Have you ever felt curious about your family’s history? Who are your ancestors? Where did they come from and when did they arrive in your community? For the Peranakan Chinese, who prize family mythology and community folklore, the answers to these questions have been hotly debated for generations.
Historians have traced the origins of Peranakan Chinese back to the 15th century when traders migrated from China and settled in Southeast Asia. As a result, a striking feature of Peranakan Chinese is their hybrid culture—traditional Chinese customs thoroughly blended with Malay influences.
However, whether the Peranakan Chinese also share mixed genetics in addition to their mixed culture has remained a point of debate and uncertainty. Some members of the community believe they descended solely from China, while others believe that intermarriages with the local Malay population must have occurred over the years.
To answer this question, Professor Roger Foo, a Principal Investigator at A*STAR’s Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS), and a team of researchers performed whole-genome sequencing on the blood samples from nearly 200 Peranakan Chinese in Singapore.
According to Professor Chaolong Wang, the lead author of the study and a Principal Investigator at GIS at the time, the key advantage of whole-genome sequencing is its ability to produce a high volume of genetic and molecular information, which in turn allows a clearer, more detailed rendering of a population’s genetic history.
“With whole-genome sequencing, we could assess the genetic history at a higher resolution,” said Wang.
The researchers then compared this genetic history with the genomes of other Singaporean Chinese, obtained from the SG10K Project, a nationwide programme that seeks to establish a comprehensive genetic databank of Singapore’s population.
Their analyses revealed that the two previously isolated Chinese and Malay ethnic groups had indeed intermarried, or admixed, with contemporary Peranakan Chinese inheriting around 5.62 percent Malay ancestry. In comparison, the genetic make-up of Singapore Chinese is only approximately 1 percent Malay. Furthermore, the researchers pinned down two distinct points in history that are pivotal to the current genetic make-up of Singaporean and Peranakan Chinese.
The first happened some 1,600 to 1,700 years ago, when Han Chinese migrated from central to southern China, giving rise to the present-day Southern Chinese. At around the same time, Austronesian and early Malay populations encountered each other, eventually giving birth to current-day Malays.
The second event was more recent, occurring only around 190 years ago when intermarriages between local Malay women and foreign Chinese traders could have taken place.
“It was always suspected that there is Malay ancestry among self-declared Peranakans. With this cohort of Peranakans, we’ve proven it to be the case,” said Foo. “It is a revelation to the community and adds to our local knowledge of history.”
Building on the team’s findings, future research could look at other Peranakan Chinese communities in different countries across the region, ultimately forming a clear and accurate genetic history of this unique ethnic group.
The A*STAR-affiliated researchers contributing to this research are from the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS).