The Peranakan Chinese is an appellation referring to the descendants of intermarriage between Chinese immigrants and local Malay women during British colonization of Malaysia (Lonely Planet, 2020). They were able to keep their Chinese heritage but accepted many facets of Malay culture. They also used the terms Straits-born or Straits Chinese to differentiate themselves from later arrivals from China (Lonely Planet, 2020). This report explores the Peranakan acculturation and assimilation in Malaysia.
CHINESE MIGRATION TO MALAYSIA
Pre-colonial and during the British colonialism era
Multitude of Chinese migration to Malaysia took place between 1850 to 1930 with the opening of the British settlements in Malacca and Penang, although the existence of Chinese settlements in Malaysia was present before the time (Hirschman, 1986). The early interaction between the Chinese and Malays may not have been completely harmonious and free of suspicions, but racial division were not present as can be seen in intermarriage between the two races (Hirschman, 1986). In terms of economic relationship, the Chinese and Malays were also able to cooperate for mutual gain, despite wide linguistic and cultural divergence among the two ethnic groups (Hirschman, 1986).
During the age of Imperialism, there grew to be a large population of acculturated, rich, English-speaking Chinese in Malaysia. They have gained respect, status and wealth through higher education and mingling in “the right circles” (Hirschman, 1986). When these wealthy Chinese men married local Malay women, their genealogical descent became known as the Peranakan, which literately meant “half-caste” in Malay (Lonely Planet, 2020). The Peranakan men are addressed as Baba and the women as Nyonya (Lonely Planet, 2020).
Malaysia became independent from the British in 1957 (Chin & Tanasaldy, 2019). Under the newly established Federal Constitution, Islam is the official religion. At the time, the Chinese population was 2.33 million, representing 38% of the total residents (Shah, 2016) (Wong, 2018). The growth in population size allowed the Chinese to build temples, schools and community and political associations (Minority Rights Group International, 2018). They resided in the urban areas while the Malays lived mainly in rural areas (Minority Rights Group International, 2018). They continue to dominate the business environment until the racial riot in 1969 as a consequence of resentment in the disproportionate of wealth held by the Chinese (Wong, 2018).
After the unrest, race relations remain a delicate matter in Malaysia. The new construct from the aftermath is set to favours the ethnic Malay majority over the other racial communities. The Malaysian government would push for economic and policy reform that are beneficial to Malays, marginalizing the rest of the population. The Peranakan had been the subject of persecution by the Japanese during the Japanese occupation of Malaysia during the second world war for supporting the Chinese resistance in mainland China (Hardwick, 2008). Already weakened, the political reforms made after 1969 resulted in the Peranakan became a vanishing culture, losing its prominences and in decline.
THE PERANAKAN RELIGION
Malaysia is a multiracial society. Freedom of religion is a theoretical guarantee that is written in the Malaysian constitution to maintain the cohesiveness of all the different ethnic communities. The Peranakans mainly subscribed to the Chinese religion, the beliefs of their Chinese ancestry heritage. They celebrate the Chinese New Year, which is a recognised national holiday event in Malaysia, marking the first and second day of the lunar calendar, as well as many other Chinese festivals (KENN i SOLUTIONS, 2020).
The Chinese religion is based on a combination of three religions: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism (Guang, 2013). The three religions were able to amalgamate to influence the Chinese civilization alongside each other, changed each other, and at times intermingled together (National Geographic, 2019). It was able to incorporate the different teachings into multiple areas of the Chinese society.
Confucianism is based on the belief that people are essentially good, that individuals engage in immoral behaviour is due to a lack of a strong moral standard; and by adherence to an ethical code, anyone can live a fruitful and harmonious life of peace (Mark J. J., 2020).
Taoism or Daoism is primarily “concerned with the spiritual elements of life, including the nature of the universe” (National Geographic, 2019). It believes that “the Way” or Dao is a natural cosmic force which flows through all things and binds and releases them (Mark E. , 2016). Human beings are meant to accept and submit to the Dao by doing things that go with the flow in keeping with the Dao (Mark E. , 2016) (National Geographic, 2019).
