ASEAN Perspective

The Integration of Peranakans in Southeast Asian Society: Cultural Assimilation, Pluralism, or Multiculturalism?

Khansa Poetry Herdiana

Since the early 15th century, Chinese merchants have traveled through the straits of Southeast Asia in search of wealth; while doing so, they created a third culture which shaped Southeast Asian society. Chinese men took on local women as their wives and this was the start of the ‘Straits-Born Chinese’, or Peranakans, who are an amalgamation of the cultures they were surrounded by (Lee, 2020). Although it depends on the country Peranakans are raised in, these influences generally consist of Western, Chinese, and Indonesian/Malay cultures. These three pre-existing cultures fuse seamlessly as exemplified by Peranakan food. The ‘9-Layer Nyonya Kueh’ takes the concept of baking from the West, and combines Indonesia’s ‘Kueh Lapis’ with the significance of ‘9’ for longevity in Chinese (Foo, n.d.). Other aspects of Peranakan culture include their architecture, languages, and vibrant fashion. Despite how effortless Peranakan culture seems to have formed and thrived, it most likely didn’t emerge without any struggles. Hence why this article aims to identify the process that allowed Peranakans to be a recognised part of Southeast Asian society, or if this isn’t even the case, through acknowledging that Peranakan culture is practiced and viewed differently in the multiple countries it is present in. 

Historical Differences

There are noticeable differences when comparing Thailand with other countries because Peranakans mainly lived in Malacca, Penang, Singapore, Java, and Sumatra in their prime. When the tin industry flourished in the 19th century, Chinese and Peranakan men migrated from the Malay peninsula to the Andaman Cluster in Thailand, where they married local Thai women and created a new culture which integrated Chinese, Malay, Western, and Thai cultures (Poomduang et al., 2021). 

Around the same time, Chinese labourers migrated to Indonesia for economic reasons however, they experienced colonialism under the Dutch and were used to fulfill manpower to increase plantation products (Dahana, 2015). Similarly, when the British colonised the Malay peninsula and Singapore, they encouraged the Chinese to immigrate there to increase the labour force (Hardwick, 2008). As a result, the Peranakans grew in number as they engaged with local cultures and also became a significant part of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore’s colonial history. However, did this allow Peranakans to live among other cultures through cultural pluralism, multiculturalism, or assimilation? 

Definitions of Key Terms 

Assimilation refers to how migrants leave their own culture behind and adapt to the culture of the majority group to integrate into the new society. On the other hand, cultural pluralism is when ethnic groups preserve their cultural heritage while adapting to the society they relocate to by using the dominant language and adhering to their political and economic system (Kallen, 1924). After this concept developed in the early 20th century, multiculturalism emerged to reject the existence of a dominant culture, which pluralism accepted, and encouraged cultural diversity to be celebrated (Longley, 2020). 

Analysis of Cultural Integration

I believe there is no one true answer that reflects the extent to which Peranakan culture is recognised as part of local society across Southeast Asian countries. In Thailand, there is a decline in the retention of Peranakan heritage because of insufficient cultural identity correspondence and storytellers. The mixed race of Chinese, Malay, and local Thais don’t identify with the term ‘Peranakan’, merely because they don’t live in the straits. Although they have integrated successfully into Thai society, it came at the cost of their original culture as Skinner (1963) found that each generation of Chinese immigrants becomes more indistinguishable from their Chinese origin (Poomduang et al., 2021). Therefore, Thailand’s case can be classified as cultural assimilation since there is a decline of one culture for the adoption of another. 

The truth is quite the opposite for Singapore and Malaysia where Peranakan culture is visibly practiced. When British colonial rule brought an influx of economically vibrant China-born Chinese to Singapore and Malaysia, Peranakans felt that it was necessary to promote and preserve their culture, hence why Singapore established the ‘Straits Chinese British Association’ in August 1900. Other areas, such as Malacca and Kuala Lumpur followed on and established Peranakan associations for various reasons, e.g. the ‘Persatuan Peranakan Baba Nyonya Kuala Lumpur and Selangor’ was created for Peranakans who wanted to reconnect with and celebrate their cultural identity (Kim, 2009). The spirit of Peranakans doesn’t stop there, they’ve strived to conserve Peranakan architecture and food in Malaysian and Singaporean everyday life despite the threat of modernisation. These are cases of multiculturalism since there is no dominant culture in the societies and Peranakans can express their culture freely among other ethnic groups. 

In the middle of the spectrum, lies Indonesia, where Peranakans have lived for centuries in peace with other ethnic groups, yet are now cast under the shadow of other cultures. The distinguishing factor that sets Indonesia apart, is the Dutch policy which separated the Chinese from the native population by presenting the two groups with different employment opportunities, legal statuses, and regulations (Dahana, 2015). There was no distinction between Peranakans and China-born Chinese, which led to Peranakans slowly losing their cultural identity especially since the segregation policy was continued after independence, only until reforms were made a few decades ago. To this day, Peranakan culture is still alive in Indonesia, just not as significant as it is in Singapore or Malaysia due to cultural pluralism. Even though the Indonesian population consumes Peranakan cuisine, and practices cultural arts like the Barong dance, Peranakan culture is not given enough credit for these delights.


Each country that has been examined has its unique conditions and historical events which shaped Peranakan culture to be very diverse, yet also alike. This is portrayed through the languages they speak, e.g. Baba Malay, a creole of Bahasa Melayu with Hokkien influence, is spoken by Peranakans in Malaysia and Singapore, but in Indonesia and Thailand, Chinese dialects are used, such as Teochew, Hokkien, and Hainanese. Regardless of how well-preserved and recognised the culture is in any Southeast Asian country, we shouldn’t be hesitant to indulge in it by appreciating its flavourful cuisine, vivid shophouses, and many more of its heritage. At the end of the day, learning about Peranakan history is also learning about ASEAN’s history and the connections we share.


Dahana, A. (2015, February 18). INDONESIAN PERANAKAN CHINESE: THE ORIGINS AND THEIR CULTURE by Prof. A. Dahana. Binus University Faculty of Humanities. 

Foo, S. L. (n.d.). Who Are The Peranakans and What Are Their Traditions? Culturally. 

Hardwick, P. A. (2008). “Neither Fish nor Fowl”: Constructing Peranakan Identity in Colonial and Post-Colonial Singapore. Folklore Forum, 38(1). 

Kallen, H. M. (1924). Culture and Democracy in the United States. New York: Boni and Liveright.

Kim, L. S. (2009). The Peranakan Associations of Malaysia and Singapore: History and Current Scenario. Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 82(297), 167–177. 

Lee, D. (2020, May 29). Peranakan: Origin Story Of The People Of The Straits. Espoletta. 

Longley, R. (2020, October 15). What Is Multiculturalism? Definition, Theories, and Examples. ThoughtCo. 

Poomduang, T., Kheokao, J., & Wilainuch, P. (2021). Stories of Peranakan culture in Thailand’s Andaman cluster provinces. Malaysian Journal of Communication, 37(2), 226–242. 

Skinner, G. W. (1963). The Thailand Chinese: Assimilation in a Changing Society [Lecture]. Thai Council of Asian Society.