The World of the Nonya

Back when I was in secondary school, I often told people that my grandparents were born in Singapore. I’m a third-generation Singaporean, meaning my greatgrandparents came from China and made their families here. For most people, however, their grandparents were from China and their parents were the first generation of Singaporean locals. So when they hear of my curious ancestry, they love to ask whether I am Peranakan.

Ever since the wildly popular Chinese TV show The Little Nonya (which I didn’t really find all that great, because they stopped talking about Peranakan culture and started concentrating a lot on the drama and tensions which were really gut-wrenching), Peranakan culture started becoming fashionable in Singapore. Peranakans don’t just exist in Singapore — they are in fact more common in Malaysia and Indonesia — but due to us being the first to create a great show about Peranakans, they have come to belong to our cultural heritage. So what are Peranakans?

They are basically the descendants of late 15th to 16th century Chinese immigrants to our parts. Most of the Chinese around here are descended from immigrants of the 18th or 19th century, so Peranakans are basically the ones who have flourished here for a longer period of time. Due to inter-marriages with the local Malays, they have devised a whole new mixed culture of their own, with their own unique clothing and food. I won’t provide photographs, but it’s interesting to note that their clothing really does reflect a fusion of Chinese and Malay design elements. Quite a harmonious blend it is too!

Oh but in nonya, the best part is its food. Nonya kueh-kueh, which are basically snacks of all kinds. I love the ondeh-ondeh, a green ball coated with coconut flakes, and when you bite into it it spurts out gula melaka, also known as palm sugar. So eat it like you eat the soup dumplings in China — put the entire thing in your mouth before you start biting! Another nonya kueh I like is one whose name I always forget. It is green as well, from the pandan, and it forms a long rolled-up shape with coconut flakes in it. Just like popiah, except it’s green and has coconut within. If you don’t know what popiah is, well, look it up! Or come down to Singapore and eat everything I’ve just mentioned.

Most of the time, it’s really difficult to tell at a glance who is Peranakan and who isn’t. Most of them look just like every Chinese, but a number of them do not know how to speak Mandarin very well, especially if they take Malay in school instead.

Of course, the Peranakans don’t just know how to make kueh. Nonya laksa is apparently a favourite among Singaporeans too, but the kueh remain the most distinctive creations, because no other culture makes anything like they do. Bengawan Solo, now a large-chain confectionery, started off making nonya kueh. Some of us think that the Bengawan Solo cakes aren’t as good as the kueh.

I bet what you didn’t know is that our current president, Tony Tan, and our Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, are both Baba (the name for male Peranakans). In fact, most of our top politicians are famous Peranakans. I certainly wonder why.

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