The Peranakan are descendants of predominantly Chinese traders who have migrated to and settled in Malacca and the coastal areas of Java and Sumatra since the 14th century. The word ‘Peranakan’ in Malay describes those who were locally born foreigners of any origin. Over the years, the term has evolved to mean predominantly the locally born Chinese and they are called Nonya (ladies) and Baba (gentlemen) to distinguish them from those born in mainland China.
According to a legend, in 1459 princess Hang Li Po was brought as a gift to the Malaccan Sultan, Mansur Shah. She converted to Islam and married the sultan, while about 500 men of her entourage settled in Malacca and beyond, marring local women. Entrepreneurial Chinese established vigorous communities in major ports of the region. The legendary riches of south-east Asia attracted even more Chinese migrants in the 19th century. The Peranakan, who often migrated from one country to another within the region, developed dynamic communities with an eclectic but distinct culture.
Traditionally Peranakan adhered to Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, celebrating the Lunar New Year and Lantern Festival, while adopting many customs of their new countries, including elements of Malay, Indonesian but also British, Dutch and Portuguese cultures. In modern times many Peranakan became Christians. They also have their special dishes, passed down through generations - one of them is pork stew called dpong-teh - probably derived from the Malaysian-Chinese Nyonya tradition, an equivalent of chicken stew ayam pongteh.
Two wall hangings in the Australian Museum collections seem to be related to the Peranakan tradition. Collected in Palembang district of south Sumatra, they are distinctly Chinese in character and were probably made in the 19th century in southern China. I hope that future research will help identify more artefacts of this interesting south-east Asian culture.
It is possible that the princess was just a beautiful maid in the imperial house, selected to assume the role of a princess. Such ‘pretend’ princesses were usually sent to far away kingdoms that were not significant to the emperor. This practice was common throughout Chinese history.