Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Yen Ching-hwang 颜清湟

Professor Yen Ching-hwang

Yen Ching-hwang was born in 1937 in Yongchun, Fujian to Gan Cheong Choo also known as Yen Chang-shu (颜章枢). Gan Cheong Choo (1912-1984) came to Malaya in 1940s to seek his fortune and was a successful merchant. Yen Ching-hwang is married and has three sons and a daughter. 

Yen Ching-hwang was educated at the Confucian Chinese School, Kuala Lumpur and graduated from the Nanyang University of Singapore in 1960. In March 1965, he secured a post-doctoral scholarship from the Australian government and attached to the Far Eastern History Department of the Australian National University. 

He completed his graduate studies in 1969 and became lecturer of history in University of Adelaide. He was then promoted to senior lecturer in 1976 and Reader (Professorship) in 1987, respectively. In May 1988, Yen Ching-hwang was appointed to the Chair Professor of History and Head of Department at the Hongkong University and relinquished the post in 1990.

Yen Ching-hwang is affiliated with the Tan Lark Sye Professor at the Centre for Chinese Language and Culture, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore. He is also an Adjunct Reader (Professor) of School of History and Politics at the University of Adelaide.

Yen Ching-hwang is an active researcher and writer, majoring in the overseas Chinese studies. He has published numerous books and journals in both English and Chinese. In which all his works are highly sought-after in the academia. 

Yen Ching-hwang's international affiliation includes executive committee member of the International Society for the Study of Chinese Overseas at the University of California (1993-1999). A corresponding member of the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies (1993-2006), adviser to the Overseas Chinese Encyclopaedic Project based at the Peking University (1994-2003), member of the Board of International Advisers in the Journal of Chinese Overseas (2005-present), Organizing Committee Chairman for the 12th International Conference of the International Association of Historians of Asia at Hongkong University (1989-1990), adviser to the Society of Overseas Chinese History of Guangdong province of the Institute of Overseas Chinese Studies, Jinan University, and to the Sino-Humanitas (Renwen Zhongguo Xuebao) of the Baptist University of Hong Kong.

Apart from academic pursuits, he also concerned in the social welfare of the Chinese community in Australia. In 1971, together with Edmond Young (杨日文) and Joyce Ho (何国光) they founded the Chinese Association of South Australia. Yen Ching-hwang is also an appointed member to Australian government committees, such as the Police-Ethnic Liaison Committee of South Australia (1980-1986) and Multi-Cultural Education Coordinating Committee (1982-1985) and South Australian Multicultural Forum. From 1987 to 1988, he was appointed as a member of Immigration Review Panel under the Ministry of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs.

The Yen family

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

The Origin of Peranakan in Straits Settlements


Peranakan is a conjugated word adopted from Indonesian or Malay. The Kamus Dewan, a standard Malay language dictionary defines Peranakan as 'keturunan anak negeri dengan orang asing' meaning the descendants of the intermarriage between indigenous people with foreigners. Few more perusals on the dictionary found the word Peranakan is associated with the words Baba and Nyonya. The dictionary explains Baba as male descendant of Peranakan and Nyonya is the female term. 

However, the word Peranakan as a household vocabulary did not appear as often as Baba and Nyonya in the colonial records during the imperialism. One of the earliest Malay dictionary published in 1896 provides the definition of Peranakan as "a native of." The word also surfaced in the publications run by the Straits Chinese such as a Malay-English bilingual newspaper, Surat Khabar Peranakan (Straits Chinese Herald) in February 1894, and the Straits Chinese Magazine running in between 1897 until 1907. After the First World War, a pro-colonial newspaper, Bintang Peranakan was established in 1930. 

The rise of the word Peranakan appeared in 1960s, when the then Straits Chinese British Association (SCBA) in Singapore changed its name to Singapore Chinese Peranakan Association and later to Peranakan Association Singapore on 23 February 1966. SCBA was inaugurated on 17 August 1900 with Tan Jiak Kim as its first president. On 25 September 1900, a Malacca branch was established, headed by Lee Keng Liat. The Penang wing was emerged in 1920 led by Quah Beng Kee. Their existence were very much respected by the Colonial Government. In 1857, they were given seats in the Municipal Council and were known for their loyalty inclined to the British imperialism. By 1930s they were appointed into the Legislative Council (the highest governing body in the Straits Settlements).

