To many Malaysians, Peranakan has come to be shorthand for delicious spicy cuisine, traditional rosewood furniture and the elaborate kebaya dress.
In short, Peranakan (meaning locally born) is seen as an interesting fusion culture arising from the assimilation of migrant Chinese communities with the Malays over many generations, often through intermarriage.
But as I found out, there are really many different types of Peranakan communities in Malaysia.
The best-known ones are, of course, those of Malacca and Penang – the descendants of Chinese migrants who intermarried with the local Malay community, and adopted their lifestyle and culture.
But this time, I also had the chance to listen to the stories of the Peranakan Chinese in Terengganu, and the Peranakan Jawi of Penang who are the descendants of Muslim traders who married the local Malays.
It’s only in recent years that these lesser-known Peranakan communities have become better known, thanks to their own efforts to promote their culture.
Sometimes, the differences are really quite slight, noticeable only to the expert, but the pride that these communities take in their culture is heart-warming, especially in Malaysia of today.
As race rhetoric is increasingly used to divide people for political reasons, many Malaysians in Peninsular Malaysia have begun to refuse to be identified by race. In extreme cases, it’s even regarded as offensive to ask the ethnic identity of a person.
Hence, it was quite refreshing to listen to the obvious pride which the Peranakan communities take in their culture and ethnic heritage.
They do not see the need to bury their heritage under the label ‘Malaysian’ for harmony to prosper and thrive.
In Kuala Terengganu, I learnt about how the tiny Chinese community preserved their close ties with the majority Malay community, even in these politically testy times. I tasted the local Peranakan cuisine that made excellent use of the fresh seafood caught off the shores of this East Coast state, and can recommend the local version of the crab cakes.
In Penang, I learnt about how the Straits Muslims played a significant role in the early development of this island, and saw some of few traditional Malay houses that survive within the heritage enclave.
There is really such remarkable diversity in Malaysia. Even within the rigid ethnic categories of Chinese, Indian and Malay that are used in officialdom, there is such great variety.
The Peranakan communities are a prime example of this.