Buddhism is a way to attain enlightenment through meditation, spiritual learning, and practice. It believes in reincarnation and that life is transitory and full of suffering and ambiguity; the way to find peace is through reaching nirvana, “a transcendent state in which there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self, and the subject is released from the effects of karma and the cycle of death and rebirth” (Oxford Dictionary, 2020) (National Geographic, 2019).
RELATIONSHIP OF THE RELIGION TO CULTURAL ELEMENTS OF THE SOCIETY
Sociologists have long debated if it is cultural practices that is becoming religionised or religious ideas are becoming part of culture. The Peranakan culture is a mixture of Chinese and Malay influenced.
The Peranakan Fashion
Perhaps there is nothing more iconic than the costume wore by the Singapore Airline air stewardess to reflect the historical and stylistic significance of Peranakan fashion in the Malay Peninsula during the 1800s to the 1950s (Lee, 2019). The Sarong Kebaya is a blouse wore over a sarong by the Nyonya women. The blouses are held together by beautiful brooches, usually of gold or silver call Kerasong. They also wore slippers splendidly embroidered with beads call Kasot Manek (Lonely Planet, 2020).
The Peranakan Food Culture
Peranakan food or Nyonya cuisine is the result of cultural borrowing and cultural innovation by combining Chinese cooking techniques and ingredients to Malaysian spices and flavours (Ng & Karim, 2016). For instance, some of the signature ingredients used in cooking include coconut milk, laksa leaves, lemongrass and tamarind (Ghosh, 2018). One of the most famous Peranakan food creations is the Laksa, a spicy coconut cream base soup noodle.
The food is not only for daily consumption but also to develop family relationship during festive celebrations, ceremonies and in religion and ancestral worship (Ng & Karim, 2016). The Chinese symbolism in the Nyonya cuisine can be found mainly in the colour symbolism of the food, the linguistic association in naming the food, and by physical association (Ng & Karim, 2016).
The Peranakan Family Life
The intermarriages between the Chinese immigrants and local Malay women were significant during the early development of the unique culture. The intermarriages were motivated by the need to integrate into the local communities and for the fact that these women were good housekeepers and saleswomen; to help to keep the business running when the men went on business trips to China (Ng & Karim, 2016).
At home, the Peranakan wealth and social status during the British colonial time are reflected in their expensive and lavish home furnishings of heavily carved and ornamented furniture (Lonely Planet, 2020) (Ng & Karim, 2016). Their enormous houses were brightly painted, with patterned tiles embedded in the walls for extra decoration (Lonely Planet, 2020).
A Typical Peranakan Home
The Peranakan follows a rigid Chinese patriarchal custom and therefore, the womenfolk were confined to the house. The kitchen is where they spent a great part of their time as they did not enjoy the privilege of getting an education (Ng & Karim, 2016). It is the place where all the fine Nyonya cuisines were created. The development of the labour-intensive Nyonya cuisine was encouraged by the fact that excellent cooking is the fundamental benchmark for a good marriage (Ng & Karim, 2016). They were taught from a very young age by the matriarch of the household to help around in the kitchen (Ng & Karim, 2016). The matriarch held enormous level of authority in the household, from organising and instructing the servants, to handling the household accounts and finances, to organising entertainment and social events for their husbands (Scheong, 2016).
IMPACT OF THE RELIGION ON ‘IDENTITY’ OF INDIVIDUALS, GROUPS AND NATION
Peranakan acculturation originates through the marital union between Chinese and local Malay women when they migrate to Malaysia. By the 19th century, the Chinese migrants had abandoned the strict use of their Chinese language and instead, spoke in a Malay-Chinese slang (Hardwick, 2008). The Peranakan women had adopted the Malay women fashion and culinary techniques (Hardwick, 2008). Yet, in their elaborated weddings, funerals, and ancestor ritual practices, can be identified as being heavily influenced by the Chinese religion from their Chinese heritage link (Hardwick, 2008). This combination of cultural interaction allowed the Peranakan to identify as neither Chinese nor Malay, but a unique sociocultural identity (Hardwick, 2008). This also sets them apart from later Chinese migrants.