Also see China and her Overseas People

The early members of SCBA in 1900
Source: Song, Ong Siang. (1923). One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore. London: John Murray
Tchan Chun Fook posting with the SCBA regalia
Source: Song, Ong Siang. (1923). One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore. London: John Murray

Towards the end of the British imperialism, this community is serious and committed in promoting its cultural identity. In 1987, the first Baba Convention was held in Penang, this convention was primarily to disseminate the body of knowledge on the Peranakan culture and history to the public at large. However, its presence came to zenith owing very much to Endoon Mahmood, wife of the former Malaysian Prime Minister. Endoon was publicly known for her admiration towards traditional fabric art, in which she vigorously promoted the Peranakan fashion at international platform through various fashion walkways including authoring the "The Nyonya Kebaya: Century of Straits Chinese Costume." The presence of the Peranakan community in Malaysia is further rectified and consolidated when Malacca and Penang were jointly recognized as World Heritage Site for Cultural Heritage in 2008. Thus, placing them as part of international community. 

In the past, the future of the Peranakan was often questioned will it be expanding or shrinking, the answer during that time was sobering. Many young Peranakan descendants are distancing from knowing their roots. They could not tell what defines their community in a convincing tone. This topic, "The Origin of Peranakan in Straits Settlements", intends to provide an explanation of the famous words Baba and Nyonya.

The Status of Peranakan

Peranakan were Straits-born Chinese recognized following with the enactment of Naturalization Act 1852. It is often confused and diffused by contemporary historians that Straits-born Chinese is equivalent to Peranakan. This is however, untrue. As discussed earlier, the Peranakan were descendants of the Chinese immigrants through their union with the indigenous people. Thus, it is appropriate to say that the Peranakan were Straits Chinese, but not all Straits Chinese were Peranakan. 

The confusion on this classification is merely because the word Peranakan was not commonly used in the Straits Settlements. Official colonial records often refer them as Straits Chinese due to their status of Straits-born. In Melaka and Singapore, this community is popularly known as Baba Nyonya.

Also see What constitute a Straits Chinese?

The Baba & Nyonya

Baba is a loan-word from Sanskrit meaning master. The word was later adopted into the Malay vocabulary for father (bapa). The word Baba also refer to a father (Ah Pa) in Fujianese dialect. The word Baba was recorded in one of the earliest Malay dictionary as shown in the figure below:
Definition of Baba
Source: Swettenham, Frank A. (1896). Vocabulary of the English and Malay Languages with Notes Volume 2. London: W.B. Whittingham. (p. 7)

In Indonesia, the word Bapa is still used to allude someone who is senior, or similarly to what is usually called Sir in English.

However, dismissing the meaning, this word was preferably used by the Peranakan as their pre-nominal title to distinguish their identity from the new immigrants. Wealthy mercantile community in Singapore with long family history in the colonies, such as Tan Kim Ching preferred to be referred as Baba Kim Cheng. However, the use of this title might be disputable, this is because, in Penang the word 'Che' or meaning Mister (a short form derived from the Malay word Inche/Enche/Encik) was widely used in the early colonial documents in referring to the old Chinese settlers in Kedah and Penang (such as Cheah Yeam = Che Yeam, Khoo Poh = Che Poh, Koh Lay Huan = Che Wan). 

Based on the discussion, it is appropriate to conclude that the word Baba is originated from the Malay. This is because, the use of Baba as pre-nominal title by the early Peranakan community in Malacca and Singapore has a similar usage as in Indonesia referring to the elders and respected community leaders. This argument is considered valid based on the study on locality. The location of Malacca and Singapore near to Indonesia has a role in developing the Peranakan patois, in which heavily Malay influenced (probably due to the business engagement). Unlike in Penang, the Peranakan patois retains many of its Chinese elements (Fujian) and distinctly differed to the Peranakan patois in Malacca and Singapore. The Penang Peranakan speaks Fujian-Malay creole, in which still evident until today.
A Nyonya mistaken to be Malay woman during 19th century
Source: The Science & Society Picture Library
Courtesy: Royal Photographic Society, London

Nyonya or Nonia is a combination of the Chinese words Neo + Nya. Neo is an honorific title reserved for woman from a descent family, and Nya meaning lady or married woman. As time lapsed, these two words amalgamated to form the word Nyonya.

