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The more things change, the more they stay the same:
Peranakan musical culture in Malacca

Margaret Sarkissian

Malaccas Peranakan community has occupied an important but marginal place in both colonial
and post-colonial Malaysia. Resulting from unions between Hokkien-speaking Chinese traders
and local women, Peranakans can be traced to the 17th century. Over time, they were gradually
distinguished from the local Malay and immigrant Chinese populations by their English
education, leadership of the rubber industry, wealth, and social capital. By the 1920s, their
social life revolved around private clubs that organized balls, variety shows, and fancy dress
parties. Wealthy Peranakans sponsored amateur musical and theatrical groups that raised money
for charitable causes. Musical life was modern and highly eclectic. String orchestras and dance
bands played the latest British and American hits as well as favorite Malay kroncong songs;
smaller groups gathered at informal sessions to sing dondang sayang in Malay. The colonial
elite lifestyle disappeared long ago, but Peranakan culture has been reinvented as an essential
part of the heritage package in UNESCO-listed 21st-century Malacca. In order to claim a place
in the modern Malaysian multicultural family, Peranakans now have to appear distinct, exotic
and part of a nostalgic past. To this end, the tuxedos and ball gowns of the 1920s have been
replaced by new markers of Peranakan identity: sarong kebayas and beaded slippers for the
women and high-collared Chinese shirts for the men. Through a close reading of photographs
from the 1920s on, I will discuss the complex and shifting hybridity of the community and will
argue that although Peranakan culture has become visibly retro, its underlying musical
eclecticism has remained intact. A comparison between musical cultures then and now will
demonstrate that although surface features may have changed, the songs remain the same.
Keywords: Peranakan culture, colonial elites, post-colonial Malaysia, visual anthropology,

SARKISSIAN, Margaret. The more things change, the more they stay the same: Peranakan musical culture in Malacca. Msica e Cultura, vol. 6, n. 2,
2011. Disponvel em <http://www.abetmusica.org.br>.

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