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In Australia, a new generation of Peranakans find a way back to their roots

MELBOURNE: Glenda Chi remembers the morning she could not recall the taste of her Peranakan grandmother’s curry.

“I panicked,” said the Malacca-born 48-year-old, who moved to Melbourne with her family when she was 14 years old. “I went to look at recipe books. I started calling Mum.”

Then Glenda, recipe in hand, went to buy the ingredients needed to make the dish. “Before long I had the keroncong music going on, and the whole house smelled like my grandmother’s kitchen,” she said. “I felt like, ‘Phew, the memory’s still there.’”

Like many immigrants, Glenda’s cultural identity — as a nyonya — had taken a back seat as she immersed herself in her adopted home. “At that time, I was looking forward to living a new life,” she said.

“The Peranakan thing wasn’t in the forefront of my mind. It was more about a whole new lifestyle and settling here in Australia and becoming Australians.”

After arriving in the city in 1990, they had virtually no contact with other Peranakans for 18 years, except when they visited Malaysia.

Within their Melbourne home, Peranakan antiques — from delicate porcelains to hand-carved wooden furniture — and Soo’s cooking kept them connected to their cultural heritage.

But outside, they were simply another family of Asian immigrants finding their place in a new country. “(Our culture) had to take a back seat,” said Alfred, 85. “We (had) to adopt the new culture because we were in a new place.”

All that changed thanks to the kebaya, the ubiquitous blouse worn by women across Southeast Asia and adopted as traditional Peranakan dress.

“Like you don’t speak Malay, and so … you’re not ‘Peranakan enough’, or you didn’t tumbuk (pound) sambal in your mother’s kitchen when you were a kid,” said the 38-year-old.

Migration made her think more deeply about her identity: In Melbourne, she was often asked where she was from.

“I’d say Singapore, and they’re like, ‘Oh, what does that mean?’ or like, ‘Are you Chinese?’ And then I tell them, ‘Well, actually, I’m Peranakan,’” said Deborah.

James Seow, who moved from Singapore to Australia in 2010, also feels freer to explore his Peranakan heritage on his own terms as a migrant.

“In a way, there’s no baggage, no close … familial expectations of (how) I celebrate my identity and the rituals and festivals,” he said. “The food that we eat or we cook might be a little bit different, but does it make it any less Peranakan?”

Glenda opined: “It doesn’t make you less Peranakan if you don’t dance or sing or speak the language or take part in the traditional practices. It’s because being Peranakan is about identifying with the culture. … There’s the spirit of Peranakan that we live out.”

In May, Glenda and the PAA organised a showcase of Peranakan culture at Melbourne’s Museum of Chinese Australian History to celebrate the association’s 15th anniversary and bring their culture to a bigger audience.

James agreed, noting that the Peranakan story is one of “migration and integration”.

“The question would be: How can we celebrate that spirit in a way that includes other people?” he said. “It’s not just about celebrating our heritage, it’s also about understanding other cultures and creating that space for dialogue.”

Older PAA members like Margaret recognise the need for change and are proud of their roles as “wikipedias” for a new generation of Peranakans in Australia.

“The culture should evolve. It won’t die off, but it might look like something else,” said Margaret, who wears a kebaya and sarong to church every week. “My grandchildren will be called Peranakan possums because they’ll be born in Australia.”

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