Exploring the Meaning of Being Peranakan Among the Peranakan Chinese Communities in the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia

Author: Giok Hun Pue, Puay Liu Ong, Hong Chuang Loo, Keong Loon Teng (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia)
Speaker: Giok Hun Pue
Topic: Applied Sociolinguistics
The GLOCAL CALA 2022 General Session

There is a renewed and growing interest in the Peranakan identity and heritage at the turn of the 21st  century which my team and I refer to as ‘Peranakan wave’ (Pue et al. 2019). The trend sees cultural elements of Peranakanness being adapted, copied and even conjured into festivals and social events, themes and packages in industries such as tourism, F & B, real estate, as well as popular culture products including movie, drama, fiction books, and fashion. For Southeast Asian countries that are home to the Peranakan communities, it is also not uncommon for Peranakan heritage to be seen as representing the national heritage whereby its cultural elements were used to represent the nation in international culinary, beauty and sport events. The trend gradually establishes certain extrinsic cultural elements as symbols of the Peranakan identity, particularly the iconic kebaya and sarong, Peranakan food and tableware, and the famous Chinese-European fusion architectural and furniture style. However, is this all it takes to be a Peranakan? The popularity of the Peranakan wave in social events and mass media is frowned upon by some members of the Peranakan communities who are concerned that their Peranakan heritage is being misconstrued. This is especially apparent among the Peranakan Chinese communities of the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia whose Peranakanness differs from what is depicted in the popular culture which is often based on the Peranakanness of the Baba-Nyonya community of Melaka in the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia. Against this background, the present paper seeks to examine what does it mean to be a Peranakan from the insider’s point of view. As part of an ongoing study, qualitative data in the form of life stories and growing-up experiences were collected via online interview sessions with nine volunteers who are descendants of the Peranakan Chinese community in Kelantan or Terengganu from the east coast of the Peninsular Malaysia in December 2021 and January 2022. The preliminary findings of our content analysis suggest that while tangible cultural elements including the attire and food were readily recognized along with their phenotypical characteristics as Peranakan ethnic markers, it is the Malay-centric place attachment that incorporates Malay-influenced cultural script and local knowledge of the locality during formative years that shape the meaning and experience of ‘being a Peranakan’, despite not familiar with the ‘Peranakan’ label growing up.

Keywords: Peranakan Chinese, Kelantan, Terengganu, Malaysia, Oral stories, Meaning, Place attachment.