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Introducing traditional forms of entertainment in Peranakan culture

Nonyas in traditional nonya kebayas or costumes

Nonyas in traditional nonya kebayas or costumes


By Michelle Liew Tsui-Lin


Having been born, bred and raised in the smaller nation of Singapore has brought with it the benefit of being immersed in a very cosmopolitan environment. Singapore, indeed, is as hot a cultural melting pot as one can serve. Yes, our country does boast of an eclectic mix of cuisines, culture and entertainment.

To speak of culture, Singapore’s people are exposed to fused, and sometimes frenzied mixes of food and entertainment. Being Peranakan Chinese certainly entitles me to write about that sort of fusion.

The Peranakans are, by every account, a folk of piquant blend. Their cuisine incites curiosity and excitement. The Peranakans are a people that engage in culturally fascinating forms of music, dance and entertainment. The games they play, too, show the uniqueness of their culture.


Who are the Peranakans?

The Peranakans are a group of Chinese who settled on the Malay archipelago and adopted the Nusantara customs, or customs of the Indonesian Archipelago. Nusantara bears the meaning of Malay World.

The Peranakans, therefore, are ethnic Chinese who have incorporated Indonesian and Malay heritage. Their customs, while Chinese, have been infused with Indonesian or Malay influences.

Many of them settled in Malacca, along its straits and in Singapore. Mostly English educated, they served as middlemen to the British. The Chinese and Malay heritage of the early Peranakan settlers meant that they could speak two or more languages, though some lost their ability to speak Mandarin and became more fluent in Malay.

A little reverse trilingualism, as it were, is prevalent in these modern times.A third language, usually Malay, is now weaker for younger Peranakans. Being ethnic Chinese, we learn Mandarin as our Mother Tongue viz Singapore’s bilingual system of education. Malay and its dynamics is learned informally at home. My late grandfather used to chide me for not being able to speak Bahasa Melayu or Indonesia well enough!

Male Peranakans are known as Babas and the ladies, Nonyas. The culture has its many traditional customs and quirks, which I share in this article here.


What are typical forms of entertainment for the Peranakans?

The early Peranakans, having embraced Nusantara culture, also began to incorporate its forms of entertainment. The early Peranakan settlers loved their culture’s tailored forms of theatre, dance and poetry.


Chewing betel nut

On lazy days, the Peranakans loved to sit around chewing sireh or betel nut. The nuts were red and chewing them involved a bit of a mess. Chewing them would leave one’s mouth completely red.

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Many Peranakans used a tempat sireh for storing these betel leaves. It was cared in either silver or gold.


The Pantun

For early Peranakan settlers, the Pantun, or poetry in Malay, was an established form of entertainment. Many were drawn to these poems as they had much expression and sentimental value. Structurally and grammatically, they were the same as the pantuns performed by Malay Dongdang Sayang singers. When performed by Babas and Nonyas, the difference is in the pronunciation of the words.

A typical Malay, or Peranakan, Pantun is as follows:

Api api sepanjang pantai,

Nibung terlentang di Tanjung Tuju ,

Niat di hati jikalau sampai,

Apa mantek tentu tertumbuh

The verse translates to:

Lights flickering along the beach,

Huts on stilts on the Cape of Seven,

Full of passion I am when I reach it,

My dreams and Happy Destiny await me.


Dongdang Sayang

The Dondang Sayang

The Dondang Sayang, or the love ballad, was enjoyed by many of the early Peranakans. This was a romantic duet between a male and female singer who would exchange love pantun or poetry. It was popular at many Peranakan weddings and parties. Again, structurally, it is similar to the Dondang sayang performed by the Indonesians and Malays. When the Peranakan men and women perform it, remember that they are ethnic Chinese. They would have Chinese dialect influences on the Malay pronunciations of words.

A typical Dondang Sayang has six lines, sung interchangeably by the male and female singer in duet.

It usually looked like this.

Tingi, tingi rumah Chek Long Long,

Alangkah bisa ulair tedong,

Boleh kah di tangkap buat maen?

Tingi tingi rumah Chek Long,

Dibawahnya dijuair pokok,

Goa tak takot ulair tedong, krana goa uliar sendok.

It translates to:

Mr Long's house is very high

under it is a cloth shop,

Maybe there is a snake

which I can catch to play with.

Mister Long's home is very tall,

under it is a tree.

am not sacred of a little snake

as I am an even bigger snake than it is !!

Sadly, the knowledge of composing such verses is absent in modern Peranakan society.

Happily, the Dondang Sayang is performed annually at the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore. Besides pantun poetry, it also involves dance, or in Malay, Joget. The Joget dance movements are graceful and highly stylized, involving gentle swaying motions that go forwards and backwards.

My favorite would be Bengawan Solo, an older Indonesian tune that is a tribute to a popular river in Indonesia. As it represents the dreams of lovers, it is a popular dongdang sayang number. I have included a video of popular Malaysian artistes P Ramlee and Saloma performing the tune in the 1960s.

The Peranakan Wayang

In the 1910’s Wayang Peranakan, or Peranakan Theatre, gained immense popularity. Sharing simlilar elements with Shakespearean theatre, women were not allowed to perform onstage, as it was taboo for them to be artisans.

Men took on women’s roles. Though women are onstage these days, the role of the matriarch of the family is always given to men.

