Unravelling the DNA of Peranakan Chinese in Singapore

SINGAPORE – Defining Peranakan identity has been a contentious topic for decades, stirring up deep-seated emotions among many in the community, said Baba Colin Chee, president of The Peranakan Association Singapore.

For instance, some in the community insist that a person can be considered Peranakan Chinese only if his maternal and paternal lineage are fully Peranakan, but this view is not widely held.

The Peranakan Chinese are believed to be descendants of Southern Chinese traders from as early as the 17th century, or even before, who wedded Malay women in South-east Asia.

Peranakans have always traced their roots using historical records and family trees.

But now, with the help of DNA profiling, researchers with the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) have uncovered insights about Peranakan ancestry that may add clarity to the conversations about their identity.

In early 2018, the researchers from A*Star’s Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) collected blood samples from 177 Peranakans, extracted and sequenced the individual DNA, and analysed the DNA using different methods and tools over 1½ years.

Among the 177, the Peranakan Chinese, who formed the majority of samples collected in the study, had inherited an average of 5.6 per cent of Malay ancestry. This was higher than in their comparison group, the Singaporean Chinese, who have about 1 per cent of Malay ancestry.

“The Peranakan Chinese had more than just an incidental amount of Malay ancestry in their genes,” noted Professor Roger Foo, senior group leader of the Laboratory of Molecular Epigenomics and Chromatin Organisation at GIS.

Baba Colin, 72, who uses the honorific for Peranakan men, said: “The findings have given scientific credence to our community’s belief that we have mixed Chinese-Malay ancestry. It corroborates all those stories that we have been hearing about ourselves.”

The study also found that the Malay ancestry came primarily from females, a finding that challenges the long-held myth that a princess from China arrived in Melaka in the 15th century to marry a sultan, becoming the first female ancestor to the Peranakans, said Prof Foo.

“The Peranakan community has felt that its first female ancestor was likely to be a local Malay mother,” said Baba Colin.

The study’s findings were published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution in June this year.

The Peranakan DNA study is part of GIS’ ongoing efforts to unpack the genetic diversity of Singapore’s population in the hopes that genetic clues yielded may be used to improve people’s health.

By tracing the DNA profiles of the 177 individuals, the researchers also found that the Peranakans and Singaporean Chinese share the same ancestors from 1,600 years ago – namely the early Han Chinese from central China and the early Austronesian people, an ancient tribe in Southern China.

The intermarriage between both groups of people formed the Southern Chinese centuries later, who migrated to Singapore and the region. Singaporean Chinese and Peranakans are thus the direct descendants of those Southern Chinese.

Baba Colin Chee’s family, third and fourth generation Peranakans, gathered on the first day of Chinese New Year in 2020. PHOTO: BABA COLIN CHEE

Interestingly, 10 per cent of the 177 Peranakans had 100 per cent Chinese ancestry, which intrigued Baba Colin and The Peranakan Association Singapore.

Does that mean those individuals are not truly Peranakan, since they are not of mixed descent?

To that, Baba Colin said: “The view of the association is that they are no less Peranakan than the Peranakan Chinese with mixed Chinese-Malay DNA. This is because they have been raised as Peranakans, practising the culture. Being Peranakan is a cultural identity, not an ethnic identity. Ethnically we are Chinese. Culturally we are Peranakan.”

On Oct 23, GIS and the association will host a webinar to discuss the study’s findings with the Peranakan community.

Next year, The Peranakan Association Singapore is looking to embark on a digital census to find out how large the Peranakan population is in Singapore. They may later expand the census to South-east Asia.

“We hope to reach out to the larger community, and further define our identity,” said Baba Colin.

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