The People Who Stayed

66 comments
Asia, Singapore
Peranakan Museum

Peranakan Museum

China and India today are two of the most populous countries on Earth with a combined population of more than two billion people. In a planet where people live in more than 200 countries and scattered across six continents, the two Asian giants account for more than a third of Earth’s 7 billion humans. But this is not an exclusively contemporary statistics since China and India (or areas which now make up the two nations) have always been inhabited by more people than any other places in the world throughout their history.

The most palpable evidence for this is the huge number of Chinese and Indian diaspora across the globe, those who left their homelands in search for better opportunities overseas and also the descendants of those pioneers.

Southeast Asia is no exception. Strategically located on the land and sea trade routes between China and India, the region is a natural crossroads of peoples from the two nations. Traces of Chinese and Indian influences are engraved in many aspects of Southeast Asian cultures and heritage, from ancient temples to hearty dishes served at homes in the region.

Singapore, a tiny island sitting right across continental Asia’s southeastern end, has long been benefiting from the lucrative sea trade route connecting the two powerhouses, and later the spice islands with Middle East and Europe. Naturally the thriving trade port attracted merchants from foreign lands trying to get a fraction of the wealth generated by the booming economy.

Generations after generations, Chinese and Indian merchants came and left, but some chose to stay at their new land, their new home. Intermarriage with the locals was inevitable, and what started as simply a union between two adult people would eventually leave profound impact to local cultures across the archipelago.

The Peranakans, as they are usually referred as, are the progeny of foreign men who married Southeast Asian local women, typically. Chinese Peranakans make up the largest portion of Peranakan communities in the region, tracing back their ancestral lines mostly to Hokkien people from southern China. But less known to most foreigners are other Peranakan communities, including Indian Hindu Peranakans (also known as Chitty), Indian Muslim Peranakans (Jawi Pekan) and Eurasian Peranakans.

A Jewelry with Rich Chinese Influence

A Jewelry with Rich Chinese Influence

Another Artifact at Peranakan Museum

Another Artifact at Peranakan Museum

Chinese Silverware

Chinese Silverware

Colorful Shophouses at Joo Chiat

Colorful Shophouses at Joo Chiat

Feast for the Eyes

Feast for the Eyes

An Amalgamation of Different Architectural Elements

An Amalgamation of Different Architectural Elements

European-Chinese-Malay Architecture

European-Chinese-Malay Architecture

A Pretty Street Intersection at Joo Chiat

A Pretty Street Intersection at Joo Chiat

Two Auspicious Dragons

Two Auspicious Dragons

More Ornately-Decorated Shophouses

More Ornately-Decorated Shophouses

Being the largest group of all Peranakan communities in Southeast Asia, the Chinese Peranakans not only blended Chinese culture with that of Malay and Indonesian people, but also created an entirely new cultural landscape resonating across the region. From architecture to jewelry to food, no aspect was left untouched by the newly established cultural fusion.

Joo Chiat in Singapore is an example of a neighborhood where richly adorned Peranakan houses occupy many of its narrow streets. Painted in pastel colors and decorated with European, Chinese and Malay elements, Joo Chiat’s shophouses are a testament to the community’s embrace for the cultural fusion. It is also one of the places to go in the country to taste authentic Peranakan dishes, known for their distinctive rich flavor for the plentiful use of spices and ingredients not found in China.

The most famous and lovable Peranakan cuisine is probably laksa, with different variants hailing from Singapore, Malacca, Penang and Sarawak to name some. Made from coconut milk, chicken broth, prawns, clams, hard-boiled eggs, bean sprouts, tofu, rice noodles and a generous amount of spices including candlenuts, shrimp paste, coriander, galangal, turmeric and lemongrass, Singapore’s Katong laksa is such a hearty dish which will only make people ask for more.

Another interesting – yet potentially divisive – Peranakan dish is ayam buah keluak. Made from chicken, spices and most importantly keluak – the nut from Pangium edule tree which is lethal if eaten raw – the dish looks typical Malay/Indonesian dish where taste, not appearance, is of the utmost importance. Keluak is widely used in East Javanese cuisine, most notably rawon, to infuse the dark soup with an earthy, nutty taste. It is an ingredient not known in China or India and never used in any of the dishes from the two countries. But ayam buah keluak is a perfect example of Peranakans’ take on the spices and herbs from their new lands, incorporated with their ancestors’ old recipes. An acquired taste created by the people who chose to stay.

