What’s In A Culture?

“Cultures, like the people they represent, have to adapt.”

Culture – essentially a series of common practices – isn’t set in stone. It is fluid, based on circumstances, resources, locale and setting of a particular community, and it evolves, sometimes through discarding, sometimes through injecting something new. This is especially the case with migrant communities (think early Malayan settlers), who not only brought their culture, but also adapted.

Malaysia is home to such cultures – you can still see traces of the country of origin, but some items have been “Malaysian-ised”. The Peranakan culture is one such example – hints of Chinese culture are there, with an interesting blend of Malay (or Nusantara) customs. In order to fit in better with the locals, something new was birthed.

That said, the Peranakan culture, one of assimilation, is not limited to just Malaysia and Singapore. Cast a wider net, and you’ll find a Peranakan culture in different countries in the region. The same ethnicity, but adapting to the local culture.

Or to put it in colloquial terms, “same same, but different”.

Culture thrives on living in an extended family, where you absorb the traditions and way of life.

“In Malacca, the Peranakan families lived in big houses, where three or four nuclear families occupied one space. It’s different now because most of the families are nuclear families.”

Visual artist Sherman Ong was given the opportunity to explore said Peranakan communities, in collaboration with National Geographic, through the programme “Portraits of the Peranakan with Sherman Ong”, part of “A Peranakan Heritage” event.

“I think it has to evolve – it cannot be static. Right now, the changes that you can see are in the materials – food, jewellery, clothes and antiques. You don’t really observe the cultural practices often, which can perhaps be explained by the Peranakan marrying back into the Chinese community,” Sherman, a Peranakan himself, comments on the culture he belongs to.

He also thinks that some policies, in a bid to streamline and simplify, undermine the inherent diversity that comes with a multicultural society like Malaysia. “I think, in Malaysia, there’s that strict categorisation, which doesn’t help the appreciation of diversity of cultures.”

So what went through his mind when he was offered to be the face of the programme? “For me, it was interesting, as it was one aspect I didn’t explore in detail, and I wanted to find out what it means to be Peranakan in Indonesia, as what constitutes ‘Peranakan’ is different there compared to Malaysia.”

It was also an opportunity for self-exploration. “It forced me to look more into my background, and that I should explore it in my work as well.”

The culture has so much to offer from birth, marriage and death, and it’s full of tradition and it’s important to have them documented, on a more in-depth scale.

“The underlying theme of Peranakan culture is of the diaspora, or migration. Essentially, it is about a movement of people, and I deal with that in my art…. Personally, it’s a journey of resilience, adaptation, assimilation and hybridisation. It’s about how you adapt to survive. That’s everywhere,” he comments on how the Peranakan culture originated, and how most cultures come to be – just look around. One will find various migrants of different nationalities making their way here for one reason or another, and in their time living here, a new culture emerges.

“In an interesting way, Peranakan culture is like a time capsule of what life was like in China, before its Cultural Revolution.”

If there was anything he lamented from doing the programme, it’s that he’s hungry for more. “It was really short! The programme is almost like a nutshell – an appetiser. There are opportunities to go beyond to tease the audience to something more.

“You couldn’t really expound on the finer details. I wanted a bit more flesh. The culture is so big and so complex! It’s a catalyst for the audience to explore further. Being vignettes, they’re just short insights,” he adds.

Sherman hopes that through this programme, people will develop a deeper appreciation on what makes Malaysia, well, Malaysia.

Hopefully, they can see that the society that we are in is very diverse, and that this diversity and mixing is the fabric of Malaysian society.

Beauty in diversity, indeed.

After interviewing these Peranakan personalities (Debbie and Sherman), and with me being surrounded by Peranakan culture, I can’t help but feel like I’m an unwitting participant in their Peranakan journeys – where each find their own ways to preserve and educate the populace on the culture they were born into.

And so far, I’m enjoying the ride.

Sherman was featured in “Portraits of the Peranakan with Sherman Ong”, part of National Geographic’s “A Peranakan Heritage” event.  For more information, do check the microsite for “A Peranakan Heritage”: http://www.peranakanheritage.com/

For those keen to dive into Peranakan culture, there is a Peranakan art auction coming soon, titled, “”Treasures of the Peranakan World”. Organised by Henry Butcher Asset Auctioneers, the auction is a collaboration with Peranakan expert Henry Bong. All are welcome to have a look at the various lots for sale. Here are the details:

6 November 2016 (Sunday)
1 p.m.
GALERI PRIMA, Balai Berita, 31 Jalan Riong, 59100 Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur

For more information, contact:
Anna Yusoff, annayusoff@hbart.com.my

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