Preserving Malaysia's unique Peranakan culture for world heritage status

  • Food News
  • Friday, 13 Sep 2019

Olmedo is spearheading the effort to get Peranakan culture recognised on a worldwide scale. Photo: Eric Olmedo

About 15 years ago, Dr Eric Olmedo, the principal research fellow at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Institut Kajian Etnik (Kita) visited the Portuguese settlement in Melaka. That proved to be such an invaluable experience that he decided to delve further into the Peranakan community’s heritage and roots.

His research showed that many of the smaller Peranakan sub-communities like the Chettys in Melaka and the denizens of Kampung Cina in Terengganu were dwindling in numbers. Both communities now have less than 500 members remaining.

“Of course with modernity, the new generation intermarry and leave the kampung but it’s centuries of history that disappears. I told myself that if I can do something to document and keep this memory alive, I will do it,” he says.

Olmedo has done just that, spearheading a long-term effort, alongside others like David Neo, to get Peranakan culture recognised on the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) list. Previous Malaysian cultural practices to have made it on the list include Mak Yong theatre and Dondang Sayang.

“I have been in touch for the past year with the ICH headquarters in Paris so they are very supportive of the project. But there is no direct financial support, you have to carve your own way,” he says.

Olmedo is spearheading the effort to get Peranakan culture recognised on a worldwide scale. Photo: Eric Olmedo
Eric Olmedo is spearheading the effort to get Peranakan culture recognised on a worldwide scale. Photo: Eric Olmedo

Olmedo is now in the process of securing funding derived through the Unesco International Assistance fund, which entails finding Malaysian private or public bodies willing to contribute to the fund, which must total US$100,000 (RM420,000) or less.

“The principle is if you can find the money locally, then Unesco will provide a matching amount of not more than US$100,000. So if everything goes well, in the beginning of 2020, we may have a substantial pledge amount and can apply for the grant,” he says.

The money will go towards building an inventory of Peranakan culture.

“So the first step is to come up with a systematic inventory for the community we’re targeting, so basically we’ll be collecting data, interviewing people, recording videos of rituals, cooking preparations and so on and once we have done this, we will then have an organised database and with this, we can go to step two, which is putting together an application for this intangible cultural heritage to be registered in the Unesco intangible world heritage list,” says Olmedo.

Ultimately, Olmedo’s main aim is to get sidelined Peranakan communities like the Chetties and the Kampung China Peranakans on the list first before moving on to the Kristang community and eventually the Peranakan Chinese.

“We are targeting the most urgent ones, the culturally endangered ones which could vanish, meaning they will be culturally assimilated into mainstream society by the next generation,” he says.

If you are interested in financially contributing to the fund, email Olmedo at

Also read: The unique culinary culture of the Peranakan Chinese

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