Tonan Talk with Dr. Ong Soon Keong on Oct. 3

Title:‘To be or not to be Chinese’: A socio-economic interpretation of the emergence of Peranakan identity in Singapore, 1890s to 1930s

Speaker: Dr. Ong Soon Keong, Assistant Professor, School of Humanities, Nanyang Technological University

Date: October 3rd (Thurs.) 2019, 16:00 – 18:00
Venue: Tonan-tei (Room no. 201) on the second floor of Inamori Foundation Memorial Building, CSEAS, Kyoto University

Moderator: Prof. Caroline HAU, CSEAS, Kyoto University

This paper revisits the emergence and representation of Peranakan ethnic
identity during colonial Singapore. The conventional understanding of
the separation of Peranakans – the descendants of unions between early
Southern Chinese traders and local Malay women – from ethnic Chinese is
mainly cultural. As individuals of mixed racial heritage, Peranakans
display a unique hybrid culture that combined elements of southern
Chinese and Malay traditions, and scholars today believe that such
Peranakan identity was formed as soon as seafaring Chinese began to
intermarry with local women and adopt Southeast Asian social practices
and language in the seventeenth century.

I argue instead that as late as nineteenth century colonial Singapore,
not only were Peranakans considered by the British as Chinese, they also
presented themselves as Chinese. This was because they needed to stay
Chinese to continue to act as middlemen in the China trade, and also to
serve as community leaders to help the British colonizers rule its
Chinese subjects. They only distinguished themselves from the Chinese –
by emphasizing their mixed heritage, English education, and British
subjecthood – towards the end of the nineteenth century when their
superior social and economic positions in the British colony were
seriously undermined by the new immigrants from China.

About the speaker:
Ong Soon Keong is Assistant Professor of Chinese at Nanyang
Technological University in Singapore. His work centres on the mechanism
of Chinese migration and overseas Chinese-China relationships; his
research currently focuses on the construction of overseas Chinese
identities in Singapore and on the southeast China coast. He received
his PhD in history from Cornell University, and taught at the University
of North Florida and the University of Missouri – Columbia before
returning to Singapore.