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1 - Peranakan and Other Related Terms

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 September 2023

Leo Suryadinata
Affiliation:
ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute
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Summary

At the beginning, it is imperative for us to explain key terms Peranakan and other related terms such as Baba, Nyonya (Nonya), Straits Chinese and Straits-born Chinese to avoid misunderstanding. In fact, the terms are not very straightforward, and the meaning of the terms tended to change from period to period.

Peranakan

Peranakan, a Malay word, is now used as a generic term to refer to the local-born Chinese who speaks Malay or a local language at home. The present meaning of the term is the descendants of the union between indigenous people (anak negeri) and foreigners. It is not known when the term first came into existence. In the nineteenth century, The Hikayat Abdullah, which was written by Munshi Abdullah, did not mention the term Peranakan but mentioned two Baba in British Malaya.

His son, Mohamed Ibrahim, wrote a book and used the term peranak awak to refer to the people in Penang who were born locally to Siamese or Burmese fathers and Chinese mothers. But the meaning is different from our ordinary usage. In fact, in the mid-nineteenth century, the term Peranakan was already quite popular. According to a dictionary published in 1856, the Malays called the “mixed race” of Chinese descendants “Peranakan China” (Peranakan Cina, according to the current spelling) during that time. Later, the term Peranakan was used as the abbreviation of Peranakan Cina, as if the Peranakan question was a solely Chinese phenomenon.

In fact, there were many types of Peranakan. The term was used to refer to the Indian Peranakan or “Jawi Peranakan”, who were the descendants of Indian Muslims and Malay women. Nevertheless, because of the large number of Peranakan Chinese, the term Peranakan has generally been associated with the Chinese community.

The Peranakan phenomenon was not confined to Singapore and Malaysia only. It was quite common to the region as a whole, including Indonesia and the Philippines. While the term Peranakan has been used in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, a different term—“Mestizo”—has been used to refer to a similar group in the Philippines. However, unlike the mestizos in the Philippines, who became Filipino rather than Chinese, the Peranakan Chinese in Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia remained largely “Chinese” in terms of their identity.

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Publisher: ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute
First published in: 2023

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