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Crazy rich Peranakans

Peranakan shophouses
Crazy rich Peranakans

The word Peranakan is mentioned many times in the Crazy Rich Asian trilogy of books but is a term most Americans are not familiar with. Discovering the history and culture behind this small but influential ethnic group is one of the fascinating aspects of a trip to Singapore. 

Peranakans are descendants of the migrant Chinese workers who traveled to the Malay Peninsula during the colonial era between the 15th and 17th centuries and intermarried with local Malayan women.  A female Peranakan is known as ‘nonya’ and a male is ‘baba’, but Peranakan lineage only follows the male.

Peranakans share links with the Chinese and Malay cultures, but the imported customs, cuisine and even the decoration of their beautiful crockery have been customized and adapted to suit their life in Southeast Asia.

Former home of many members of the wealthy Peranakan community, Emerald Hill is located just off famous shopping thoroughfare Orchard Road. Emerald Hill Road was laid out in 1901 and construction of the Peranakan-style shophouses began shortly afterward. Terrace houses built between 1901 and 1925 feature Chinese Baroque architecture, and today the area remains an upscale neighborhood, and locals and visitors flock there to chill out at the various trendy bars.

Peranakan cuisine combines Chinese, Malay and other influences into a unique blend.  Peranakan food is made with a range of indigenous herbs and spices. Employing chilies, belachan (spicy prawn paste) and coconut milk as vital ingredients, wok cooking techniques of the Chinese and spices used by the Malay community produce deliciously aromatic and spicy dishes.

Dress was a significant form of cultural and individual expression for the Peranakans. Apart from a whole repertoire of exquisite ornaments, jewelry and intricately beaded footwear, beautiful nonya kebayas, a traditional blouse-dress combination of intricate costume embroidery, are famous.
The Peranakan legacy is best showcased in the Katong and Joo Chiat districts which are dotted by colorful shophouses and homes that are adorned by sculpted facades of animal reliefs and hand-crafted ceramic tiles. Visitors can choose from several restaurants to sample Peranakan cuisine, one being Kim Choo Kueh Chang, which is also a small boutique selling clothing and other goods. The Intan museum, owned by Alvin Yapp,  is the best place to visit to learn more about Peranakan culture.

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