When you mention peranakan nyonya, many people would imagine a lady wearing a colourful embroidered kebaya with kerosangs who lived in a big mansion full of elaborately decorated furnitures. She would normally spent her time making beaded sandals. Such imagery is perpetuated by media, for example a local Singapore TV show called the ‘Little Nyonya’ depicts most of the peranakan ladies characters in the story complete with their regalias; sarong, kebaya, kerosangs and all. Did all real nyonya wear kebaya? How did real nyonya lead their life? Were they all about grinding rempah and making sandals? The peranakan culture that are often represented in the media were not always valid everywhere even perhaps within Singapore. The media imagery of peranakan are the imagery of the elites urban peranakan society of Singapore. The media is of course only perpetuating the peranakan conception that has been widely accepted.
In Southeast Asian region, some peranakan societies notably Peranakan Chinese of Singapore and those of Malaysian peninsula towns like Penang and Malacca enjoys relatively significant public and government support in term of acknowledgement, preservation and showcasing of their culture. The Peranakan of Singapore in particular has their own museum which is under the wings of National Heritage Board Museum. Being probably the only significant peranakan themed museum in SE Asia, the Peranakan Museum (which is a popular tourists attraction) holds a significant role in shaping public understanding of the culture, not only in Singapore but also in SE Asia and beyond. The museum that is said to be a platform for exploring Peranakan culture of former Strait Settlement of Singapore, Malacca and Penang also makes mention of other peranakan community namely the Eurasian, Indian and the Arabs (an apparent effort to be politically correct)that exist in those regions. It is obvious however that the museum is meant to showcase the Peranakan Chinese culture, to be precise, of the elites of Singapore. The museum actively organizing a variety of Peranakan themed exhibitions and activities which covers many aspect the peranakan lifes such as food, wedding celebrations, jewelleries and lately collaborating with the Peranakan Association of Singapore staging a Peranakan themed play.
In Indonesia, in contrast, apart from some sporadic showcasings of Peranakan culture initiated by private entities, individuals or some grassroots Peranakan leaders, the peranakan is hardly noticeable in the public eyes. In the academic spheres, the Peranakan culture fares better as we have several Indonesian Chinese specialists, to mention among others; Myra Sidharta, Mely G. Tan and Leo Suryadinata, who have continuously researched and published their works on various topic on the Peranakan lifes such as politics and literatures. In Indonesia, their works however remain largely for the consumption of academic minded group . Indonesia is lacking of strong Peranakan public figures like the flamboyan- bon vivant Dick Lee or charismatic Peter Wee (both from Singapore) to promote the Peranakan culture in a very accessible manner to public.
In nation level, political and economical reasons play a big part in such lack of representation and support. Politically, the Chinese of Indonesia which is the minority ethnic group of Indonesia has always been in an awkward term with the government even since colonial period. Considered as nuisance by the Dutch, the Chinese was considered as problematic group who, together with the Arabs, were classified as Foreign Orientals and were put in a ghetto to avoid assimilation with the Natives. During Suharto era, the Chinese were expected to keep their heads low, any public expressions of Chineseness such as religious celebrations or cultural performances were banned. Under the new regimes, the Chinese have noticeably enjoyed more cultural accommodations. It is still a long way to go until they can have a total freedom of cultural expression without being seen as an elitist group. In term of economical reasons, the situation is not at all unique to Indonesia and its peranakan culture. In developing countries where preservation of cultural heritage in general rarely makes its way inside government’s agenda, it is no surprise that Peranakan culture which is a culture of the minority in SE Asia hardly received any attention. It is expected that a more supported and probably more ‘pampered’ peranakan society from a more developed country in SE Asia, thus Singapore, takes the lead (almost uncontested) in representing the ‘peranakan society’ to the world. It is somewhat likely for Singapore to represent what are known best to their context and what are most accessible to them, that is, their own Peranakan culture and its material culture. There is a short coming of course in such tendency as Singapore Peranakan represent only a small part of the whole peranakan society in SE Asia. The Peranakan Chinese culture is probably as heterogeneous as the SE Asian culture which is consisted of many ethnic group.
The Peranakan Museum of Singapore has a greater responsibility in representing the peranakan culture in more comprehensive manners. For example, Peranakan culture is not only about the urban elites and their way of life. The peranakan society took roots not only in the urban areas but also in the rural areas. It is interesting to see how these Peranakan live and to see how it’s different from their urban counterpart. From a feminist point of view, the museum has also to come out of their stereotyping of Peranakan ladies as a merely a sarong wearing ladies and rempah grinding matriarches. It has to be able to provide a more rounded understanding of the Peranakan ladies beyond the domestic sphere.
This entry kicks start a series of short article on Peranakan Chinese of Bandung and Bekasi which is more of a family reflection. The peranakan of Bandung and of Bekasi in the 21st century as in other peranakan societies in Southeast Asian regions, was a complex society who was exposed to many other cultures namely the local Native culture, other foreign cultures (European or others) and as well mainland Chinese culture. I would argue that no peranakan culture is the same everywhere in SE Asia regions, as it is forged through different path of social and political history and by myriad of different cultures. In Indonesia The Peranakan Chinese culture is probably as heterogeneous as the native Indonesian culture which is consisted in many ethnic group.
Within one area, the way one peranakan family lived might differ from another. The peranakan of Bandung in the early 20th century for example, was mostly originated from many other town in the Priangan region and West Java. Many came from surrounding towns such as Cirebon, Sukabumi, Cianjur, Bogor, Malalengka. These peranakan Chinese are mostly characterised as urban peranakan. The peranakan of Bekasi in the other hand are mostly characterised as rural peranakan. Bekasi was an area in which many private estate lands from the particuliere landerijen were located. Many peranakan Chinese were involved in a wide spectrum of agricultural activities from being a land tenant to the landlords themselves.
These articles are meant to tell a story how some Peranakan families lived.
The articles will attempt to touch upon these subjects; profession, public life, wedding, funeral, food, language.