuanced expressions including the alus (refined) form for the women and the kasair (coarser) form for the men.
Pursuing my interest in Baba Malay, I unearthed Chrita Dulu Kala (stories of long ago) from our Digital Gems. Chrita Dulu Kala are Chinese classics translated into Baba Malay. These small thin volumes in our collection were published between the early 1900s to 1930s. Chinese classics such as the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, Water Margin and so on are retold in a mix of Baba Malay and Hokkien words, sometimes, with English words to provide clarity. As I proceeded to dig, I found pantuns (Malay quatrains), music scores presumably for dondang sayang as well as hymnals in Baba Malay. What a treasure trove!
Surely, surely, there are others who would be interested in these rare books! So, we brought all these rare primary sources on the Peranakans together and created a Peranakan Collection in Digital Gems. The Chinese Peranakan collection within the Peranakan Collection is growing and we hope to develop it with more primary sources such as diaries, letters, play scripts, pantuns and so on. We also hope to expand the collection to include primary sources on the Jawi Peranakans and the Chetty Melakas.
My journey of discovery continued with the digging up of more books on Peranakan social life and customs written by academics and Peranakans. From each book, I found more things to appreciate about who the Peranakans are as a community and a culture which is gradually disappearing.
The question I had to ask myself is what I, as a librarian, should do to support the Peranakan community in preserving their unique culture and language. Writing this blog post of my journey of discovery is an obvious first step. The next is to reach out to the community to work with me to develop the Peranakan Collection of primary sources further. This digital repository would serve to collect in one place the knowledge of the living for the generations to come.
My personal pursuit has morphed into a more intentional quest. The journey of discovery continues.