• Sources on Medicine in the Peranakan Community

  • Peranakan Community

    The term ‘Peranakan’ in the Indonesian or Malay language, means “locally-born”. The Peranakan community are thus peoples of mixed local and foreign ancestry commonly found in Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. They are native-born, descendants of migrants who came to the Malay world. There are different types of Peranakans namely the Peranakan Chinese, Peranakan Arabs, and Peranakan Indians. However, since the Peranakan Chinese make up the majority, many scholars have chosen to adopt the term ‘Peranakan’ to exclusively refer to the community. In Singapore and Malaysia, the term mainly refers to the Straits-born Chinese i.e., those who were born in the former Straits Settlements during the British colonial period. The creolised nature of the Peranakan identity—situated in between both Chinese and Malay cultures—lends to daily customs and traditional practice which includes healing and medicine. The family papers and published literature on the subject matter form two important set of sources.

    Family Papers

    The Peranakan family papers constitute a collection of traditional medicinal manuscripts preserved amongst Chinese families spanning across generations. We were graced with the donations by the current inheritors of a few of these families in Singapore, namely the Tan and Lee family. The first of such invaluable historical documents were donated by Mr and Mrs Tan Geok Koon’s Yok Tua which is a collection of Chinese medicinal slips, inherited from two Peranakan families. The second is another voluntary donation that includes similar Peranakan medicinal records as well as old, published books on certain illnesses by Peter Lee.

    Medical Literature

    Beyond the donations, Peranakan literature is archived in various institutions as it is seen as critical vantage points of preserving the heritage and practices of a community whose identity takes place within cultures. For instance, Leiden University, located in the Netherlands, archives the Go Sian Lok collection owned by a Peranakan Chinese in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, born and educated in colonial Eastern Java of the Netherland East Indies. The collection contains the vast interests of a literate Peranakan family with many subjects such as the Chinese classics, religion and divination, history, medicine, and more. It comprises different mediums such as block prints and manuscripts; some of which are even multi-volume books.

    Yok Tua

    Yok means “medicine” and Tua “record” in Hokkien. They contain traditional prescriptions for common ailments such as flatulence, fever, and cough. During the 1930s-1940s when many still strongly believed in traditional medicine, it was commonly used for treatment and recovery. The recipes are handwritten in ink on thin cloth-like fabrics which included ingredients such as plants, dried herbs, spices, sometimes even insects and the subsequent proportion needed to make the concoctions.

     

    The Yok Tua is a classic physical representation of the polyglot nature of traditional medicine in Singaporean society then as the prescriptions were one of the junctures where both the Chinese and Malay languages were incorporated. Since most of the Peranakans could barely speak dialects, let alone read Chinese characters, the recipes would usually be accompanied with annotations in Baba Malay like obat kamchek (medicine for flatulence) or obat batok (cough medicine). Whenever someone in the family fell ill, the appropriate prescription would be retrieved from the Yok Tua and brought to the kedai obat Cina (Chinese medicine shop). The sinseh (Chinese physician) prepares the mixture which is then packed in paper for the customer to take home and brew accordingly.

  • Back of a prescription in the Yok Tua concerning the nourishment of adolescents. Such prescriptions were often handwritten in ink in Chinese, paired with Malay annotations at the back or on the margins.

     

    Malay annotation reads "Budak 15 tahun / makan satu ekor ayam / Jantan atau perempuan" which translates to "[For] children aged 15, eat one whole chicken, [suitable for] males or females."

    Courtesy of Mr and Mrs Tan Geok Koon.

    Medicinal recipe in a bound family collection that has been passed down from generation to generation. Malay annotation reads "Obat Tim Itek / Iteh Betina."

     

    Itek Tim is a duck and salted vegetable soup served by Peranakan families during special occasions. Check out one of the variations of the menu here.

    Courtesy of Peter Lee.
  • 'Anomi'

    'Anomi' is a manuscript by Ong Swi Pan, believed to be published in Batavia of the Dutch East Indies circa the early 1900s. The book has 201 pages in total, typewritten in Bahasa Indonesia. The multi-chaptered monograph provides medical advice for readers with the strong mission to educate them on maintaining good health such as ways to preserving bone density, staying active, and having a proper diet. It primarily draws on scientific principles with tidbits of religious commentary and peribahasa (Malay proverbs). The book may be a struggle to read even for those fluent in Bahasa because of the different spelling conventions used. 'Anomi' reflects that traditional medicine practices were not only circulated within laymen social circles, but was taken seriously by the formally educated.

  • Acknowledgements

    We are indebted to Mr and Mrs Tan, and Peter Lee as both sets of manuscripts will be scanned for digitisation and use for the research team. The files from the Yok Tua will be also hosted by the National Library for public access at a later date. The donation will be titled “A collection of Traditional Chinese Medical Slips: An inheritance from two Peranakan families – Donated by Mr and Mrs Tan Geok Koon.”

  • Select Bibliography of Peranakan Medical Texts

    Donations

    Lee, P. Collection of Traditional Chinese Medical Texts.

     

    Ong S. P. (n. d.) Anomi: Di bikin oleh Orang Njang Giat Soeka Wartakan Ilmoe Pladjaran Aken Niaman. Batavia.

     

    Tan, & Tan G. K. Collection of Traditional Chinese Medical Slips: An Inheritance from Two Peranakan Families. Tan Geok Koon.

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