The Peranakan Museum in Singapore

The mixed race Asians of the past known as the Straits Chinese or Peranakans were mainly Chinese-Malay. Today’s mixed-race Asians are a bit of everything. Words by Nick Ross. Photos by Kyle Phanroy

 

When American Brendan Gough (name changed) returned to Saigon on Apr. 18, 1975, he had just flown in from Singapore two days after the birth of his son. His fourth child to a Vietnamese wife, he was working in the marine logistics industry on business for a major oil company.

 

Over drinks in a bar he was told by a CIA operative to listen every day to the armed forces radio channel at noon. Said the fellow drinker, if he were to ever hear the midnight signoff — the Vietnamese anthem followed by the US anthem followed by Goodnight Vietnam — followed by Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, he should, “head to [his] evacuation point.” In other words, recounts his daughter Maeve, “Get the heck out Saigon.”

 

“He didn’t really pay much attention to what the man said,” she continues, “But on the 29th, while driving in his car, he decided to turn on the radio at noon. Lo and behold, there it was. The midnight sign off, followed by White Christmas.”

 

The day after, Saigon was liberated by the north.

 

Brendan’s decision to settle in Singapore was natural. Work had brought him there in the early 1970s, his company had an office in the island state and there was business in the region. But what was unusual for the time were his children. Most Amerasians or half Asian, half Caucasian children born in Vietnam during the war era were either abandoned — an estimated 30,000 were left behind in Vietnam — or brought back to the US. The fate of Maeve and her siblings was vastly different to the fate of thousands of other children born during this era.

 

Second Culture and Third

 

 

These days, mixed race children born to one parent who is Vietnamese share a different destiny. Brought up either in Vietnam or overseas, those who learn to be bilingual or even trilingual find themselves lucky enough to have a foot in both worlds. According to Maeve, who was schooled at a Chinese school in Singapore, the advantages are numerous.

 

“Growing up in two cultures, in my case, also meant knowing how to speak in two very different languages, English and Vietnamese,” she says. “Add to that my exposure to Chinese. I believe that being exposed to different languages at a young age has made it easier for me learn new languages — I've had to learn French and Arabic to speak to my in-laws.”

 

For Maeve, certain emotions and descriptions can only be expressed fully in their native language, so being able to speak a particular language also means having “an insider's understanding of that culture”.

 

She also believes that being an “original three culture kid” has been advantageous both professionally and personally.

 

“On the personal front, it makes one more tolerant of differences, whether it's ethnic, racial, cultural or religious. Professionally, [it’s given me] the ability to navigate different cultures and has helped me excel at working in a career that deals with people. I strongly believe the ability to be flexible and adapt to changing situations and challenges at work, as well as to a multicultural work environment is a direct result of my background.”

 

The Peranakans

 

 

Dedicated to mixed-race Asians, the Peranakan Museum in Singapore explores the history of intermarriage between different races in Southeast Asia. Starting as early at the 14th Century with the arrival of international trade, what made the Peranakans unique was the development of their own food, drink, customs, clothing, designs and even language.

 

There were three main communities.

 

The Peranakan Chinese, who were descendants of Chinese traders, settled in Malacca and around the coastal areas of Java and Sumatra. In the 19th century, drawn by commerce they migrated to the ports of Penang and Singapore.

 

The Chitty Melaka, or Peranakan Indians, were descended from unions between South Indian Hindu merchants and local women, from the time of the Malacca Sultanate in the 15th century. To this day the Peranakan Indians speak a vernacular Malay that incorporates Tamil.

 

The Jawi Peranakans (or Jawi Pekan) are descendants of intermarriage between South Indian-Muslim traders and women mainly of Malay descent. The Jawi Peranakans clustered around urban centres, particularly the trading port of Penang.

 

Vietnam, too, would have had its mixed race Asians, mainly in the area around Faifo, now known as Hoi An. For two centuries it was one of the most important trading ports on the East Sea, and was home to Dutch and Portuguese merchants, before later on attracting Chinese, Japanese and Arabs. In the mid-to-late 19th century when the French colonised Vietnam, a new community of mixed-race French-Vietnamese were born. Ho Chi Minh City, with its one million-strong population of Chinese, is also home to thousands of people of mixed ethnicity. Yet unlike with the Peranakans of the Malay Straits, the intermarriage in Vietnam never developed its own unique hybrid culture.

 

Bilingualism

 

 

Enter the home of a mixed-race family today in Vietnam and you will hear two or even three languages. Children who go to the French schools tend to be the most fluid — they end up speaking English, French and Vietnamese.

 

Whereas once paediatricians worried that children speaking more than one language would get confused, research has shown that bilingualism has many advantages. According to Sarah Roseberry Lytle of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences Translation, being bilingual aids cognitive ability.

 

“Solving maths problems is a great example of one way to employ your [flexible] thinking skills because you have to think about different ways you might solve a problem,” she explains. “In the same way, if you’re growing up in a bilingual household you need to think of different words. If you can’t activate a word in one language, you need to think of a different way to describe the word.”

 

Jeffrey Kluger, in a 2013 article published in Time Magazine, agrees.

 

“New studies are showing that a multilingual brain is nimbler, quicker, better able to deal with ambiguities, resolve conflicts and even resist Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia longer.

 

This final point is corroborated by a University of Kentucky College of Medicine study. Researchers there believe that more reserve brainpower, enhanced by being bilingual from an early age, helps protect against memory losses caused by Alzheimer’s and dementia.

 

Acceptance

 

 

The nature of today’s global world means that mixed-race Vietnamese will never develop their own unique culture. The Peranakans were isolated, living in small communities and in little pockets. They didn’t have the benefit of global travel or the push and pull of the outside world. So to respect the cultures of both husband and wife, they developed a hybrid. This was reinforced by the communities in which they lived; marriage into those very communities was the norm.

 

As a child growing up in Singapore, however, Maeve was never associated with the Peranakans. Rather, she was seen as being Eurasian — something she preferred due to the stigma surrounding the term ‘Amerasian’.

 

“Colonial Singapore had a history of intermarriage between the Europeans and locals, so they were familiar with what they called ‘Eurasians’,” she says. “These were Singaporeans whose grandparents, or earlier ancestors, were mostly British, Dutch, or Portuguese. We were lumped into that category.”

 

She adds: “Looking back, I don't recall any negative experiences with growing up as a mixed-race kid in Singapore. In fact, I don't recall anything at all to do with race.”

 

And yet, while the Singapore of the 1970s and 1980s was an easy place for someone such as Maeve to grow up — something kids in Vietnam will experience today — she found herself having to find her own way of fitting in.

 

“I learned to speak like my Singaporean friends, yet while at home we spoke with an American accent,” she recalls. “It was the ultimate insider/outsider situation. I walked, talked, ate and sometimes thought like an insider, but was always aware I was an outsider.”

 

Mixed race kids growing up in Vietnam today will go through similar experiences to Maeve. While fitting into everyday Vietnamese life will not always be straightforward, by having a foot in two cultures and possibly three, they will learn to cope with the modern world in a way that single culture, one-language-only kids will never experience.

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