Unlike Baba, the use of Neo is very significant to a Peranakan woman. When a Nyonya died, the word Neo will be added at the end of her name in the tombstone as a mark of respect to her lineage and background. During the lifetime of a Nyonya they will be saluted either as Nyonya or abbreviated as Ah Nya, and if she is older, it will be called as Ah Nya Chi (meaning elder sister).

Although, Western accounts claim that the word Nyonya is taken from the Portuguese's dona meaning Miss or housewife. This claim is unacceptable. This is because, a Nyonya is without a doubt of Chinese origin, and there is already an explanation from the Chinese as mentioned earlier. On the other hand, it is illogical for a Chinese family to use a European title in their household, especially the Chinese custom and tradition during the early time were still reserved.  

Western Descriptions

The earliest descriptions on Nyonya was in 1865 by J.T. Thomson. They were referred as beautifully elegant with good social demeanor and very much respected in the community. However, Thomson provides a disgraced sketch that these early Nyonyas were engaged in prostitution, many were kept as mistress for the Europeans settlers in Penang.

In 1907, A. Wright provides an elaborate interiors of the Straits Chinese as depicted:
"Amongst the Chinese of Malaya the social conditions are, generally speaking, similar in broad outline to those obtaining in China; but in regard to domestic arrangements many of the Straits-born Chinese are assimilating as far as their means permit, European ideas. As in China, the family life is developed rather than the social life. These is no system of formal calls, and what interchange of courtesies there is takes place between ladies and ladies and between gentlemen and gentlemen. It is in the home circle that the Chinese delight, and they set the highest value upon modesty, morality, and character in its members." 
The sketch provided by Wright suggesting that the Straits Chinese were already reached the climax in exercising their own free-will. The instances whereby, the Straits Chinese men were crazed with European automobiles, wearing European attire, drinking wine and whisky, playing polo, travelling to Europe, some went further by cutting their tochang (queue). And their women were indulged with European furniture and accessories, some with open-minded family will receive home education. Not to mention is that many of the Straits Chinese were English educated at school and some received informal Chinese education at home. The utmost expression of their loyalty was publicly shown with the erection of Queen Victoria memorials throughout the Straits Settlements.  


Before the conquer of the Europeans in Southeast Asia, the early Chinese exodus already accepted cultural assimilation with the local inhabitants, in order to survive. When Western colonization arrived, these overseas Chinese once again adapted their life with European influence. 

The year 1963 witnesses the end of the British Empire in Southeast Asia, the Straits Settlements were amalgamated once again in the formation of Malaysia. The Peranakan realized they can no longer rely on the imperial. They were then socially and politically emancipated. Backed with their social experience and influence, wealth and education settings, many of them turned Malaysia as an opportunity to revive their former glory in which very much respected. 

Today, the fast-growing modern age Southeast Asia is associated with its eagerness to become the world economic giants. Its surging development has demarcated the social engagements, partly ignored the cultural heritage, particularly the Peranakan. 

Although the early Peranakan came from a different world to today's Peranakan, but they left the imprint just as clearly for the appreciation in early cultural identity. It is clear that without them, Singapore and Malaysia will never had begun a remarkable journey, enriched with affluent, vibrant and cosmopolitan society. It is vital for the younger generation, particularly the descendants of Peranakan to be able to embrace and define their own roots with pride and honour, just as how their forefathers did. 

I would like to end this article by quoting a passage by Lee Kuan Yew:
"Unless you know where you came from; unless you know what your ancestors had been through. You have no reference point. What makes us different from, say the Thais, or the Filipinos, or the Sri Lankans? The difference is, how we came here and how we developed, and that requires a sense of history."
  1. Khor, Neil Jin Keong. (2003, 3 November). Networking Among the Straits Chinese. Penang: The Star Newspaper (pp. Heritage 12-13)
  2. Moore, Wendy Khadijah. Malaysia A Pictorial History: 1400 - 2004. Kuala Lumpur: Archipelago Press (p. 153)
  3. Noresah Baharom et al. (Eds.). (1996). Kamus Dewan (3rd Ed.). Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa & Pusaka. (p. 41)
  4. Song, Ong Siang. (1923). One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore. London: John Murray
  5. Swettenham, Frank, A. (1896). Vocabulary of the English and Malay Languages with Notes Volume 2. London: W.B. Whittingham. (pp. 7 & 84)
  6. Thomson, John Turnbull. (1865). Some Glimpses into Life in the Far East. London: Richardson & Co. (pp. 194-200)
  7. Whitlam, John et al. (2002). Oxford Portuguese Minidictionary (Revised Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (p. 87)
  8. Wright, Arnold. (1907). Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya: Its History, People, Commerce, Industries, and Resources. London: Lloyd’s Greater Britain Publishing Co., Ltd. (p. 202)
  9. Yong, C. F. (1992). Chinese Leadership and Power in Colonial Singapore. Singapore: Times Academic Press. (pp. 52-61)

Saturday, 20 July 2013

What constitute a Straits Chinese?

