As a frequent traveller, I have always been drawn to places with a distinct cultural appeal instead of the regular tourist hot spots. While I have visited numerous places which provide a heady mix of both, none of them do it quite as well as my home for the last decade—Singapore. For most, Singapore is a country described as clean, technologically advanced and known for shopping, but for me, what best describes the island nation is its unique cultural diversity woven into daily life.
Over the years, I have come across a cultural mix within Singapore that not many outsiders are aware of: the Peranakan culture. What fascinates me about this culture is that it was born out of the assimilation of migratory traders from China and India, who intermingled with the local Malay and Indonesian inhabitants, when they settled in the Straits of Malacca in the early 1500s. As centuries have passed, the descendants of this foreign and local mix, known as the Peranakans, have carried forward a unique blend of customs and traditions. While there are subtle Indian influences, the term Peranakan is often reserved for the heavier Chinese characteristics in the local culture, fondly known as the Baba-Nyonya culture.
Interestingly, while I have easily found plenty of evidence of Chinese, Indian and Malay cultures individually, the slight nuances of the Peranakan culture, which have become so heavily ingrained in society, were hard to pin down. Little did I know that my zeal to know more about this extraordinary mixed culture would lead me onto a path of intriguing, surprising and delicious discoveries.
My cultural excursion first led me to the NUS Baba House, a restored 20th-century Peranakan home that belonged to the family of a Straits-Chinese shipping tycoon who had settled in Singapore. Located in a quiet street at the edge of Chinatown, this resplendent three-storeyed heritage home stands out from the rest in the vicinity with its bright blue exterior and ornate decorations of ceramic peonies, phoenixes and a gilded doorway. As it turns out, for the Peranakans, the exterior of the house was as important as the interior, and bright hues and elaborate designs were often considered as status symbols.
I took a short tour of the house which has been revamped as a museum. These typically multi-storeyed houses often had well-hidden peepholes built into the floor of the first floor rooms, so that residents could check on guests standing at the entrance, before letting them in.
Much like other Asian cultures, the Peranakans were a patriarchal community, where the oldest male member of the household or ‘baba’ provided financial security, while his wife or ‘nyonya’ took care of the household. And unsurprisingly, they were known to be big on family and food.
Typically, families were large and celebrations even larger. In fact, in the earlier days, a Peranakan wedding was so elaborate that it could last up to 12 days full of pomp, glamour and rituals. While wedding ceremonies may have become more modernised over the decades, the unusual nyonya recipes, which are an interesting blend of Chinese, Malay and sometimes Indian cuisines, are considered sacred and passed down from generation to generation.
With the onset of lunchtime, I decided to stop at Chong Wen Ge Café, an authentic Peranakan café located inside a Chinese temple, not far from the NUS Baba House. Spoilt for choice, I finally ordered a nyonya achar loti (bread topped with pickle) and a nyonya mee siam (rice vermicelli and prawns with tamarind gravy). The tangy and spicy flavours of the food, along with some iced coffee, was exactly what I needed in the tropical summer heat.
Stuffed, yet not satisfied, I decided to treat myself to some traditional dessert and realised that when it comes to the Peranakans, kueh is always the answer.
Kueh generally refers to sweet or savoury snacks such as cakes, cookies, biscuits or even dumplings. At Chong Wen Ge, it was an assortment of sweet and colourful steamed cakes, each with its distinct burst of local flavours. I was told that there are more than 40 types of kueh. Someday, I hope to try them all.
Connected to the Chong Wen Ge Cafe is also a rather unique Peranakan Tile Gallery, which showcases and deals in vintage namesake tiles, commonly known as ‘majolica tiles’ to the rest of the world. These ceramic tiles with nature-themed motifs were popularised by the British in the 1900s, and soon became a distinct feature of affluent Peranakan homes.
I paid a visit to this beautiful gallery and discovered that the tile collection had initially started off as a hobby for the owner, Victor Lim, when he began salvaging traditional tiles from uninhabited houses about to be demolished in the late 1970s. Today, this gallery has become a popular pit-stop, not only for those interested in knowing more about Peranakan architecture but also for visitors wanting to purchase unique souvenirs from Singapore.
Eager to see more, I hopped onto a bus and made my way to Joo Chiat, Singapore’s first heritage town, which also happens to be one of its oldest Peranakan neighbourhoods. My first stop was Rumah Kim Choo, a traditional Peranakan home with a nondescript setup in the midst of a busy street.
Rumah Kim Choo is anything but ordinary. It is run by third-generation Peranakan siblings, one of whom is the last surviving sarong kebaya (a fitted blouse, camisole and a batik sarong) and kasut manek (beaded slippers) makers in Singapore. Doubling up as a tailoring unit, this is where you can get a customised Peranakan outfit stitched for yourself, complete with the beautiful three-piece sarong kebaya as well as the brightly hued kasut manek. For the less traditional, the boutique also has other chic accessories like earrings, wallets and purses, most of which, I couldn’t help but notice, also used the unique Peranakan glass beads stitched in colourful designs.
The nyonyas were taught stitching and beading at a very young age, and they would painstakingly make their own colourful slippers with tiny glass beads and typical designs of birds and flowers on them. It used to be said that a well-beaded shoe meant that the girl had patience and skills, which would result in a good marriage. However, these old fashioned notions are no longer followed, and to preserve this dying art, Rumah Kim Choo often conducts beading demonstrations and engaging workshops.
Adjacent is another famous kueh shop—Kim Choo Kueh Chang, known for its rice dumplings since 1945. I bought some cookies and dumplings as a quick evening snack, before taking a stroll down the heritage trail of Joo Chiat.
It is rare to see houses forming a medley of colours in a metropolis like Singapore, and traditional Peranakan houses are one of those rare exceptions that stand tall against the glass-and-concrete structures of the city.
My walk around the Joo Chiat area confirmed this fact, as I came across houses of several shades of blue, green, yellow, orange and purple along the way. With rainbow hues and ornate tiling, the Peranakan pre-war terrace houses are a visual treat.
Oddly though, while the houses were at least two storeys high, they seemed incredibly narrow, but I soon found out why. Interestingly, in Melaka, a property tax imposed by the Dutch was based on the width of the house, so people began building narrower houses. Over the centuries, as the Peranakans moved out of the Straits of Melaka, they took this architectural design with them to new places, including Singapore.
In typical Singaporean style, the sun gave way to grey skies, followed by a downpour. I knew I would commit something of a cultural sin if I ended my day without tasting some laksa, a soupy noodle dish that has, over the decades, come to define not just the Peranakans, but Singapore. So, before calling it a day, I made my way to get some soupy goodness at the nearby 328 Katong Laksa, which has repeatedly been voted by locals as one of the best laksa spots in the country.
One wouldn’t imagine that this humble outlet would be a celebrity favourite. But the moment I took a sip of the coconut broth and slurped on the thick noodles, I understood why. The combination of the balanced gravy, the spicy sambal sauce and the tender fishcakes were a delight to the taste buds and just the perfect antidote to a rainy evening.
Thoroughly satisfied, I had one more aspect of this incredible culture before I called it a day—its hospitality. True to my theme, I stayed at Hotel Indigo, which is a Peranakan-styled property, complete with the cultural intricacies and in-house restaurant Baba Chews, serving traditional food with a modern twist.
What was a rather long day was somehow less tiring to me, knowing that I had discovered this unique culture in the tiny island nation which, even now, after all these years, is well and truly hidden in plain sight.