328 Katong Laksa, A Treasure in A Bowl

328 Katong Laksa, Treasure in A Bowl

Otah, A Peranakan Fish Cake

Otah, A Peranakan Fish Cake

Ayam Buah Keluak, Chicken with Keluak (Pangium edule)

Ayam Buah Keluak, Chicken with Keluak (Pangium edule)

Nonya Assam Curry Fish

Nonya Assam Curry Fish

Jackfruit Stew with Prawns

Jackfruit Stew with Prawns

Acar Timun, Pickled Cucumber with Chili

Acar Timun, Pickled Cucumber with Chili

Uncle Ice Cream

Uncle Ice Cream

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

66 thoughts on “The People Who Stayed”

    • Those colorful shophouses were the highlight of Joo Chiat, a mixed neighborhood where I stayed at. Thanks for dropping by, Ruth.

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  1. Nice shots, Bama! Discovering more about the Peranakans was a real highlight of our stay in Singapore. I wish I made the effort to take photos inside the museum – it was just so fascinating and we probably spent a good two hours there! As for the food, I wouldn’t mind having that Katong laksa every day…

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    • Thank you, James. Learning about the Peranakans brought some sort of enlightenment to me since I actually grew up eating Indonesian Peranakan dishes. They really had influenced many aspects of Southeast Asian cultures, but a lot of people don’t realize that fact. I noticed that the museum collections really captivated you. 🙂 Oh and Katong laksa, I would go to Singapore just to have that again!

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  2. annethewanderer says:

    Beautiful pictures. Your food photos make me want to try them even though my I’m not really into curries.

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    • Thank you, Anne. You might like Katong laksa since its rich broth is not overpowering while the shrimps and clams give the dish sweet and fresh flavor.

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    • Thank you, Sue. Uncle Ice Cream is basically a thick block of ice cream served with soft bread. It is called that way since most of its vendors are old Chinese men whose nickname ‘uncle’ were given by the locals. Apart from the usual flavors, they have some other flavors Asians are familiar with, such as durian and yam.

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      • Thank you Bama. I love the reason for the dish being called Uncle. Yam ice cream. Well know that seems to go better with the bread!

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      • My pleasure, Sue. I really like yam ice cream, not only because of its appealing color, but also its creamy flavor. As for the bread, I always go with pandan bread whenever possible. 🙂

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      • Bama I have never seen ice cream served with bread, let alone a choice of what type of bread. Thank you for sharing with me. 🙂

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  3. A fascinating post and the first I’ve read about the Peranakans….it truly is a rich and campur history… thanks again I love yr history inputs…. Trees

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    • Campur, that’s the right word to describe their legacy. I was, too, fascinated by the history of the Peranakans and when I visited the museum I realized that I was actually quite familiar with Peranakan cultures, particularly the ones in Indonesia. Thank you, Trees!

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  4. Hi Bama, what an impressive, in depth narratives about the Peranakans! What an amazing cultural fusion they have created. I don’t know where to start but I’m i awe of the arts, the architecture and, of course the food. I guess they have left a great deal of influence throughout Southeast Asia but a lot of people didn’t realize it. I have to keep in mind the dishes you mentioned next time I’m in Singapore. I actually had to skip your post earlier because I was hungry and I couldn’t stand looking at those photos. Lovely shots as always, specially the food.

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    • Marisol, thank you for your lovely comment. Apart from the Peranakan communities in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, I believe their counterparts in the Philippines also left such rich cultural heritage many people might not realize. Chilli Padi, the Peranakan restaurant I went to in Joo Chiat was particularly quite popular for its wide array of authentic Peranakan dishes.

      I guess by now you’ve already finished you dinner. Sorry for the food photos! 🙂

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    • Oh you’re right! I guess we all find amusement in adding different colors to our houses’ walls. Although in some places uniformity is the norm.
      There are some explanations on how to prepare the keluak. But the most common one involves a two-step process: boiling the raw fruit and burying it in ash, banana leaves and earth until it changes color.
      Thank you for your kind words!

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  5. Nice article as always 🙂
    Anyway Bama, there are so many tenants of uncle’s ice cream in Jakarta. Hahaha..

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    • Thank you, Wien. I do realize that too, but somehow I haven’t found any with a flavor closest to the ones in Singapore.

