S’pore nonya responds to BBC article on Peranakan culture and food

One has to be grateful for small blessings, I guess.

As a nonya or Peranakan woman, I am pleased that the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has published an entire article about my culture though I am gobsmacked that there are inaccuracies in it.

Written by Judith Kampfner, who was born in Singapore and spent a happy childhood here, she wrote about her rediscovery of nonya culture in the article titled ‘Nonya kueh: Wolfing down Singapore's wobbliest cake’.

Basically a love letter about her early Singapore memories, she contrasts the reactions of her first and second husbands to the culture, as well as to the delights of nonya food, which includes the colourful kueh lapis.

In so doing, she inadvertently introduced some inaccuracies.

They are not major, but surely an august news organisation such as the BBC would have someone checking, for example, if the word “Peranakan”, a basic brick to the piece, really means descendant.

Wikipedia may state it as thus, but to the Peranakans, it has always meant “local born”.

By far the oldest immigrants to this region, my husband’s Peranakan family count themselves the seventh generation to these parts.


It is therefore hardly true that they would be disadvantaged as she states: “Slowly, I realised that Peranakan culture, which used to be considered a disadvantaged background, was now chic.”

The Peranakans were the most advantaged of the immigrants to Singapore, Malacca and Penang, founded by the British.

The earliest settlers, they found themselves acting as the bridge (or compradores) to the colonial masters, immersing themselves in English culture and language.

Well-off Peranakans sent their children to boarding school in England, and the Singapore Chinese Girls School, an English school for girls, was founded in Singapore just to educate the little nonyas.

Indeed my maternal grandfather’s habit was to have a gin and tonic in the evenings before dinner, surely a British habit, and he loved his Guinness.


Anglophiles though they were, the Peranakans did adopt a lot of Malay customs and culture, thanks to intermarriage, though it is not exactly true that Chinese women were “not allowed” into the country, as Kampfner wrote.

Rather it was a habit for Chinese men to leave their hometowns to earn their living, but always with an eye to returning back home.

My paternal grandfather, for example, had a wife here, my grandmother, but also many other wives back home in China – something she rudely discovered when she went for a visit.

There were unexpected benefits to that trip, however. Speaking only Malay and English, she eventually learnt to read and write some Chinese, or Teochew to be specific.

The Malay culture emerged in language, dress and yes, food customs.


The kueh lapis that Kampfner loved originated from the Malays.

This was the steamed layered cake that children loved both for its colours – red, pink, green, blue and white, and never brown or yellow as Kampfner remembers it – and also for being able to peel away the layers to eat.

Furthermore, the cake was made with glutinous rice flour and perhaps sago and tapioca flours, with pandan and coconut milk enriching the whole. Kampfner found, beans, of all things, in her cake.

Curiously, she also called it a ladder cake – and eating it would be a ladder to prosperity – something I had never heard of by far.

Happily, it is now possible to buy kueh lapis in shops, which never used to be the case, as she said – you had to make it yourself – thanks to the spreading popularity of the cuisine.

Indeed, this is a cuisine, not easily found elsewhere.

And while there are Chinese restaurants everywhere, they do not serve nonya kueh, which is why I guess Kampfner went crazy for them when she came for a visit.


She is also right that there has been a resurgence of interest in all things Peranakan, not least due to the efforts of the active Peranakan Association, which has been wholeheartedly trying to involve even the younger members of the community to rediscover their roots.

They have an active calendar of events, including an upcoming Peranakan symposium that includes discussions on fashion, food, religion, language, craft and theatre on 19 and 20 April this year.

And while there is now an entire Peranakan museum devoted to the history and culture of the community, at least one previous curator dismissed the culture as too local and did not want to focus on it.

I do not know what changed his mind.

But it is clear that Singaporeans have finally discovered that this is a culture unique to themselves that they should appreciate and promote.

Kueh lapis aside, don't we all love our kebayas and laksa?

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