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They arrived in Southeast Asia, built fortunes and kept secrets

Now Peranakan descendants are trying to preserve a rich culture

The unique Peranakan aesthetic can be seen in fashion, food, architecture, tableware and accessories. (Photo by Yoshiyuki Tamai)

It was during the 15th and 16th centuries that men from China's Fujian and Guangdong regions emigrated to a new world opening up along the Strait of Malacca. Some dreamed of striking it rich as traders. Others were merely looking to escape poverty or to flee after experiencing crop failures.

It was the time of the Ming and Qing dynasties, and women were forbidden from leaving China. So the migrants set up house with wives from the Malay Peninsula, or from the islands of Sumatra or Java. Their mixed-race descendants, born and raised under the bright tropical sun, eventually gave rise to a unique culture, neither Chinese nor Malay, that is noted for its appreciation of bright colors and beauty.

Hundreds of years later, in the 19th century, the descendants of these people honed new business skills by teaming up with Great Britain's East India Company to trade in spices, mine tin and cultivate rubber. Others built fortunes in the opium market or the slave trade, though their modern-day heirs don't talk a great deal about where their wealth came from, leaving some parts of this community's history sealed.

Alvin Yapp and his family sit down to a meal of traditional dishes that are neither Chinese nor Malay. (Photo by Yoshiyuki Tamai)

Intrigued, the Nikkei Asian Review made its way around Singapore, Penang and Malacca to talk to these heirs. We thought, perhaps, we might overhear a secret or two.

Unique roots

When he was around 12, Alvin Yapp began to realize that he was somehow different from his friends.

In Singapore, there are three main ethnic groups -- Chinese, Malay and Indian. Judging by his facial features and the color of his skin, Yapp appeared Chinese. Yet, at his home a quirky, unique version of the Malay language was spoken.

Alvin Yapp's sister sews patterns with beeds using a technique handed down generation to generation. (Photo by Yoshiyuki Tamai)

In the kitchen, his mother used an abundance of exotic spices and tree nuts. Numerous Malay dishes -- not Chinese -- would make their way to the table. Why? For answers, the young Yapp went to his grandfather and father, who ran a factory. But neither seemed to be aware that they were any different from other ethnic Chinese.

The mystery would remain unsolved until Yapp chanced upon a pastel-colored pot at an antique store. He was told the piece came from the Peranakan, a word meaning "locally born" in the Malay tongue. Did it not have the same coloring as the plates and lunchboxes in his own home? Indeed it did.

"I am Peranakan," he realized.

Yapp would go on to study history and travel throughout Southeast Asia in search of his roots. For 30 years now, he has been on the lookout for more antiquities and sundries that whisper "made by Peranakan." He has found so many that he has transformed his home into a museum of sorts, with no end to the stream of overseas visitors dropping by for a look.

We cast our eyes toward a wooden cupboard. The sturdy construction is English, but it is finished with engravings and inlays that make use of Chinese techniques. Pineapples melting into the landscape are a delight. Parrots from the South fit casually into the scenery.

Yapp takes his sandals into his hands. The footwear has the feel of traditional Chinese needlework, but very small glass beads are tightly sewn in. They are imports from the Czech Republic and draw from the Bohemian tradition. 

This crypt is decorated as a Chinese opera house to beckon the spirits of previous generations. (Photo by Yoshiyuki Tamai)

The sandals are at once vivid and delicate. The story of how the Czech Republic came to produce ornate sandals that are in tune with a sense of beauty shared by many in Asia goes back to the 17th century. Back then, the Anglo-Dutch advance into Southeast Asia made a swath of the Malay Peninsula the center of trade between East and West.

As traders, the "Straits-born Chinese" were able to indulge their taste for beauty -- a sense that they perhaps picked up right there in Southeast Asia.

Embroidery writer Raymond Wong hints at this when he cites "the bright light right on the equator," which is barely south of where the Peranakan settled. Can warmer climes enhance one's appreciation for aesthetics? Did not Van Gogh produce his greatest works in southern France? Did not Gauguin do the same in Tahiti?

Victor Lim, who sells decorative tiles, had his first Peranakan awakening when he was a high school student. His sense of beauty had been aroused. Singapore in the 1980s was enjoying rapid economic growth, and historic buildings were being torn down in the name of redevelopment. For some reason, he was drawn to tiles that gleamed amid the rubble.

Although the designs were British, the tiles turned out to be Japanese, from the Meiji and Taisho eras. This became evident upon close inspection. Seals carved into the tiles were from the likes of Nagoya's Fujimiyaki Tile Works, Awaji Island's Danto Tile and Tajimi's Nihon Tile. The collection became 100 pieces, than 1,000 and now possibly tens of thousands.

Lim, in fact, has become something of a tile merchant.

"I had lost my job," Lim remembers, "and the tiles were stacked in my room. With nothing else to do, I decided to sell them." He arbitrarily decided what ones were rare and set prices accordingly. They all brought in a pretty profit since they cost him nothing to find. Hobbyists and tourists alike take an interest in them.

Lim was 50 when he first started making money off his collection. Perhaps this was his second awakening -- his Peranakan salesmanship had been kindled.

Retaining the good old days

Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father and former prime minister of Singapore, was a Peranakan, though he avoided mention of this. Call it a political calculation. He would not want to be seen as coming from a tribe that aided the British. Nor would he want to be seen enjoying a life of luxury. He was trying to win the support of the poverty-stricken masses.

