(Used by permission)
by Regina William
A Baba and Nyonya couple in their
The Baba and Nyonya, also known as Straits–born Chinese or Peranakan, are Chinese of noble descent who adopted much of Malay culture for their own.
"Peranakan", "Baba–Nyonya" and "Straits Chinese" (named so after the Straits of Malacca) are terms used for the descendants of the early Chinese immigrants to the region – including to the British Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca and Singapore, and the Dutch–controlled island of Java – who partially adopted Malay customs in an effort to be assimilated into the local communities.
Most Peranakan are of Hokkien ancestry, although there are also those of Teochew or Cantonese descent.
The language of the Peranakan – Bahasa Melayu Baba or Baba Malay – is a dialect of Bahasa Melayu which contains many Hokkien words. It is a dying language and contemporary use is mainly limited to the older generation; this is indicative also of the Peranakan culture at large.
In an interview, Michael Cheah, a fifth generation Baba who is a guest curator for the Pinang Peranakan Museum in Penang, said there are two theories about the origin of Nyonya Baba culture.
In the 15th century, the city states of the Malay Peninsula often paid tribute to various kingdoms such as those in China and Siam.
Close relations with China was established in the early 15th century, during the reign of Parameswara, when Zheng He visited Malacca.
In return for Malacca's tribute, a Chinese princess, Hang Li Po, was presented to Sultan Mansur Shah in 1459.
The royalty and servants who accompanied the princess initially settled in Bukit Cina in Malacca and eventually grew into a class of straits–born Chinese known as the Peranakan.
The Peranakan retained most of their ethnic and religious customs including ancestor worship, but adopted the language and culture of the Malays. Many of the early Peranakan also inter–married with local Malays.
They developed a unique culture and distinct foods, influenced by Malay customs. For instance, a unique Nyonya cuisine was developed using the spices of Malay cuisine while the women wore the baju kebaya.
Another theory is that the Babas and Nyonyas were descendants of Chinese traders who married the local womenfolk of Malacca and the surrounding areas.
In the early 1800s, these new Chinese immigrants to the Straits Settlements bolstered the Peranakan population.
By the middle of the 20th century, most Peranakan were English–educated as a result of the British colonisation of Malaya and because of their willingness to readily embrace English culture and education, they were given administrative and civil service positions.
The interaction with the British also caused many to convert to Christianity.
The Peranakan community became very influential in Malacca and Singapore and were known as the "King's Chinese" because of their perceived loyalty to the British Crown.
The interaction of the different cultures and languages that the Peranakan had up to the mid–1900s meant that most Peranakan were trilingual, able to converse with the Chinese, the Malays and the English.
Common Peranakan vocations were merchants, traders, and general intermediaries between China, Malaya and the West; the latter was especially valued by the British, since the Babas also enjoyed good relations with the Malay community and served as advisers to the royal Malay courts.
In fact, the term "Baba" is an honorific term in Malay, probably derived from Hindi/Sanskrit. "Baba" literally means grandfather or father, and is used as a term of reverence and affection for an elderly gentleman.
However, these Babas and Nyonyas are a dying breed.
Cheah, who conducts workshops for locals and tourists on Baba Nyonya ancestry, lamented that the younger generation were not keen to continue the rich tradition and culture handed down by their ancestors.
"Traditionally, the Nyonyas spent most of their time at home, learning domestic arts including making their own costumes which involves hours of beadwork and embroidery.
"These days, not many are interested to learn about this rich culture and sadly, the current generation of younger men and women are totally oblivious to the importance of preserving this Baba Nyonya heritage," he said.