My Nyonya Heritage

My paternal grandmother was a Nyonya. She was the matriarch in our family till she passed away when I was eleven. I could still recall she held the key (hanging on her belt) to a big heavy safe where she kept the household money and other treasures. She chewed betel nuts. Each morning, my third aunt would spend time combing her hair and set it into a bun decorated with beautiful hair pins.

I grew up in a Peranakan household where we practiced ancestor worship and our family home had a big altar for my grandfather. That was the first hall when you entered the house. However I studied in a mission school and embraced Christianity when I was in my third form much to the objection of my aunt.

I was raised by my aunt (dad’s elder sister) and we all lived together with other uncles, aunties, cousins in that big family home. Dad had four sisters. Only one was married (I was told match made to a business associate of my grandfather). I never knew my grandfather. He died during the Japanese occupation when the Japanese came and the war destroyed many of his grocery shops in Main Bazaar, Kuching and Boat Quay in Singapore. I believed his health failed him and was perhaps even frightened to death. My other three spinster aunts loved me, my sister and cousin as their own child. Each aunt picked one kid, their favourite and mothered us. My ‘mother’ was 2 ko (or second aunt).

This is a video of some insight into the Peranakan (Chinese migrants that inter married with the local Malays) culture. The local born children were called Babas (male) and Nyonya (female).  My grandmother was from such family. We grew up loving the nyonya food, cooked full of spices. As a kid we learned to speak Hokkien (our local Chinese dialect) blended with local Malay words. The local culture is now somewhat lost but putting it down in writing keeps the memories alive.

My late grandmother Ee Cheng Neo and late grandfather Kho Boon Toh

My late grandmother Ee Cheng Neo and late grandfather Kho Boon Toh

My mother on the left and my aunt (2ko) on the right.

In the blurry image above, you can still see at the extreme right my 2ko and the little girl (me).  The below picture showed the family home.  From left 3ko, 2um (uncle’s wife), 2ko and mum.


From left mum and 2ko


8 thoughts on “My Nyonya Heritage

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