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Monday, February 06, 2017

Peranakans and Cultural Appropriation

Has the ‘soul’ gone out of modern Peranakans?

"A member of an online Peranakan group commented that the way I wore the kebaya - casually thrown on over a tank top and a pair of skinny jeans - was “gauche” and looked “uncouth”.

She was right - my grandmother would probably turn in her grave if she knew that I was taking her beloved kebayas to the nightclubs.

Gripes like these are increasingly common in the Peranakan community, some of whom in recent years have taken to policing their culture against a wave of modern spinoffs – including cheaper knock-offs of embroidered kebayas, and watered-down versions of its food...

“Being Peranakan is not just a question of superficial accessories, it’s a culture,” said Ms Sharon Ong, the person who made the online comment.

“When you wear somebody's ethnic dress, you are expressing a culture… so to interpret anything in a meaningful way, we have to understand the original version first,” she added.

Another online user said: “Wearing a Kebaya or batik shirt alone is not complete if you do not have a connection with its culture and history. It is like an outfit with no soul, no bau (Malay for smell)”

And it’s not just these tangible aspects of the culture that have come under scrutiny by the community - some debates even extend to the “purity” of a person’s ancestry, as though you have to meet certain standards in order to qualify as being Peranakan...

Most of the Peranakan dishes on the table were prepared by Mr Leong’s Hakka aunt-in-law.

Mrs Patricia Lim, Mr Leong’s aunt, said: “My mum never taught her children to cook, but would quietly go to my brother's house to teach my sister-in-law her recipes so that she would be the one cooking for all of us. Quite naughty, right?”...

The kebaya style we know today is merely one aspect of a fashion that has been evolving for hundreds of years.

Culture expert Mr Peter Lee said: “We need to break the myth that the kebaya (of today) is traditional.” In fact, he pointed out that for a period of time, it was the batik sarong that was the most important part of the attire. “Now it's sort of the reverse - there is a lot of emphasis on the kebaya, and today it's all about a riot of colours and often very badly matched - it's very garish,” said Mr Lee...

“When I hear Peranakans saying ‘oh, that's not very Peranakan’, it’s such a contradiction, and this has created a whole fear of the Peranakan tradition. Sometimes, defining culture is a bit dangerous if you start including and excluding things.”

Mr Lee, who has authored books and curated exhibitions on the evolution of Peranakan culture, says his work is about showing that in the past, people did not actually have fixed ideas of the culture. “In those days, people didn’t say ‘today, I am going to try to be Peranakan’. It was just a way of life found in colonial port towns - it was a very shared culture,” he added.

So when it comes to other aspects of the culture, like the food, Mr Fred Lam - an antiques collector and owner of Baba Fred Antique House - is all for innovation. “What's wrong with having buah keluak sauce over spaghetti?" he said,

"And what's wrong with buah keluak ice cream, when there are other types of buah ice cream - like Macadamia nut ice cream? People have the right to express their own cooking style”...

Cultural producers should be allowed to “be as creative as possible, as they are the ones who will help us best preserve culture as a living culture”.

Mr Lee noted: “I think it is unlikely that you will find people who would want to behave like a 19th century Peranakan."


It is amusing that some Peranakans are complaining about cultural appropriation (even if the term isn't actually used).

If nothing else, a hybrid culture such as Peranakan culture is already a 'bastardised' one (ditto for the purity of bloodlines).

Maybe it's better to let Peranakan culture die out instead?


From the previous article in the series:

The slow death of Peranakan cuisine?

"You can never please a Peranakan because recipes vary from family to family, which poses a conundrum over what’s “most authentic”.

Take these dishes for example - Babi Chin and Babi Pongteh are almost-similar dishes of belly pork stewed in a fermented soya bean paste; it’s just that one calls for spices like coriander powder and cinnamon sticks, while the other doesn’t.

But do a quick search on the internet and you’ll find heated arguments among food bloggers about which dish has the additional spices. And the debate extends to two notable Singaporean cookbooks too - according to Mrs Lee’s Cookbook, Babi Chin does not have coriander powder, but her sister Mrs Leong’s recipe calls for it.

Peranakan restaurants in Singapore especially don’t get off easy - when mum’s cooking is always the basis of comparison, any deviation from what is familiar is usually met with strong backlash...

Upon tasting the gravy, Mrs Gan and Mrs Wong start bickering about how much coconut milk to add.

“You can never get a precise recipe from any Peranakan lady and I think that’s one of the difficulties (in maintaining consistency),” says Mrs Wong.

“They will always say ‘one handful of this, another handful of that’. It’s always agak-agak (estimate)!”"
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