Ask anyone in Malaysia and they will tell you Penang is different; Penang is “China”. This is because Penang’s majority population is Chinese, which is on par with the nation’s ethnic majority, the Malays.
Most Penang Chinese originally hail from Fujian and Guangdong province in southern China, who came to work in the tin mines and rubber plantations in the late 18th and early 19th century. Even today, on every street corner, you will find an association or a guild where these migrants would have registered themselves upon arriving on its shores, in search of jobs.
Prior to the mining and trading industry, Pulau Pinang was a the sleepy town, content in its association of being called the “isle of betel nut”. But it was Francis Light, a captain in the Royal Navy, who saw the potential in the island’s strategic location to compete with the Dutch and Portuguese trade hegemony in the region. He leased the island from the Sultan of Kedah, renaming it Prince of Wales Island, and its capital George Town, after King George III.
The opening up of the trade route by the British East India Company attracted many traders and labourers from far and wide. It also led to Britain’s expansion into Southeast Asia which included British Malaya, Borneo and Burma.
The seafaring menfolk came alone, and ended up marrying the locals. They adopted the Malay way of life, borrowed the Javanese sarong kebaya, converted to Islam, Buddhism and Christianity, attended English schools and allied themselves with the British, yet maintaining their paternal traditions of ancestor worshiping and celebrating festivals such as Chinese New Year and Deepavali.
These were the Peranakans or otherwise known as the Babas and Nyonyas.
While the majority of Peranakans belong to the Chinese community, called Peranakan Cina (Chinese intermarrying local women), there are other minor Peranakan communities such as the Chittys (the Tamil speaking Hindu men intermarrying Chinese, Malay, Indonesia and local Indians), Jawi Peranakan (Arab men marrying local women) and Eurasian Peranakans or the Kristangs.
This amazing synthesis of two or more cultures is perhaps Malaysia’s most fascinating export that can also be found in Singapore and other parts of Asia such as Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Burma.
The Peranakans in Penang are very different from their cousins in Malacca and Singapore. Here, they speak Hokkein dialect intermixed with Malay and English words, while those from Malacca or Singapore speak Malay intermixed with Hokkien and English.
Penang’s fiery curries are made using tamarind broth and herbs (somewhat similar to Thai food), unlike the Malay versions that are tempered with coconut milk. Considering the proximity to Thailand, the Penang Peranakans also have Siamese heritage among them, which is not so common in Malacca and Singapore.
By the late 19th and early 20th century, the Peranakans had become wealthy and were considered elites in a society. This was exhibited via their eclectic architecture, association with a clan or elite clubs and living in large villas, a marked upgrade from the humble shophouses.
In Penang, we can see examples of their lifestyle in Blue House and Pinang Peranakan Mansion that are filled with blackwood Chinese furniture with mother-of-pearl inlay, family altars, Cherki tables, crystal stemware, porcelain vases and ceramic ware, as well as Nyonya cultural aspects such as beaded slippers, embroidered bed spreads, wedding gifts and intricate Intan jewellery.
These elegantly decorated houses portray the social class and political status of a Peranakan Cina in their heydays. The owners of these houses owned rubber plantations and tin mines – one of the oldest industries in Perak and Selangor (to which Royal Selangor owes its origins) – and employed newly arriving Chinese migrants to work on their estates.
One such person was Kapitan China Chung Keng Quee who became the richest man in Perak in the 19th century. Although not a Baba himself, his courtyard mansion with displays of wealth and opulence provides a glimpse into the lifestyle of wealthy merchants.
Following the Japanese occupation, these houses fell into disrepair. After decades of neglect, Penang Peranakan Mansion was restored to its former glory and now open to visitors.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of George Town has several other gems that celebrate its glorious past. But what truly gives it its real character is the wonderful mix of ethnicities, cultures, languages, religions and the legacies they have created that make Penang a celebration of the present.
For pictures of Penang Peranakan Mansion and other places of interest, please view my Penang gallery on Pinterest.