Global Lives, Cosmopolitan Futures: Peranakan Chinese Communities in Colonial Southeast Asia

Mr Bernard Keo1

1Monash University, Australia

A hybridised overseas Chinese community, the Peranakan Chinese served as a bridge connecting Chinese, Malay, and colonial communities across Southeast Asia. Occupying the space between these communities, the Peranakan were able to carve out an influential position owing to their ability to navigate within and between different cultural worlds. Their liminality allowed them to create extensive webs of personal and professional networks across Southeast Asia and beyond. More than that, however, many Peranakan led distinctly cosmopolitan lives as a result of their upbringing, which typically involved travelling to and living in a variety of Southeast and East Asian port-cities. Drawing from colonial records, newspapers, and Peranakan memoirs, this paper explores the lives and times of Peranakan Chinese families across the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, focussing on the development of a cosmopolitan consciousness among Peranakan in Malaya, Singapore, and Indonesia as a result of the global connections they fostered through education, marriage, business, and travel. In particular, I attempt to relocate the Peranakan from the categories and boundaries of contemporary nation-states in order to restore their history as distinctly mobile sociocultural actors with fluid ideas of self, identity, and belonging.


Bernard Z. Keo is a PhD candidate in historical studies at Monash University focusing on decolonisation and nation-building in post-World War II Malaya and Singapore, focussing particularly on the trajectory of the Peranakan Chinese of the Straits Settlements in Malaya’s path to independence. In addition to his dissertation topic, he also has interests in the Malayan Emergency, transnational connections across the Malay world and the end of empire in Southeast Asia. Beyond his dissertation, he also has training and experience in the digital humanities. He was part of the team that built Virtual Angkor, a digital education platform awarded the Roy N. Rosenzweig Prize for Innovation in Digital History from the American Historical Association in 2018.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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