Peranakan Culture

Ron Knapp and Mingmei Yip

Authors Ron Knapp and Mingmei Yip at the 2013 meeting of the Association of Asian Studies in San Diego.

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.


Follow-up to his best-selling “Chinese Houses”, Ronald Knapp’s “Peranakan Chinese Home”.

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.


Irish Language

Lá sona st Pádraig, that is to say “Happy St. Patrick’s Day”. As the dust settles in Irish neighborhoods around the world, I woke up in the mood for a screed about Irish-Americans who bedeck themselves with shamrocks and drink themselves green on St. Patty’s Day and indulge in a sort of maudlin jingoism, but who, if asked if they speak any Irish, can’t come up with more than Éirinn go Brách.

Instead, I’m happy to pass along a link to one of the most entertaining and fascinating documentaries about language ever: No Béarla (No English) by filmmaker and native Irish speaker Manchán Magan. In this entertaining multipart series aired in ’07 and ’08 (free now on Youtube), Magan chronicles his misadventures touring Ireland speaking nothing but Irish.

This should be easy, right? Irish is the “first national language” of the country. Most students in Ireland spend more than a decade studying the language. And yet mostly what Magan encounters is embarrassed bafflement. He stands in a popular Dublin Square and pleads with, harangues, and cajoles passers-by in Irish. He waves a €5 bill to anyone who can chat with him in Irish. Nobody understands him. The Irish, he laments, won the fight for the freedom to choose between the Irish language and English “and then chose English.”

I often free-associate from Ireland to Israel. Born less than 30 years apart, both nations had a historical relationship to a language not spoken by a majority of its citizens. Both states recognized those languages as national tongues and promoted their use. The result in Israel was the spectacular resuscitation of a language that had been out use as a medium of daily life for nearly two millennia. Irish continued its decline.

The different outcomes have less to do with a lack of zeal in Ireland than with the factor that most often drives language learning: utility. Reviving Hebrew was inspired and inspiring. As Jews immigrated to Palestine before the foundation of Israel, however, they spoke many languages: Arabic, Polish, Yiddish, Romanian, German, and French to name a few. Modern Hebrew filled an urgent need for a shared lingua franca. At the time of the Irish Revolution, on the other hand, English might have had an odious association with an oppressor, but residents of Ireland had no problem talking to each other.

A brilliant editor juxtaposing comedy and tragedy, stirring solemnity and banal visits to convenient stores, Magan is part provocateur, part comedian, and part jeremiah. Check it out! To learn something about Irish, where else would one go in North America but the home of the Fighting Irish: the Notre Dame Irish language program.

The winner of Friday’s copy of Elements of Japanese Design was Katharine in Detroit. Thanks for reading, Katharine!

The Language of Japanese Design

All languages share basic concepts common to human experience. The idea is captured most succinctly in the Swadesh list, a list of core things, actions, or ideas compiled by linguist Morris Swadesh in the ‘50s for the purpose of determining linguistic interrelatedness. One measure of how close two languages are is how many cognates they share on the Swadesh list. Compared to German Hand, English has a perfect match. Compared to Icelandic hönd, English has a near match. Compared to Korean 손 son, there’s no connection at all. That kind of data is music to the ears of “lexicostatisticians”.

For the rest of us, however, vive la différence is more interesting than vive la même chose. Get into Urdu or Quechua and the fact that those languages have words for “eye”, “moon”, and “woman” is no revelation. What we’re curious about are words other languages have that we don’t.


Downton Sabi: Short essays about words emblematic of traditional culture.

In that spirit, I’d like to talk about a book that illuminates Japanese culture through the vocabulary of Japanese aesthetics: Elements of Japanese Design. The book sets out to explain Japanese “design” values, but, by writing a collection of 65 essays based on particular words, the author uses Japanese language as a vivid framework for understanding its culture.

The book includes some basic nouns describing classic Japanese arts and crafts, such as 盆栽, bonsai, a “tray-planting” and 和紙 , washi, “Japanese paper”. As an aside, on its own 和 (wa) means “harmony”. It’s an important concept in Japan, and it has its own chapter here. But it can also mean “Japanese” as in washi, and also in 和食 (washoku, “Japanese food”), 和服 (wafuku, “Japanese clothing”), and 和風 (wafuu, “Japanese-style”).

Elements of Japanese Design also examines such classic Japanese values as 不均斉, fukinsei, or asymmetry. It also offers superbly pithy explanations about the much talked about but little understood ideas of 詫び, wabi, and 寂び, sabi.

Not limiting himself to classic Japanese, however, De Mente also covers vocabulary from pop culture such as 可愛い, kawaii, which is like “cute” on amphetamines.

In this readable volume, De Mente acts as journalist, independent scholar, and keen observer and consumer of Japanese culture and language. Most of the essays are less than two pages, and each gives the Japanese word, its kanji, rōmaji, and an anglicized pronunciation. If you’d like to win this book, click here to email me and write “Design” in the subject line. I’ll announce a winner on Monday. The winner of the book about Kansai Japanese was Michael from New Hampshire. おおきに!