Domesticating Hybridity: Straits Chinese Cultural Heritage Projects in Malaysia and Singapore

Karen M. Teoh, Stonehill College
Exterior of the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, 2010. Source: Creative Commons.
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This article examines the literal and figurative domestication of Straits Chinese, or Peranakan, history in selected heritage projects in late twentieth-century Malaysia and Singapore. These projects simultaneously foreground Straits Chinese history as a symbol of interracial harmony and marginalize it as a cultural artifact. Over the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the ethnoculturally hybrid Straits Chinese positioned themselves as “the King’s Chinese,” champions of a Confucian-values renaissance, and citizens of independent Malaysia and Singapore. Their adaptability helped them survive the upheaval of imperialism, decolonization, and nation building, but it was also controversial for its suggestion of political flexibility. Today, Southeast Asian governments and the Peranakan themselves depict the community as a uniquely local model of ethnic integration. Museums and historic homes emphasize portrayals and consumption of supposedly feminine aspects of Peranakan culture (e.g., fashion and cuisine), while downplaying purportedly masculine elements (e.g., the possession of multiple nationalities). By conflating femininity, tradition, and racial hybridity, this approach reifies stereotypes about gender and cultural identity, and replaces transgressive potential with politically anodyne nostalgia and commercialization. As anxieties about race, national history, and belonging continue to undergird the modern polity, transnationalism and transculturalism are acceptable as long as they are confined to the past.

Keywords: Peranakan, Straits Chinese, Singapore, Malaysia, cultural heritage, cultural preservation, museum, diaspora, transnational, hybrid, domestication, postcolonial