Jeanette Gets In Touch With Her Inner Nyonya

The half-Peranakan actress didn't grow up in sarong kerbayas, but she still knows what is 'rempah', okay? (This is an excerpt from a cover story that first appeared in Issue 970, May 21, 2009.)

Kueh sarlat, lapis sagu, Jeanette Aw. The sugary Nyonya delectables are spread alluringly on a tok panjang type (Peranakan banquet) table at House on Dempsey Hill. Though our prim princess is every bit as pretty as the Bengawan Solo kueh kueh surrounding her, the half-Peranakan (from her father’s side) admits she was never in touch with her roots — until she was cast last year in the behemoth that was The Little Nyonya. “I grew up in a very typical Chinese-Singaporean way,” she tells us. “Even though there were Peranakan dishes on the table, it was just regular food to me.”


Thanks to The Little Nyonya, we’ve been talking about Peranakan culture for almost a year now, are you suffering from Nyonya fatigue yet?

I wouldn’t say that. It’s very nice that there’s a revival in this culture because a lot of us know of it but we didn’t know what it really meant until the drama came out. For me, it’s more about getting back to my roots.

So you’re a... non-practising Peranakan?

Yes. I wasn’t in touch with my Peranakan heritage before this because my dad wasn’t very traditional. I remember my mum and my aunts would wear the sarong kebaya on special occasions. We didn’t grow up in that Baba Malay way; I had a very average Singaporean childhood.

You’re far quieter than a stereotypical chatty Nyonya.

Am I? A culture will always have people with different characteristics. I may not be boisterous and loud outwardly, but it doesn’t mean I don’t feel that way inside.

Er, so you’re repressed? In your opinion, who’s a true-blue Peranakan?

Pierre Png. He likes to joke and entertain people — and that’s a common trait among Peranakan men. The way he treats his wife is also very Peranakan. What do I mean? Ha ha… never mind.

Do you feel like screaming whenever you have to wear a sarong kebaya now?

(Laughs) I know what you mean. Sometimes when I go for roadshows and they require me to be in Nyonya garb, I’m, like, “Oh no”. The hair and make-up takes over an hour to do. And they bun my hair up really tightly.

You strolled around Cannes in a kebaya to promote the show.

Well, it would’ve been nice to wear a glamorous gown instead since we were in Cannes. But I felt proud to introduce Peranakan culture overseas.

Were you terrified about singing live in The Peranakan Ball musical?

Yes! Singing is a whole different game from acting. We had to go for vocal lessons and I tried my very best. (Laughs) The Indoor Stadium was huge and I was really nervous about singing in front of a crowd. I was terrified my voice would crack!


We graciously help self-confessed ‘un-Peranakan’ Peranakan Jeanette rediscover her roots. But it seems she doesn’t need much help, after all.

8 DAYS: What’s the difference between a Nyonya and Bibik?

Jeanette: A Nyonya is a young lady, a Bibik is someone who is older with status.


Do most Peranakans have Malay ancestry?

Jeanette: Yes. There are Indian Peranakans as well.


Who among the following is Peranakan?

a) Michelle Chong

b) Lee Kuan Yew

c) KF Seetoh

d) Tay Ping Hui

Jeanette: If I’m not wrong, it’s Lee Kuan Yew.

(Ans: Tay Ping Hui is part Peranakan too)

Which Chinese dialect group do most Peranakans belong to?

a) Teochew

b) Hakka

c) Hokkien

d) Cantonese

Jeanette: Hokkien!


Peranakan-rich neighbourhood Joo Chiat was named after Chew Joo Chiat, a wealthy land-owner also known as the ‘King of Katong’. True?

Jeanette: This one I don’t know… It’s true?


What’s a must-have during meals for Peranakans?

a) Rice

b) Buah keluak

c) Sambal belacan

d) Nyonya chap chye

Jeanette: Sambal belacan!


What does ‘rempah’ mean?

Jeanette: It’s the spices! The pounded thing that you use to cook with. It’s like some gooey thing, like belacan.


Use the following Peranakan-Malay words in a sentence:

‘Gorblok’ (fool)

Jeanette: Oh no, I don’t know what it means. (Giggles) I’ve never heard of this word. What’s gorblok?

‘Tekan’ (pressure)

“Don’t tekan me!”

‘Iblis’ (fi end)

I don’t know what iblis is. Argh.

‘Babi’ (pig/pork)

Be careful of the babi now. (Laughs)

‘Berak’ (sh**)

I need to go berak. It means poo poo!

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