The term Straits Chinese is colloquially known in today as Peranakan. It was also less known as King’s Chinese or Queen’s Chinese. 

Ask any modern Peranakan, they would claim that they were products of the early Chinese immigrants whom married the local Malay women during the 15th to 16th century in the Malay Archipelagos, when Malacca was an enterprising entrepôt. This first wave of exodus gave birth to later known as the baba and nonia generation, some families could trace their lineage in Malaya for up to 10 generations.

A debatable question often appears, is Peranakan a new hybrid race such as the Eurasians? 

What constitute a Straits Chinese? is a discussion to provide a gist sketch on this so-called hybrid race. 

The term Straits Chinese appeared after a bill known as Indian Act XXX of 1852 (Naturalization) was enacted and passed in the Indian Council by the Governor-General of India on 16 July 1852. This Act was to distinguish the Straits-born populations and immigrants in the then Straits Settlements. It was a local naturalization in the British dominions by providing the status of natural born British subject by naturalization. Section VIII of the Act further explained that the rights, privileges and capacities shall be granted as for a British subject. 

The enactment of the law did not mention of the criteria that a person should marry a local inhabitant in order to attain the citizenship status. However, the imperative emphasise was on a person must be born within the British dominion and shall be deemed a natural born British subject. 

Although being protected by the law, many of these Straits Chinese regarded themselves as the Sons of the Soil. Their claim was based on the history setting that their forefathers married local Malay women. Thus, they were flowing the Malay blood, and being able to speak the lingua franca of the region. Such thought had created a social lacuna seen as a form of discrimination. Whereby the new Chinese immigrants whom came later were labelled as sinkeh (new arrival). In fact, the Straits Chinese families were already well-acquainted with the Malay rulers in business affairs. It was said that Lim Leng Cheak and Choong Cheng Kean were frequent visitors to the Kedah Royal Court. They gained a very long-term rice monopoly in the state, in which made them immune from business rivals. Apart from that Chee Yam Chuan in Malacca was a close ally to the Selangor royalties, one of his sons was given concession rights in tin mining in Selangor and were often invited for a Malay function (kenduri). 

The officials in the Straits Settlements whom were then under the East India Company had vague understanding on the different ethnicity of Chinese based on their locality, dialect, and ancestry in China. This confusion was often appeared in the early government records. When the Naturalization Act was enforced, the early Straits Chinese whom received the privilege of being British subjects were actually the Chinese of Fujian origin. Many of them were entrusted by the British, and were licensees for trading gun powder and artilleries in Penang and Singapore. They also acted as intermediaries and English translators for the British officials and sinkeh. This was one of the reasons the clan associations were setup. 

The early founding fathers of Penang and Singapore were aware that in order for the island to become the centre of regional trades and a symbol of British trading empire to sustain, it needs to be more than just a pit stop between India and China. Hence, they reluctantly introduced free trade policy in the island to attract merchants from the hinterland. The benefit of free trade was to trade freely without having to pay taxes to the government. However, free trade policy generated very little income for the government to run the state machineries and expenditures as the population grows. A brink solution came, when the government introduced a plan to raise revenues through concessionaire. Whereby, the rights to supply all sorts of trades and commodities were licensed and auctioned off to the highest bidder, known as farmer. These government syndicates or popularly known as revenue farms were operated by the secret societies comprised from different Chinese clans. The principal farmer will then lease the products to the government licensed sub-farms. 

The trades include opium, spirit (liquor), rice, prostitution, gambling, pawnbroking, mining, plantation, and etc. The letting was a lucrative revenue to the government that opium farm alone worth five to six million dollars year, an amount accumulated from the Straits Settlements inclusive of the Malay States. In the later explanation, the colonial government denied that the introduction of the opium farm was to raise the state revenue but rather to control and limit the sale of opium.

