Peranakan Penang
Senses of Malaysia|Oct/Nov/Dec 2017

Penang is malaysia’s island melting pot, a rich and varied palette of cultural colours spanning the recent centuries. As Petra O’Neill discovers first-hand, to her great delight, the influence of the Peranakans in Penang simply cannot be overstated.

Petra O’Neill

There is still so much to see,” exclaimed Pearly Kee, as I showed obvious signs of fading fast. It was close to midnight, and on meeting her, I found myself being whisked away on a private tour of George Town to explore its Peranakan influences from an insider’s perspective.

Across George Town, there is no shortage of antique and curio stores, where among dusty teacups and fading photos of solemn Chinese couples, I had often sighted brightly coloured containers decorated with peonies and phoenix patterns that are Peranakan, and while the Penang Museum informatively displays Penang’s cultural heritage, the Peranakan influence was something I knew little about.

Peranakans, also referred to as Straits Chinese or Baba Nyonya, are descendants of mainly Hokkien Chinese traders from Fujian Province who settled in Melaka and coastal areas of Java and Sumatra as early as the 15th century. They married into local Southeast Asian communities, as Chinese women were then not legally able to leave China. During the 19th century, many Peranakans relocated to the thriving ports of Penang and Singapore during British colonial expansion. Highly enterprising, many were successful as merchants involved in the spice trade, rubber, and tin mining, or as professionals. They were also cosmopolitan, drawing upon Chinese, Southeast Asian, and European influences to create a unique cultural aesthetic distinct from the southern Chinese immigrants who migrated to Southeast Asia in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Those with sufficient wealth built palatial mansions during the late 1800s and early 1900s, some of which remain along Millionaire’s Row, as Northam Road (now Jalan Sultan Ahmed Shah) was known alongside the mansions of wealthy English and Chinese families.

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