Emily: The Peranakan Inspiration

Part 4.1 of Drama in English from Singapore and Malaysia

Thiru Kandiah, PhD, formerly of the Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore

Adapted from Post-Colonial Literatures in English, ed. Rajeev S. Patke, 1998, by George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, NUS, 1998-99.

Let us start by looking at what has been widely seen as the major cultural source of Emily's compelling appeal to Singaporeans, namely its immersion in the Chinese Peranakan (or Baba) experience. The Chinese Peranakans were the products of the intermarriage between Chinese men (who migrated to the Straits of Malacca, beginning around the 16th century) and Southeast Asian women. They adapted versions of Malaya dress, cuisine, and language (Baba Malay, a Hokkien-influenced version of Malay), but nevertheless remained 'Chinese', retaining traditional Chinese customs and rituals (Pakir, 1991). Their multicultural nature was made even more mixed by their eager adoption of many of the habits and tastes of their colonial masters, the English. All this made the Peranakan experience appear the ideal candidate for iconicity in the Singapore of the 1980s, representing it emotionally, intellectually and imaginatively, as it were. This was a modernising Singapore, which was at the same time searching out its contemporary post-colonial identity through a conscious, and in fact official, consolidation of its historically-constituted multicultural realities (see Lo, 1992 in the Offprints Collection.

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