- Eclectic Cultures For All: The Development of the Peranakan Performing, Visual and Material Arts in Penang by Tan Sooi Beng
An extremely interesting and informative publication on a special cultural group in Malaysia, this book takes the reader through just over 100 years of Peranakan (Straits Chinese) culture focusing mainly on the island of Penang. As author of four chapters and general editor, ethnomusicologist Tan Sooi Beng initially introduces the book by noting the dynamics of the Peranakan group from the early twentieth century to the present time. Artist and art educator author Grace Choong Ai May relates sociocultural changes in the costumes (attire), jewellery, other accessories and hair styles of these peoples from the late 1900s to 1960, while the last two chapters on cosmopolitanism in early twentieth-century Peranakan art in Malaysia and Singapore, and modern art from the 1980s to 2017 are engagingly given by art historian and author Sarena Abdullah. One compact disc (CD, approximately 18:30 minutes) accompanies the book providing a visual documentary on costumes, artworks and performing arts of the Chinese Peranakan and gives the reader a look at the vibrant colours found in their clothing, art works, jewellery, ceramics and other items.
The reader's journey into Peranakan culture begins with an introduction to the structure of the book as a whole, and to the terms central to it, namely Peranakan, Baba, Nyonya and Straits Chinese who were local-born descendants of Hokkien traders from South China who settled in the Southeast Asian region from Yangon to Singapore from approximately the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries. A distinction is noted between the Peranakan upper class Straits Chinese community and the [End Page 184] Chinese peoples who settled in Malaysia later in the nineteenth–early twentieth centuries and were thought of as 'new-comers' (sinkeh). The time frame for this book is the early twentieth century to the present times with in-depth coverage on the cultures of the two groups of Chinese peoples, the trade networks of the Straits Chinese in the Southeast Asian northern littoral, the adoption by the Peranakan group of Western attire and education under the influence of the British and, also, the absorption by the Peranakans of many aspects of local elements native to Southeast Asia including Malay language, food, clothing and aspects of the performing and visual arts.
The following two chapters focus on Peranakan activities mainly in Penang, noting cosmopolitan festivals and performances such as Chap Goh Meh, Phor Tor Hungry Ghost festival, Pek Kong pageant, elaborate wedding ceremonies (with CD demo), and the adoption and emergence of the ever-popular Malay musical theatre bangsawan (also scenes and music on CD). Various Straits Chinese-owned bangsawan troupes emerged providing very cosmopolitan and multilingual amateur theatre with music accompaniment by Malay ronggeng ensembles and with men performing all roles in the early years (including cross-dressers since it was not appropriate for Nyonya women to appear on stage until much later in the twentieth century). The year 1919 saw the first troupe of Penang Baba Bangsawan; this and other groups performed musical shows often for fundraising to help the less fortunate. The early twentieth century also saw benevolent multicultural minstrel parties with string bands and the development of the dondang sayang repartee singing of pantun (poetry), keroncong instrumental music groups, and modern popular dance music and jazz throughout the post-WWII years. An economic recession in the late 1930s saw a decline of Peranakan culture followed by WWII and the Japanese occupation of Malaya until 1945. However, a turning point in the late 1940s signalled the revival of bangsawan groups, European ballroom dancing, and the establishment of the Dondang Sayang Club of Penang (1954). By the late 1980s the Baba conventions inspired the Peranakan to revive their performing arts and culture, including the creation of Baba Hokkien rhymes created to pass down values and customs (an oral rendition...