Joelyn Alexandra’s conversation with her grandmother:
Joelyn Alexandra: Ma, I’m going to the Peranakan Museum later, do you want to come along?
Grandma: Aiyoh! So far! Never mind, just take pictures okay? I want to see if they have things that my mother had before.
Joelyn Alexandra: Okay Ma, see you when I get back!
My grandmother was raised by a Peranakan lady, a Nyonya or Bibik as they call them. So was my mother and my maternal aunt. But we are all Chinese by ethnicity. However, until today, my grandmother has preserved the little things which give us nothing more than a glimpse of what the real deal was with the Peranakan people back in her days.
I was given the opportunity together with a few other bloggers (Click here to read Ivy’s take on the trip!) to tour the Peranakan Museum by the happy people from The Peranakan Association with Budak Baba himself gracing the occasion.
While it might not be the best play of words I have come up with for a caption, I think it speaks true for the Peranakans. While we are mostly familiar with their food, their clothes, their jewellery and maybe even a glimpse into their way of life, some of us are still pretty clueless about their origins, history and all that jazz.
Peranakans, though also known as Straits Chinese, are not purely Chinese, though most of them tend to be. They came about with Chinese immigrants settled down along the Straits of Melaka and married the local people, thus being known as Straits Chinese. But as history passed, the Peranakans picked up and mixed with different cultures around the areas they were in. This also resulted in mixed marriages between Indians and Peranakans (Chitty) and mostly the Eurasians and the Peranakans (Hence all the similarities in food and stuff).
So now that we pretty much know the background of who the Peranakans are, the adventure through the museum can begin.
Joelyn Alexandra: Ma, did you use these pots and glassware when you were younger?
Grandma: Yah, but we had different colours. Different colours for different occasions.
Joelyn Alexandra: So is that why we always see turquoise and pink on Peranakan pots?
I think I’m not lying when food and cooking comes to mind the moment someone mentions the term, “Peranakan”. Ayam Pong Teh anyone? Or maybe Chap Chye (FAVOURITE OMGOSH!)? What about Ayam Buah Keluak? Those are just the tip of the iceberg to the diverse menu of the Peranakan culture.
Going back to the pots and porcelain crockery, the designs of the turquoise and pink, together with animals like the grand phoenix traces back to the art of the old days, where the Peranakans were influenced by the Chinese culture. On top of that, these colours were mostly for everyday use. Where a different colour, like a dark blue motif, could signify the mourning state of the family.
Nowadays, when we head over to our friends’ to play mahjong or chat and stuff, the staple stuff that goes with the game, more often than not, consists mainly of drinks (soft drinks, booze etc…) and snacks with one syllable. In those days, the common Nyonya game was accompanied with the preparation of the Sireh, a betel nut wrapped in leaves.
Spittoons were a must for every set when everyone’s done with the Sireh. Can’t have them sticking the chewed residue like chewing gum right? They were particular about where everything went, so thank goodness for that or there will be red stains everywhere.
Grandma: These headdresses were all worn during Peranakan weddings. The jewellery then were all made of real gold and diamonds. Sometimes, the Bibiks will make their own jewellery.
Joelyn Alexandra: Then wouldn’t the headdresses be extremely heavy?
Grandma: Not only the headdresses, but also the Kerosangs (A chain of broaches worn along the button line of the Kebaya blouse), hairpins and broaches.
Joelyn Alexandra: Then wouldn’t it be very heavy?
If you look at the picture below, you’ll see that indeed, the Peranakan Bride has a lot of weight on her shoulders. Not just physically but emotionally and mentally as well, seeing that marriage meant that the woman had new responsibilities in running the kitchen, the children, the house, you know, the works. I quote my previous lecturer, Felix, who said, “To put it simply, the women ran the house. It’s like telling the men, you just earn the money and bring it back, I take care of everything else.” SWEET.
Indeed, marriage is a grand affair in the Peranakan culture, it having 5 whole galleries (about one level) dedicated to this aspect in the Peranakan Museum. As you can see, it covers dowry gifts (Slided Pagodas for Jewellery etc…) to traditions to the costumes and jewellery to the rituals conducted for the first born child.
This, I felt, was the most outstanding kebaya top amongst those displayed in the Museum. And it is quite noticeable that most embroidery and bead work centre around nature, flora and fauna. Like the jewellery before, most of these elaborate designs are painstakingly hand-sewn, sometimes even embroidered separately and hand-sewn together with the rest of the ensemble.
Grandma: These patterns were sewn by my mother, she had this whole book of embroidery so she would just sit and sew the patterns. For kebaya blouses, cushion covers…
Joelyn Alexandra: So are these (from the pictures) two blouses the only one left?
Grandma: Yah, I just kept them for remembrance…
In case anyone was wondering, those conversations with my grandmother did happen. Only that I edited them to make them coherent. But this is only my take on the story. Everyone has their own to share, despite the cultures we all come from.
So with the Peranakan Fest ’09 coming up, take a trip down to their countless activities and perhaps you can create your own stories.