The Peranakan community is a remarkable and prosperous force in Singapore, faithful to the Old World’s colourful traditions and legendary culture, yet driving the future of the ultra-modern Asian city-state.
There are no ethnic connotations in the term Peranakan, although most Peranakans in Singapore are descendants of Chinese traders. Peranakan simply means “locally born” in Malay and reflects an era hundreds of years ago when traders settled down in Southeast Asia by starting families with local women. Their descendants are called Peranakan — they’re also known in Singapore as “Baba-Nyonya.” The word baba refers to men, and nyonya refers to women.
Today the Peranakan community is known for generous contributions to the Singaporean arts and culture scene and incredible cuisine, which has become a staple of the Singaporean culinary experience — and for the ornate, colourful Peranakan shop houses that make Western buildings look dull by comparison.
While Peranakans carefully preserve their crafts, customs and old traditions as vital parts of their rich cultural heritage, they’ve always had an eye toward the future. Ever since the early settlers began arriving in Singapore, Peranakans have been assiduous learners, eagerly absorbing other ways of life, styles, cultures and even religious beliefs. Peranakans have proved to be a forward-thinking and even daring community, often pushing boundaries in their adaptation of other cultures.
The exhibition Amek Gambar: Peranakans and Photography at the Peranakan Museum in Singapore showcases rare, early photographs that offer a fascinating glimpse of how the world first viewed Asia through its Peranakan community. Old images of Peranakans in Singapore reveal that they were some of the first people in Asia to wear Western clothes, and some were even cross-dressing as early as the 1920s.
Peranakan Design and Architecture
Early Peranakans’ impeccable taste wasn’t limited to fashion and clothing. Every piece of Peranakan home decor bears the stamp of elaborate craftsmanship and intricate design. Visit Katong Antique House (by appointment only) in the district of Katong to admire little treasures on display — including intricately embroidered seat cushions, porcelain cups, tiled wallpapers and furniture in an eye-popping range of designs.
Katong is also home to some picturesque Peranakan shophouses. From exquisite interior design to bright and vibrant exteriors, Koon Seng Road in Joo Chiat is lined with beautifully restored multicoloured Peranakan shophouse-style houses. People actually live there, so you can’t come in, but there is no shortage of photo opportunities, and the peaceful neighbourhood makes for a nice reprieve from the general hustle and bustle of Singapore.
Heavenly Nyonya Food
Peranakan or Nyonya (sometimes spelt Nonya) cuisine is revered in Singapore. Nyonya is a respectful term for a woman for Peranakan Chinese, and the terms Peranakan and Nyonya are used interchangeably in relation to food.
Whatever one calls it, the cuisine’s mix of ancestral spices and local ingredients (as well as their sheer multitude) creates exceptionally flavourful dishes that are unlike anything else. Fast food it isn’t — Nyonya dishes are complex and can take hours, and sometimes days, to prepare properly.
“Nonya cooking is an amalgamation of Chinese with Malay and Indonesian cuisines,” says Michelin Guide, “resulting in an exhilarating combination of all things tangy, spicy, herbal and aromatic.” There are seven Michelin-recommended Peranakan restaurants in Singapore.
One of the most quintessential Perankan foods is kueh, small, often brightly coloured dessert that come in great variety. Coconut milk, pandan egg custard, glutinous rice, palm sugar and banana leaves are common ingredients in these uniquely beautiful sweets. Peranakan Khek and Lek Lim Nonya Cake Confectionery are among the more popular kueh destinations.
If you only have time for one Nyonya dish, try Laksa. In Singapore, Laksa is a spicy, coconut-laden noodle soup, which may sound simple, but the word “soup” is where the simplicity ends. While the exact recipes of this rich Peranakan signature dish vary from one chef to another, it’s made from scratch with more than two dozen fresh ingredients. The resulting dish is almost overwhelmingly scrumptious, with bold and exotic flavours that you’ll remember long after you leave Singapore.
From food to furniture, experiencing the riches of Singapore’s Peranakan community is an essential part of any visit to this fascinating city-state. And there’s nowhere better to immerse yourself in the aesthetics of this culture than InterContinental Singapore, which sits in the historically significant Bugis district a short walk from the Peranakan Museum. It includes the Heritage Wing with 65 guest rooms and suites with Peranakan shophouse decor preserved from the 1920s. The rooms and suites feature ornate furniture, flowery prints and wooden jalousie windows, and evoke memories of a bygone era and the Peranakans who made this area their home.
To experience even more Peranakan culture during your visit, consider InterContinental Singapore’s concierge services. InterContinental staff can share their favorite local destinations, as well as the best local food, drink and events happening during your stay.