Peranakan Tsinoys?

I went to the Peranakan museum because of the local play Emily of Emerald Hill. They don’t do the play there but they have an interesting exhibit about it. The subtitle of the play was the one that really caught my attention, “Singaporean Identity on Stage”. I thought it bold. Defining something so complex as national identity. But they do here. For them, their mix ancestry is part of their identity.

Peranakans are the descendants of 15th and 16th century “traders from all over the ancient world that came to exchange their goods for the exotic products of this region (SE Asia). Many of them only stayed for a short while, but some ended up marrying local wives and remained in South East Asia.”Peranakan” means”born of”, from the root word “anak” which has the same meaning in our language. I wasn’t expecting to see the “tsinoy” (Filipino Chinese) to be part of this list but apparently they are. Now, that’s a surprise. It appears that the “tsinoy” falls right into their definition of a Peranakan.

The facade of the old Mandarin school now a wonderful museum dedicated to Peranakan culture and history.

I discovered that there are several types of Peranakan across SE Asia, they’re called: the Chitty (Indian Hindu), the Eurasians, the Jawi Pekan (Indian Muslims) and the Peranakan (generally used to describe all Chinese descendants of immigrants that married local South East Asians).

The Filipino-Chinese are relatively small in relation to the Malaysian and Indo Peranakan communities but by their definition the Chino mestizo is a Peranakan.

The entire museum used to be a School for Mandarin.

There’s a lady in the window! Like the “Tsinoy” the Peranakan improved their status by amassing wealth. They’ve become influential and were known for their civil contributions during the English years. Some of the well known philanthropist and officials back in the day were Peranakans. They’re educated and became proponent of educating their countrymen.

A museum cat immortalized in bronze.

The Chinese “came annually for the purposes of commerce, and those who had long been residents” according to historian Fray Martin de Zuniga. They learned not only to do business in the country but raise their family according to local traditions. Chinese converts are among the most zealous religious. Active in propagating the Catholic religion (as in the case of Ruiz and Pinpin) and helping built art and structures in service of it. They not only carried out evangelization and church building under the auspices of the Spanish friars but were sent to missions abroad. Some of the most revered icons in the church were made by these people. Unfortunately, most of them has remained nameless.

Their kitchen resembles that of our old kitchens. Old stone houses have this format but in a much smaller scale. I usually don’t take photos inside a  museum but I felt I had to record this replica of their old kitchen. Which is a combination of European and Asian style. Nick Joaquin commenting on Chinese influence on local architecture said, “blending together of those two (Chinese and Spanish Philippines) influences was what produced Philippine architecture, as can be seen in those old churches where Chinese and Spanish motifs are juxtaposed in a purely Philippine harmony”. What’s Filipino then, like the Peranakan of Singapore, is that marrying of culture and not what was not touched by those people who came to the land. But the trouble is that we’ve always had problem dealing with our mix ancestral heritage. Our orthodox history for one is written to condition young Filipinos that their real identity remains that of the prehispanic age. What’s forgotten is that the societal conditions the Spanish imposed was the germ that became our identity.

A traditional Peranakan dress. Which possibly made its way to the country but never took of because the Friars made sure that converted immigrants embrace local and religious traditions. This one are worn for special occasions. The Chinese in the Philippines has traded and likely settled in Manila even before the Spaniards came. But it was when the Galleon trade was at its peak that they started to settle in huge numbers. The historian Phelan wrote, “so large was the Chinese colony that in the early 1580’s it was assigned a separate quarter… located within range of the guns of Manila’s fortress”. While they sat and occupied their place in Manila, the religious worked their way, converting these people to the state religion. And they accomplished what they were set out to do. By the 19th century, the descendants of those Chinese traders had little knowledge of their ancient culture. Rizal, whose father was pure Chinese, would be slighted when referred to as Chinese. Around this time people were already recognizing their unique identity separate from that of the Spanish, Malay or Chinese.

It’s tricky and complicated to define identity because there are several factors that needs to be considered. Whenever someone does, that person always gets in trouble. While many say it’s impossible, a fruitless pursuit to validate, it’s undeniable that we long to understand who were our ancestors and how similar are we to them. I feel that we search for identity because we long to dignify our existence. Often, I have questions in my mind, like, if looking into these historical origins is even productive or am I just adding layers to what is already a complicated and confusing subject. While we may not easily understand our past because of its sheer complexity and intricacy, because history is not easy and will never be, I content myself in the belief that it’s still worthy of study and thought.

Gōng xǐ fā cái everyone.


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