The Peranakan identity began to form during the British colonial period when influxes of Chinese immigrants arrived in Malaysia. They live among the local inhabitants, they marry the local women, and they gradually assimilated into the local communities. Their need to cultivate a unique identity was simply to facilitate their survival in a hostile political environment (Hardwick, 2008). At the time, China was engulfed by socialism and communism movements. Malaysia was under the British rule. The Malays were sceptical about their motive.
The Peranakan identity blossomed under the British rule. They gained wealth and social status acting as middlemen for the British. The males are greeted as Baba and the female were addressed as Nyonya. These are honorific titles which in time to come, became synonymous with identifying the Peranakan masculine and feminine genders in the public (Hardwick, 2008). The term “Baba” is a gesture of respect, derived from northern India, most likely to have found its way to the Straits of Malacca when the British East India Company extended its trading influence to Malaysia (Hardwick, 2008). The expression “Nyonya” is a traditional Malay way of addressing non-Malay women of a high social status (Hardwick, 2008). Their wealth is flaunted in their expensive and lavish home furnishings, jewellery ornate costumes, and enormous houses (Hardwick, 2008).
With the decline of the British colonial power during the second world war, as well as Malaysia gaining its independence, the Peranakan identity is slowly eroding with time. An article in the Eastern Sun newspaper published on 21st May 1967 even commented that “The Babas have become a weak community, which may eventually be relegated to oblivion. Their leaders are self-centered persons who prefer to lead comfortable lives on the old pattern rather than adjust themselves to the new political order.” (Hardwick, 2008). The Peranakan and their identity have frozen in time, waiting to be assimilated into the Malay population.
PRESERVING THE PERANAKAN WAY – THE RELATIONSHIP OF THE RELIGION WITH NATIONAL POLITICS
Religion and ethnicity have always played an important role in politics and society. Since becoming independent, the Malaysia Federal constitution states Islam as the official religion but other religions may be practiced in peace (Husin & Ibrahim, 2016). Syariah law is also incorporated into the Federal and State Constitutions which had been largely based on the English law (Noordin & Supramaniam, 2016). Under the Freedom of Religion, Peranakans have the right to profess and practice the Chinese religion but is not allowed to propagate their religion to the Malays (Husin & Ibrahim, 2016).
The Syariah law was supposed to only apply to Muslims but in fact, it is stifling out the rest of the other religions, as well as creating new social and cultural divergence between the Malay Muslim community and the other minority races. The law legally presumed the faith of all ethnic Malays are Muslims. Using marriage as an example, it is against the religious laws of Malaysia for an Infidel to marry a Muslim (Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada, 1996). Non-Muslim must convert to Islam in order to marry a Malay. The law produces a negative form of acculturation of other ethnic communities to the faith, creating conflicting relationships between Islam and other religion orientations (Lewis, 2005). As a result, this led to the Peranakan community maintaining ethnic boundaries with the Malay population in Malaysia in order to preserve their heritage and religious culture (Lewis, 2005). Future generations of Peranakans were discouraged to marry Malays to avoid becoming Malays and Muslims (Ng & Karim, 2016).
Today, what is left of the Peranakan culture is a reminiscence of its past glory. The culture is vanishing as the Malaysia law continues to marginalise minority communities to benefit the Malay majority. The Peranakans are slowly acculturated and assimilated into the Muslim communities by Syariah laws such as the marriage law. In order to preserve its existence, the Peranakans are forced to maintain ethnic boundaries with the Malay population, creating a divergence in the social interaction of the two communities.
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