Letters from the Dragonlands: ‘Peranakan’ and the Resurrection of Asia

Opinion by Aysha Kureishi
July 21, 2011, 12:31 a.m.

Letters from the Dragonlands: ‘Peranakan’ and the Resurrection of AsiaSometimes you don’t have to get voted off the island to get away from the chaos and stress. In Singapore, jumping into the car and driving up to Malaysia for the weekend is often the perfect mini-vacation to rejuvenate, spend some quality time with family and feel like you’ve gotten a million miles away from all the kiasu hustle-bustle. Especially when little pockets of magic and adventure are a mere three hours away from your writing desk…

I discovered the word peranakan while searching for a good restaurant where I could experience some unusual cuisine. Since then, I have learned that it is so much more than just unusual cuisine: when I try to pin down exactly what peranakan is, teal porcelain, wooden birdcages and rose jelly spring to mind. I find exotic spices on the tip of my tongue, delicate silks spun by my hand motions and an unusual language burning in my throat. My fingers touch wooden boxes carved with the finest detail; the aromas of fruity tea swirl up my nose; my eyes are inundated with colors and patterns from a different time and world.

But all this still fails to capture the peranakan essence. Perhaps that’s because peranakan is something intangible to us in the modern era; the very name suggests something out of reach and lost long ago.

Peranakan is a word used by both Malaysians and Indonesians to mean “descendant.” It generally refers to the Chinese ancestors who migrated south to Malaysia and then across the sea to Indonesia and represents a culture and a spirit that survived through hundreds of years of European domination, provincial wars and a brief spell of Japanese conquest. Now, when something is peranakan, it is quaint, exotic, antique and very precious to the Asian soul.

So last weekend, my family and I drove up in our car, pondering the treasures that lay ahead. My father’s mind wandered to ancient manuscripts written in Baba Malay (the language of the peranakans), my mother’s mind teemed with the thought of spices and exotic recipes and my sister’s musical imagination buzzed with the thought of discovering a whole new musical history. My own peranakan vision was one of batik silks, tea trays painted soft pink and teal, and little sparkling chests inlaid with golden filigree. But when we finally arrived in Malacca, we all glanced at one another with the same thought circling: how in heaven did we manage, in three hours, to drive to Portugal?

Letters from the Dragonlands: ‘Peranakan’ and the Resurrection of Asia
Portuguese-style riverfront houses (Courtesy of Aysha Kureishi)

The European influence from the 15th and 16th centuries is still very evident in Malacca. Looming over the city like a distant cousin of the Parisian Notre Dame is the neo-gothic Church of St. Francis Xavier. The white houses line up perfectly next to the city’s lazy river in an enthusiastic nod to Lisbon, and the Jambatan Old Bus Station Bridge could have been plucked straight from the southernmost tip of Moorish Spain.

But what tells us immediately that we’re not in Portugal is the unmistakable Asian buzz. There is excitement in the air – you can smell it in the fruit stand on the corner, hear it in the din from the market next door, taste it in the dust on your tongue. It’s evident everywhere: something is happening.

Like a secret that no one is supposed to know, the phrase “Asia is rising” is spreading all around the world in a whispered wildfire. But there are few who realize that this isn’t the whole truth. “Asia is rising” implies a dormant continent slowly stirring and shaking the slumber out of its oriental eyes and getting ready to open the window for a whole new era of economic prosperity and cultural pride. But if you travelled back in time a few hundred years to just before the European colonists arrived in Asia, you’d see a shockingly different picture.

Europe, a predominantly agrarian society that was slowly recovering from the plague, was poor compared to Asia, which was then a complex network of merchant trading routes stretching from the Middle East up along the Silk Road to Imperial China and down through the flourishing peninsulas and archipelagos of Southeast Asia and Indonesia. The Atlantic Ocean seemed unconquerable by those explorers in Europe, but South Indian merchants dominated the Indian Ocean in a furious trade of spices, silks and gold. So what happened? Why are we now all awed at Asia’s stunning “rise”?

Letters from the Dragonlands: ‘Peranakan’ and the Resurrection of Asia
Jambatan Old Bus Station Bridge (Courtesy of Aysha Kureishi)

Economist Angus Maddison has a simple answer: the Europeans came and, in a determined effort to gain capital, prosper and rise as the leaders of the world, took advantage of Asia in a mixture of exploitation, corruption and gunboat diplomacy. At the fall of the Roman Empire, Asia held almost 80 percent of the world’s collective GDP. By Marco Polo’s trips to Asia in the 13th and 14th centuries and the European rediscovery of the Americas soon after, Asia’s portion of the world’s GDP had decreased to approximately 65 percent. A few hundred years later, during Europe’s industrial revolution and the peak of colonization, this figure plummeted to 30 percent. Aggression, brute force and duplicity conquered Asia. The raw exploitation that followed resulted in the rapid impoverishment of Asia and the rise of Europe.


But Asia fought back. Countless revolutions and countless lives later, Asian independence rang clear in the turmoil of economic gain. And now, slowly recovering, Asia is standing up. This is not Asia’s rise. It is her resurrection.

The triumph of Asia comes bursting through the wooden boxes and birdcages. The sheer magnificence of culture and history is inundating the rest of the world in an awesome display of art and color. The world is responding by eagerly reaching for something intangible, inexplicable and yet downright beautiful. It is a miracle that under the boots of colonization, the Asian spirit has remained unbroken.

This is one of the many things that make Malacca remarkable. Though one cannot deny the pronounced Portuguese influence, the combined Southeast Asian cultures that created what is known as peranakan glimmers through. The simple yet complex perfumes of spices and oils speak so much deeper than the unavoidable Iberian murals on the river. The trinkets and antique cupboards lining the streets glow brighter than the Portuguese-style houses behind them. Everywhere you look, you see pieces of peranakan joining together to block out the European influence. Like ivy slowly creeping around, across and through a brick wall, the culture of Asia is slowly but surely coming through.

In Malacca, we found the restful holiday we were looking for. But we also discovered the peranakan — a culture and a history so vivid and so intricately woven it seems to belong in the storybook of the gods.

Have a different take on Asia’s resurrection? Fill Aysha in at ayshak ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Hi I'm Aysha Kureishi. I'm a freelancer. I love writing and sharing my experience around internet. Right now I'm working at https://thejediverse.com

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