The population of sinkeh in the Straits Settlements increased steadily in the mid of 19th century. Thus pushing the Straits Chinese population to a small figure. However, the Straits Chinese still played a prominent role in the political circle (many of them were given seats in the Executive and Legislative Councils). In fact, the practise of Straits Chinese whom in their early time married the local Malay women was no longer in favour. Decent women with good family background in China were taken as spouses. Hence, cutting the ties of Chinese and Malay blood relations. 

When the society grew to be more affluent, vibrant and cosmopolitan, many rich-to rags sinkeh preferred to have family members from the local prominent bred, thus the Straits Chinese were the source to cater such demands. This was probably to elevate the social status of the sinkeh whom could take this advantage to call themselves and their issues as Straits Chinese. This sinkeh whom married Straits Chinese cannot be defined as pure Straits Chinese. They were merely a physical imitation of the opulent Straits Chinese culture and lifestyle in which had been inherited for so many generations.

Although there was no union with the local Malay women. The Straits Chinese still instilled strong sentiment to their assimilated culture in their so-called domiciles in the Straits Settlements. Many of them were born in the colonies and had never visited China and almost forgotten their ancestry. Some even refused to claim their Chinese origin. They were Western educated and spoke in English and Malay, dined mostly Malay cuisine with Chinese culinary style, and their women dressed accordingly to the Malay fashion. However, one thing remained intact was that they still prayed and honoured their ancestors in high esteem and decorum demeanour. 

The establishment of the Straits Chinese British Association (SCBA) in Singapore and Malacca in 1900 and Penang in 1920, was an evidence of the Straits Chinese’s loyalty pledged to the British Empire.

The prominent roles of the Straits Chinese were denigrated and subjugated after the end of the Japanese Occupation. Their family wealth were almost drained. New line-up rich-to-rags sinkeh gradually mushroomed. 

In late 1956, when Malaya was moving towards nationhood, the President of SCBA, Heah Joo Seang of Penang presented a petition on behalf of the Straits Chinese (whom later called themselves as Queen’s Chinese) to Her Majesty’s Government in London. The petition expressed the intention of the “Queen’s Chinese” to retain their British nationality and special protected rights after Malaya gained independent. Unfortunately, there was no reply from London. 

The formulation of the Malaysian's Federal Constitution had dismissed the mention of the Straits Chinese as indigenous people. According to Article 160 (2) of Malaysian's Federal Constitution, a Malay is defined as, "... a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay custom and - (a) was before Merdeka Day born in the Federation or in Singapore or born of parents one of whom was born in the Federation or in Singapore, or is on that day domiciled in the Federation or in Singapore, or (b) is the issue of such a person." The Straits Chinese may have fulfilled certain criteria as in Article 160, but not in the religion matter. Thus, they were omitted from enjoying the so-called equal rights with their Malay relatives.

Hitherto, the Straits Chinese still anticipate for the provision and recognition of their race in Malaysia. For instance, the Kelantan Chinese Peranakan Association imposed a requirement for its member to be able to trace a family lineage for up to three generations in the state. This is to prepare themselves to be identified as the local-people when one fine day, the government recognized their culture and existence. 

In the early time, the colonial practiced favouritism to the early Chinese immigrants. They offered economy monopoly, citizenship, political opportunity, the rights of education and etc. This is without a doubt inclined to the tendency of the Straits Chinese to think that they were part of the indigenous people and should enjoy the privilege as the Malays, due to their history background. 

The Straits Chinese assimilations to the local customs were so eminent, that were known as Chinese who could no longer speak their own language, but still professed their Chinese culture. In fact, the later social influx presented had questioned the authenticity of the Straits Chinese origin. Such as the union of Straits Chinese with the sinkeh. 

When Malaya gained independent, the rights of the Straits Chinese were not mentioned. As there was no provision for a race known as Straits Chinese, they were bemused to fit in which race; the Malay or the Chinese? If they opted for Malay, they were required to convert to Islam by law and become Muslims. And preferably known as Chinese Muslim rather than a Straits Chinese, this in which seems not the best practice. The closest relation they could tie on would be Chinese. Today many Straits Chinese encounter with the strong influence of Chinese culture and education. This so-called Chinese culture has changed the way of life of the Straits Chinese forever, in fact the term of this ethnic is now replaced by, Peranakan. 

Today, the definition of Peranakan is remained solely on one’s own thought rather in vetting the course of events throughout the history of imperialism. However, the story of Peranakan will forever remain as a classic reminiscence of its former glory. In which many has been embodied into academic studies.

Also see China and her Overseas People