Walking in the world of the Peranakan, old layers of history unexpectedly unroll. Take, for instance, the "classes" of Southeast Asian society, which can be difficult to see from the outside.

There were probably no more than several hundred East India Company employees residing in the region. There was no way the company could conduct all of its Asian trade with British citizens alone.

Transports crisscrossed the lands and seas. Negotiations were conducted in multiple languages. Workers who flowed in from the continent had to be directed. It is likely the Peranakan, who had previously put down roots in the region, carried out this work and provided support from the shadows.

Malacca businesswoman Datin Paduka Tan Siok Choo is the head of a family that traces its roots back to the 18th century. (Photo by Yoshiyuki Tamai)

Vestiges of upper-class society remain in the old Malaysian capital of Malacca. There, on Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, a famed street in the old city, we visited businesswoman Datin Paduka Tan Siok Choo. Tan is the head of an old family that traces its genealogy back to the era of Dutch rule in the 18th century.

Early in the 20th century, her family became wealthy off its rubber plantations as the Ford Model T went into mass production in the U.S. and demand for tires exploded globally. The businesswoman's grandfather received the title of "Sir" from Great Britain, and her father served as Malaysia's finance minister for 15 years.

She rarely opens the doors to her home. It has become a quiet sanctuary where the memories of her father and grandfather dwell. It is a place to honor her ancestors who came from across the seas.

Tan lives quietly in a home filled with reminders of her father, grandfather and their forebears. (Photo by Yoshiyuki Tamai)

A crab apple tree planted by her great-grandfather is now 134 years old. It drops its fruit onto the courtyard. One, then a second came down with a soft thud during our visit, earning a reply from our hostess. Every time she hears that sound, she said, she feels "the age of the Peranakan has been engraved."

Other descendants are reminding the world of the Peranakan's heyday. On the same street as Tan's quiet memorial is another home that bustles with sightseers.

It is the birthplace of Henry Chan, an 83-year-old architect. Any number of maids and cooks work there. Although it is a house full of memories to him, he and his brother decided to open it to the public when his father passed away 30 years ago. The two wanted to preserve unchanged his golden lifestyle, and charging an admission to sightseers has helped them do just that.

Chan believes there will be no more ages in which people intermingle and come up with new values. In Malaysia, a mostly Muslim country, cultures do not fuse; people cannot marry outside their religion. The modern Peranakan is at a "dead end," he said.

Henry Chan, an 83-year-old architect in Malacca, hopes to preserve a reminder of a golden age he believes will never return. (Photo by Yoshiyuki Tamai)

On Penang Island, at the northern end of the Strait of Malacca, is a site that seems to have foreseen the end  of the Peranakan's heyday. Next to a manager's mansion where opium used to be bought, sold and used is an expansive structure with an altar that holds nameplates of deceased family members. This crypt is shaped like a theater so as to invite the spirits of those buried there to gather and enjoy Chinese opera. The decorations are loud and colorful. They yearn for a past and a foreign land that the inheritors of vast wealth never knew.

The site itself remains silent.

"For just one brief act in history," Peter Wee said as he pondered Peranakan culture and the next generation, "we congregated to this land and shone like fireworks. And now is the age when we are dismantled and beautifully fade away."

Chan decided to open his house to the public as a memorial hall when his father passed away 30 years ago. (Photo by Yoshiyuki Tamai)

Where old Peranakan ways thrive today

"What drives me to do this business is very personal: I want to evoke my grandma's beautiful world. That's all."

Chris Ong was talking about the boutique hotel he manages in the old Penang city of George Town. He says 1975 was the turning point for his family. Saigon had fallen, and Chinese society in Southeast Asia trembled in fear that a wave of communism would sweep over the Malay Peninsula.

Ong's father, a merchant, made the decision to disperse the family. His children and parts of the family fortune would take up residence in countries around the world. Ong, then 15, found himself at a boarding school in Australia. He had no understanding of why.

He ended up staying in Australia, finding success in investment banking and becoming well known. When he returned to George Town 10 years ago, his heart was pained at the sight of his aged father. The family shop house, built in the terraced style of the Peranakan, was in shambles and overrun with weeds. Until that instant, he had considered himself an Australian, but there, for the first time, he felt that "I became a Peranakan."

He now lives in what he calls the Shophouse, a traditional terraced building that is narrow across the front and deep front-to-back. Inside the house are collections of Peranakan pottery, tableware, clothing and art. All of the 10 or more rooms are filled with antiques, save for a workshop where Ong does repairs and restorations.

Chris Ong returned to Penang 10 years ago after growing up and making his fortune in Australia. (Photo by Yasu Ota)

Ong began collecting because he was enraptured by the beauty of the old objects.

"This is my next project," he said, showing us a tattered wooden basket. He explained that the basket was a tool for protecting food from insects. It likely dates back to the early 20th century. Ong plans to polish and reinforce it so that it can again be used.

Ong has also put a lot of himself into his boutique hotel, Seven Terraces. He drafted his own blueprints, poured his own money into it, diligently rebuilt the place back up from ruins and filled it with antique furniture and tableware that he gathered from around the world. The kitchen uses Ong's own recipes and serves creative Peranakan cuisine. The inn has become a destination in and of itself, and is difficult to book during peak travel seasons.

Just like his forebears, Ong has built a thriving business that indulges in the beautiful and caters to numerous nationalities and cultures. His success, he says with a humble shrug, "has nothing to do with Peranakan."

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