Southeast Asia is home to some of the most interesting examples of cultural cross-pollination, having received and blended influences from many of the world’s major cultural matrices: China, India, the Middle East, and Europe.
In the area of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, for example, ancient animist religious traditions were first influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism brought by Indian traders. Today, many of the central narratives of Indonesia’s famous wayang kulit shadow-puppet plays are from India’s epic Mahabharata. The traditional writing systems of the region derive from the abugidas of India.
In the 12th century, Islam was introduced to the region and has gradually spread to become the most common faith of Malaysia and Indonesia. For a time, the Malay language was written in Arabic script. European colonizers in the 16th century brought Christianity, which did not put down deep roots, but also Roman letters, which did. Like the languages of the Philippines nearby, Malaysian and Indonesian are now written in Roman letters. When I visited Singapore, I sometimes saw public signs written in as many as four languages: Chinese, Malay, Tamil, and English.
Most numerous among the many immigrants to the region were the Chinese, and they are often referred to now as Peranakan Chinese (accent on the second syllable, all the a’s pronounced ’ah’). The word peranakan itself is Malay. It comes from the word “anak” (child) and originally referred to children born to a local native and any immigrant, so that there are, for example, “Peranakan Indians” as well as “Peranakan Chinese”. This community was once referred to as the “Straits Chinese”, but the phrase referred to the UK’s colonial “Straits Settlements”, a geographic term that lost its relevance when the area gained independence.
Over the centuries, the blended Peranakan Chinese families created a culture that is a kaleidoscopic synthesis of local styles and traditional Chinese forms. And by no means static or ossified, the eclectic culture of the Peranakan Chinese continues to innovate and adapt new forms in a way that’s impossible to pigeon-hole and yet distinctively recognizable.
In the past year, one of our favorite authors, Ronald Knapp of SUNY New Paltz, has brought Peranakan Chinese culture into focus in two books. In 2011, he authored Chinese Houses of Southeast Asia, and this spring at the Association of Asian Studies we just published his new Peranakan Chinese Home: Art and Culture in Daily Life. Both books overflow with the masterful color photography of Chester Ong, and few writers match Ron’s combination of lively prose and nuanced scholarship.
For the armchair linguist or language-minded museum-goer or antiques collector, Ron also employs his considerable Chinese skills to enliven his text not only with English translations of Chinese objects, but frequent and detailed examples in pinyin and characters of the vocabulary of Peranakan Chinese material culture. Not stopping at a mere allusion to fengshui, for example, Ron explains the position of many Peranakan Chinese homes with the traditional maxim fù yīn bào yáng, bèi shān miàn shuĭ, 负阴抱阳，背山面水: “yin at one’s back and embraced by yang, with ridges to the back and facing water”.
Open this book on any page, and you’ll find a fascinating example of Peranakan Chinese culture, which, in the course of talking about, become starting points for Ron’s erudite insights about SE Asia, China, and cultural diversity in general. If you’d like to win this book, click here to email me and write “Peranakan” in the subject line. I’ll announce a winner on Monday.