Beyond beautiful sarong kebaya and colourful shophouses, the Peranakan heritage is the unseen thread that binds Southeast Asian nations together. We asked our writer Ari about his fascination with the subject and he shared what he discovered on his travels around the region.
Words by Ari Fajar
As a young boy in Indonesia, I didn’t know what “Peranakan” meant. All I knew was that my maternal grandmother, a gentle woman born and raised in Borneo, liked to tie her hair in a bun and wear her neat kebaya with various batik sarongs. These were similar to the ones my good friend Sophie’s ama (paternal grandmother) wore with her transparent and colourful kebaya encim (known as kebaya nyonya in Malaysia).
Many years later, I learned that they were called the Peranakans, the descendants of Chinese men who came to Southeast Asia around the 15th century and married local women. The men are called “Baba” while the women “Nyonya”. They formed a unique society where local, Chinese and European influences intertwined over hundreds of years—an exchange of ideas between different cultures with rich historical contexts weaved within. One example is the sarong kebaya.
Phoenixes and Peonies
When I visited Malaysia, I was fascinated with old pictures of Peranakan ladies wearing their exquisite sarong kebaya in Malacca. There was something familiar with the sarongs, and I realized that they look very similar to my grandmother’s. On a later trip to Penang, I found out at the Penang State Museum that sarongs worn by the Peranakan ladies at that time were imported from Lasem and Pekalongan, towns in Java, Indonesia that are famous for their “coastal batik”.
Far away from the rigid traditions practiced in the old Javanese capitals, these coastal towns were more open to foreign influences. The ethnic Chinese who have settled in Java since the first arrival of Admiral Zheng He introduced phoenixes, dragons, and peonies; the Arabs contributed rich floral motifs while the Dutch brought tulips and pastel colours. Batik from these regions were praised for their workmanship and were well-received by natives, Chinese and Europeans alike, and later exported to the Malay Peninsula, which continued to source them until local versions were produced starting in the 1930s.
I find it amazing how interconnected the region was even back then when it took more effort and time to travel between the islands. I wonder if my grandmother and Sophie’s ama knew that there were women all the way across the sea who wore the same sarong kebaya as they did.
Food and Festivals
Aside from influences on dress, the similarities in food are remarkable. Tired after hours of playing, us children would sit in front of my grandmother’s porch waiting for one of those old-school wooden food carts to pass by. Among the favourites were bakcang (sticky rice dumpling) or bakso (a quintessential Chinese Indonesian meatball dish).
Peranakan food incorporates local spices like coconut, shallot, and lemongrass, using Chinese ways of food preparation. One obvious example is Laksa. Examining what’s on the table is also a good way of telling Penang and Malacca Peranakans apart. For example, the Nyonya food in Penang is sourer because of Thai influence, while Malacca’s is sweeter because of Indonesian influence. But no matter which one you prefer, there’s no denying that their cuisine is superb!
Good food is vital, especially when it comes to festivals. The Peranakans observe old Chinese customs, some of them even long forgotten by the Chinese in China because of the Cultural Revolution. There are modifications, though. For example, Peranakans in Indonesia celebrate Lantern Festival with Lontong (Indonesian compressed rice cake) instead of Tangyuan (Chinese dessert made from glutinous rice flour).
The most tangible heritage of the Peranakans is in the architecture they left behind. Among the beautiful heritage buildings found all over Penang, the most intriguing one for me is still Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. The iconic blue structure is nothing short of amazing, just like Cheong Fatt Tze’s own rags-to-riches story. An eclectic treasure smack in the middle of historical George Town, the mansion is a witness of the golden days of the Peranakan, shown by the lavish European designs preferred by the Peranakan (Straits Chinese) to set themselves apart from the Shinkek (Straits-born Chinese). Still, the 38 rooms, 220 windows, and 7 staircases were constructed with elements of water, fire, metal and wood in accordance to Feng Shui principles.
While I was there, I recalled that there was a Tjong A Fie Mansion in Medan, Indonesia. “Tjong” and “Cheong” are actually only different transliterations of the same surname, and it turns out that Tjong A Fie was the nephew of Cheong Fatt Tze! I flew to Medan to see how the place looks like today.
Tjong A Fie Mansion is a charming place despite its slightly smaller size and less fancy interior, which remained intact over the years, as Tjong A Fie Mansion is still owned by his own kin (while Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion has changed hands a few times). None of them live there anymore, though. As I moved my gaze away from the ancestral altar, I felt a certain loneliness when something is forgotten. I wondered why.
The Missing Links
“Do you know how to cook any Peranakan food?” I asked Sophie while having my fruit rojak, a mix of fruits topped by a peanut sauce. It was in one of those mini reunions we have whenever I return to Indonesia.
“Nah, it’s just too tedious!” she answered while sprinkling some salt.
“How about kebaya encim? Do you have one?” I asked again.
There it was again, that feeling of loneliness. As more Peranakans are absorbed into the mainstream community, traces of their heritage are also disappearing. Author Felix Chia once said: “The Baba, a product of an accident of history, is a time traveller. He has come and he must go”. If he’s right, it’s only time until no one will identify as a Peranakan anymore.
Yet the Peranakan legacy in Southeast Asia is still alive in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Its cultural legacy remains in food, clothing, and architecture—a mix of everything good mixed in one and it’s for everyone to savour. Just like rojak, a beautiful and rich one!
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