A Bengsawan troupe

A Bengsawan troupe

The Bengsawan

The popularity of theatre grew so immensely that many Peranakans began to form theatre groups to perform plays known as Bengsawans. So popular were these mobile plays that it was not possible to move anywhere in a hall without touching one’s neighbor.

The plays, mainly in Baba Malay, attracted a multi ethnic audience. They were so in love with Bengsawan that they were motivated to set up their own groups!

A winning Cheki combination of 3 red flowers.

A winning Cheki combination of 3 red flowers.

The Peranakans enjoyed traditional games as well. With no television in days of old, these games were great forms of entertainment for both adults and children.


This is a card game played with decks of 60 cards. It was popular among nonyas, or Peranakan ladies. The game is easy to play for those familiar with Malay terms used. Many of these ladies sold jewelry to have enough money to play the game, so popular it was. It is similar to the Chinese game of Mahjong.

2 packs of 60 cards each are required, so that each card is repeated 4 times. The cards are divided into three suits, Coins, Strings and Myriads. Each string has 9 value cards. Special cards are Red Flower, White Flower and Old Thousand.

2 to 6 players can take part. A dealer shuffles the cards and gets the player on the right to cut it. The player to the dealer’s left opens the game and takes his turn. The objective is to form 3 sets of 3 cards of the same value. The first player to do so is the winner.


How to play chongkak


Originally for children, the Peranakans adopted the game and made it their own.Considered a game for girls, it involved a chongkak board of 14 or 16 holes. Smaller holes where the “anak’ or “children” while the bigger holes were the “indung” or mother. Played by two girls, each would take an indung, situated at either end of the chongkak board, and try to fill it with as many crowlie shells as possible.

A total of 98 seeds is used. Each of the 14 “anak” or the little holes is filled with 7 seeds. The object of the game is for each player to move as many seeds as possible to their own ‘indung’ or store. The one with the most seeds is the winner.


The PeranAkan future is a classic, beautiful example of eclectic fusion. I hope that you have enjoyed my introduction to these forms of entertainment. Till the next write!



Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on October 18, 2013:

Thanks, DDE!

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on October 07, 2013:

Introducing traditional forms of entertainment in Peranakan culture a very interesting and informative hub on this unique title.

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on September 15, 2013:

Thanks, Islandbites!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on September 15, 2013:

Card games are wonderful bonding activities, Mary!

IslandBites from Puerto Rico on September 11, 2013:

Really interesting. I have no idea of the Peranakan culture.

Mary Craig from New York on September 11, 2013:

So interesting Michelle. It amazing how many things are similar in all cultures. For example, your betel nuts. When I was young pistachio nuts were red and my Mom, Grandmother and I would sit around the table shelling and eating them...when we were done our fingers and mouths were red. It must have been a dye since today's pistachios have no color.

Card games and board games used to be family affairs here too, once upon a time. My Mom and her friends used to play a game called Po-Ke-No, similar to Bingo. When our family got together to play there were lots of laughs and comradery.

Thank you for sharing part of your beautiful culture and bringing back some chidhood memories for me too!

Voted up, useful, awesome, and interersting. Pinned and shared too.

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on August 31, 2013:

Oh, you could have told me before! Could've played host. Thanks Meldz!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on August 31, 2013:

Thanks, girishpuri!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on August 31, 2013:

We should respect each other's culture indeed, kidscrafts!

ignugent17 on August 29, 2013:

I just visited Singapore for a stop over and I already admired the neatness of the place. Thanks for sharing the wonderful traditions and letting us see the beauty of your culture. :-)

Girish puri from NCR , INDIA on August 29, 2013:

Thanks for sharing your culture. God bless.

kidscrafts from Ottawa, Canada on August 25, 2013:

Thank you for sharing your culture, Michelle! Most interesting! I love to learn about different cultures; it brings a lot to understand others better!

When I was a teacher, I could have easily in one classroom kids coming from 10 to 15 different countries. One of the things I loved to do was having the students bring food specific of their country and share it with others. It's a way to learn, to exchange, to discover and respect.

Voted up and interesting!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on August 24, 2013:

Hey, Who! Glad to share!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on August 24, 2013:

Glad to share, lyricwriter!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on August 24, 2013:

They're a small minority, Janet. Glad to share!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on August 24, 2013:

You're welcome, Bill!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on August 24, 2013:

Thanks, J9!

whonunuwho from United States on August 24, 2013:

This was interesting and educational for me. Thank you much for sharing. whonu

Richard Ricky Hale from West Virginia on August 24, 2013:

Michelle, this was very interesting. I've never heard of them, but love learning new things. It's amazing how many different types of cultures can be found all across the world, well done. Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting, shared also.

Janet Giessl from Georgia country on August 23, 2013:

Very interesting to learn about your culture. I have never heard of the Peranakan culture so I could really learn something new. I have always been fascinated learning about different cultures. Wonderful hub!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 23, 2013:

I love learning about new cultures. Thank you for being my teacher. Very interesting information here.

Janine Huldie from New York, New York on August 23, 2013:

Thank you so much for sharing more about your culture here today and definitely sounds like a wonderful way of living. I loved hearing about all the games and such that originated from this culture and you should definitely be proud to be a part of. Have, of course, voted and shared, too!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on August 23, 2013:

An article on the entertainment of the Peranakans.

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