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      • The pleasure’s been all mine. Hardly to say yes but I found one that tasted similar to the ones in Singapore. It’s located in Harco Mangga Dua with the similar name too: “Uncle’s ice cream”. Haha. Anyway, is the article located in Singapore? Looks like Penang.

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      • Ah I see. There are a lot of good food at Mangga Dua in general. 🙂 It is Singapore, not Penang. And I’ve never been to Penang. 🙂

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  6. Lady Sparrow says:

    First – been a while since I last dropped by on your blog. I like the new header!

    Good to see S’pore from another point of view.
    I love the cute little shops!

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    • Hi Sila! It’s been forever since you were here the last time. I still remember your Dieng post years later I still haven’t got the chance to visit it. Ha! 🙂
      There are always things to see beyond the usual places that we’re all so familiar with. Thanks!

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  7. Bama, a popular vernacular joke refers to the presence of Indians and Chinese on the moon long before Armstrong set foot there 🙂
    I doubt I have read a better account of the cultural history of Singapore. Peranakan cuisine looks and sounds amazing. James and you have pushed Singapore significantly higher on my list 🙂

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    • Haha, that’s kind of true, isn’t it? 🙂 Probably Chinese and Indian communities can be found in almost every corner of the world.
      Madhu, that’s really kind of you to say. Thank you! When it comes to food, Indonesian Peranakan dishes have now become staples for the people throughout the nation. From street food to fancy cuisine, now I realize how profound their legacies have intertwined with Indonesian native food. Singapore is indeed a nice stop should you explore this part of of the world one day.

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  8. agil says:

    Amazing photos and the story mas Bama. As always! Just waiting for your photos and how you describe Mecca and Medina. Hahahaha hope it will be on your another destination list 🙂

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  9. Absolutely fascinating history ~ so happy to have learned about this, and could not agree more that Chinese and Indian influences are found everywhere around the globe (and such a strong and significant presence), but in SE Asia perhaps is their influence felt the most. Wonderful photos to go along with your wonderful words…

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    • I was, too, deeply fascinated by their influence particularly in Southeast Asian cultures. China and India were both where some of the world’s oldest and most intriguing civilizations and empires flourished anyway, so their rich heritage is palpable across the globe even today. Thank you very much, Randall!

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      • The history of India, China and Persian history is incredible, back when the rest of the world was tribal they flourished and set the scene for where the world is today. Fascinating stuff…

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      • Ah yes, Persian culture and history have been so captivating since I learned about them years ago. Persepolis is one of the places I want to visit the most in the world.

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      • Go before it opens up to the western world. 🙂 I heard that people who went to Myanmar recently saw dramatic changes in the country. Iran might experience the same thing.

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      • I agree, to see it now along with talking with the people would give insight that will change down the road. Could not agree more. I think I will shoot for end of ’15. Thanks for push 🙂

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      • My pleasure! Your readers can expect some great photographs from you in a year’s time, or a little more. 🙂

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    • Hi Shabrina. Thank you for dropping by! As one blogger mentioned that Indians and Chinese had set foot on the moon long before Neil Armstrong made that historic step. 🙂

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  10. hahahaaaa.. eeeiihhh.. it‘s not merely true. yes i did read that book, but bcz it s a compulsory book to be disscussed at Bahasa Indonesia subject :p
    even we had a mini theater in the end of the semester for its story.
    guest who did i act to be…?! 😀

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    • Well, I haven’t read the book so I have no clue on the characters. Anyway, I’m still impressed. 🙂

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  11. This post is great! Sometimes it takes the story of a rich culture to remind us how full of life our lives can be! Also- I now have a great desire to visit Joo Chiat, and have a hankering for several foods I can’t pronounce. Good job sir! Also- your pics are great! What camera do you use?!

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    • And that is exactly the reason why I travel and share the stories on my blog: to remind people how full of life our lives can be. Thank you for such a thoughtful comment! I use a Canon EOS 500D, also known as Rebel T1i.

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  12. These pictures are absolutely amazing! I love seeming how all the different cultures of the world have blended together. Every country and person is so interconnected and it is fascinating to learn about the ways that this changes everything from our food to our architecture.

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    • Thank you! Learning how different cultures mixed and created such unique cultural fusion makes us think why, of all the similarities we share, the world can’t live in peace. But as bloggers we have the privilege to convey this message to others, don’t we?

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