10 signs you grew up in a Peranakan household

Growing up in the arms of a Peranakan family is a heady and colorful experience — the expression “so drama you” was coined for a reason. So were phrases like “oh mother farts” and “genie throw children”. These are 10 tell-tale signs you grew up in a lively Nyonya household.

Chilli was a staple in the dining table

Whether it’s chilli cuka, chilli padi, sambal blachan or chilli tau you, you know your chilli — and which one is for what dish. Large green chilli patah (broken) for kiam chye ark (sour vegetable duck soup)? But of course! 

You quickly learned who the matriarch of the family is

While many may compete for the title, there will always be just ONE matriarch in the family. It may be because of her haughty looks, piercing eyes or sharp tongue. You learn to stay clear of her path for fear of a litany of curses.

You are good at picking up ​strange ​words and phrases

Opoh chope (for when you are startled), kus smagat (for when you hear something unbelievable and juicy) and oh mak kentut (literally, oh mother farts!), are words you pick up as a child, knowing what it means without having to ask. In fact, you would soon use strange phrases such as jin buang anak (genie throw children) or semot kaki panjang (ants leg long) as part of your vocabulary.

It’s always easy to remember relative’s names at family gatherings

While family gatherings can be large in numbers, you address relatives by their physical appearance, such as ee ee mata sepek (aunty with slanted eyes), ko poh gelap (dark-skinned grandaunt) and teo teo botak (bald-headed uncle). Often behind their backs, but not uncommon that the person accepts the nickname and goes by it. We have a sense of humour. 

No one’s cooking is better than your mum’s

No matter how good the food is, a well-brought up Peranakan is expected to be critical of everyone’s cooking except his or her mum’s.  When one cannot find fault with the taste, there’s always the size of the ingredients, the color of the gravy or even the temperature of the dish to comment upon.

Your first overseas trip was probably to Malacca or Penang

Like it or not, the first holiday you would remember was probably to Malacca and Penang, where you parents relived their Peranakan days back in good old Singapore. From old kopi tiams to favorite hawker food, you probably heard the same stories being told over and over again each time you visited Malacca and Penang.

You’d die before being caught eating food from a Peranakan restaurant

No honorable Peranakan would be caught eating from a Peranakan restaurant. If he is, it must be because he was invited by non-Peranakan friends or the restaurant is serving the food at a funeral wake.

No chopsticks at home, please

You won’t find chopsticks in a Peranakan household. And even if you did, it would probably be in mint condition and not used at the dinner table.  Also, Mandarin is a foreign language. The only way you survived Mandarin class was by cheating or bribing. When you find yourself in the unlikely situation of tuning in to Channel 8, subtitles are not an option — they are a necessity.

You’re a pro in Cherki

You are able to differentiate strange aboriginal black and white patterns on game cards smaller then an old bus ticket, and learn to hold all fourteen of them in in one hand. Words like chot merah, kandang, and yeo lao chian would sound like jackpot strikes to your ears.

Prim and proper dressing

All Peranakans are taught to be serenoh — proper — in their everyday clothes. If a lady wears her skirt too high, or blouse too low, be prepared for an elder to ask if your tailor ran out of cloth (tak chukop kain!).

Photo: A typical Peranakan wedding picture now on display at The Peranakan Museum via Wikipedia

Alvin Mark Yapp is a seventh-generation Peranakan and the owner of The Intan, a private Peranakan museum since 2003, open by appointment only. Contact +65 6440 1148 or alvin@the-intan.com.


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