Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Penang Baba & Nyonya

Peranakan and Baba-Nyonya (Chinese: 峇峇娘惹; Hokkien: Bā-bā Niû-liá) are terms used for the descendants of late 15th and 16th century Chinese immigrants to the Nusantara region during the Colonial era. It applies especially to the ethnic Chinese populations of the British Straits Settlements of Malaya(Singapore, Malacca and Penang) and the Dutch-controlled island of Java and other locations, who have adopted partially or in full Nusantara customs to be somewhat assimilated into the local communities.

The peranakan culture is a unique blend of two cultures, Malay & Chinese, which intermixed into a fascinating synthesis with elements of Javanese, Batak, Thai and British cultures, representing “multiculturalism” and “fusion”(Lee Su Kim, 2008)

Nusantara is an Indonesian word for the Indonesian archipelago. Its base meaning in Sanskrit and Indonesian is "archipelago". Particularly in an historic sense, Indonesians often use the term to refer to the archipelago between the Asian and Australian continents, often referred to as the "Malay Archipelago".

Straits-Chinese were defined as those born or living in the Straits Settlements: a British colonial construct of Penang, Malacca and Singapore constituted in 1826. Straits-Chinese were not considered Baba Nyonya unless they displayed certain Sino-Malay syncretic physical attributes. The Straits Chinese regarded the Straits Settlements as their homeland and while maintaining a basically Chinese identity, they gradually abandoned close links of kinship, sentiment, political allegiance and financial remittances to China so characteristic of the non-Baba Chinese (Clammer 1980).A clear distinction must be made between the Straits Chinese and the Straits-born Chinese. To be defined as a Straits Chinese, he or she had to adopt the exterior markers of a Baba or Nyonya, in language, customs, kinship, dress, food and even occupation(Lee Su Kim,2008). But some group accept Strait Born Chinese as Strait Chinese, and allow into Peranakan association and society.

The evolution of this unique ethnic group dates as far back as 500 to 600 years when Chinese traders arrived in the Malay Peninsula, the nucleus of which was Malacca, the center of the Malacca Sultanate. These traders did not bring their womenfolk along, and many intermarried with local women. The reason was because they have to wait for 6 months for the monsoon changes, to allow their wind powered vessel to continue sailing home. Intermarriage between the Babas and the Malays eventually ceased, and for hundreds of years,the Babas married exclusively amongst their own, becoming an endogamous and elite group(Lee Su Kim, 2008)

While the term Peranakan is most commonly used among the ethnic Chinese for those of Chinese descent also known as Straits Chinese (土生華人; named after the Straits Settlements), there are also other, comparatively small Peranakan communities, such as Indian Hindu Peranakans (Chitty), Indian Muslim Peranakans (Jawi Pekan) (Jawi being the Javanised Arabic script, Pekan a colloquial contraction of Peranakan) and Eurasian Peranakans (Kristang). Note: (Kirstang = Christians).(source: wikipedia)

The meaning of Peranakan
In both Malay and Indonesian, 'Peranakan' is defined as 'descendant' with no connotation of the ethnicity of descent unless followed by a subsequent qualifying noun, such as for example Cina (Chinese), Belanda (Dutch) or Jepang/Jepun (Japanese). Peranakan has the implied connotation of referring to the ancestry of great-grandparents or more distant ancestors.
Baba is a Persian loan-word borrowed by Malaysian as an honorific solely for grandparents; it was used to refer to the Straits-Chinese males. The term originated from Hindustani speakers such as vendors and traders and become part of common vernacular. Female Chinese descendants were either called or styled themselves Nyonyas. The word nyonya (also commonly misspelled nonya) is a Javanese loan honorific word from Dutch Nona(grandma) meaning: foreign married Madam. Because Javanese at the time had a tendency to address all foreign women (and perhaps those who appeared foreign) as nyonya, they used that term for Straits-Chinese women, too, and it was gradually associated more exclusively with them.(source: wikipedia)

Disappearing of Peranakan Baba Nyonya culture?

Peranakan culture is disappearing in Malaysia and Singapore. Without colonial British support for their perceived racial neutrality, government policies in both countries following independence from the British have resulted in the assimilation of Peranakans back into mainstream Chinese culture. In Singapore, the Peranakans are classified as ethnically Chinese,the Mother Tongue Policy require them to study Mandarin. In Malaysia, the standardization of Malay as Bahasa Melayu — required for all ethnic groups — has led to a disappearance of the unique characteristics of Baba Malay. In Indonesia, the Peranakan culture is losing popularity to modern Western culture(wikipedia)

Some factors that led to the decline of Baba culture were the gradual geographical dispersion of the Babas, modernization and socialization with other groups, political development of the respective countries, dominance of the Chinese culture, financial and economical factors to maintain the culture, and even migration.

1.Geographical Dispersion - Dispersion from the traditional bastions of Peranakan culture led to diffusion of its cultural characteristics. It was in Malacca that Baba society had its deepest roots. From Malacca, the culture was exported to Penang and Singapore. The Babas gradually became more scattered throughout Malaya and the Southeast Asia region, and with socialization with other groups taking place, they soon lost much of their distinctiveness and exclusiveness. Khoo Kay Kim believes that the large-scale immigration of Chinese into Malaya in the late 19th century contributed to the disintegration of the Baba culture Intermarriage took place between Straits Chinese and non-Straits Chinese,leading to a dilution of Nyonya culture(Lee Su Kim 2008).

2. Exposure to Western ideas and modern culture - With modernization and the introduction of Western ideas, the clannishness of the Babas gradually eroded, and family ties became weak. During the zenith of Peranakan culture, it was not uncommon to find three generations living together under the same roof as one big extended family. Many customs and rituals were less practiced and even the language is transmitted less from one generation to the other under pressure from languages such as English and, with independence, Malay. Presently, some Peranakan families send their children to Mandarin primary schools to master Mandarin. This was something that would not have taken place in the past, since Straits Chinese tended to look down on the Chinese (collectively referred to as Tjina or Tiong hua). Vaughan observed this cleavage between the Straits Chinese and the Sinkhek (Chinese newcomers) in the late 19th century(Lee Su Kim 2008). Ironically, the Sinkhek also looked down at Baba Nyonya as culturally not pure Chinese, Baba Nyonya looked down at Sinkhek for being economical disadvantage and less western educated. The reciprocal perception of opposite group as lower level, either culturally or economically; become a barrier in cultural interaction for the two groups in the past.

3. Modernization and Socialization of young Nyanyas - The changing role of the Nyonyas has also contributed to the gradual decline of the culture. The Nyonya in the past was brought up solely to be a good daughter, wife and mother. They received little education since it was feared that too much education would make them bebas (too free and wild). A good Nyonya was one who had excellent culinary skills, could sew and manage a household well and who would make a good wife and mother.More Nyonyas received education in English-medium schools during the British colonial period. They eventually became more liberated from their former constrained lifestyles. This led to a situation where they no longer know how to observe much of their cultural heritage. Many modern Nyonyas do not know how to cook traditional Peranakan dishes, cannot pass on the language to their children, do not observe the demanding rituals and customs and prefer to wear modern clothes rather than the Nyonya costume, except on special occasions((Lee Su Kim 2008).

4. The Great Depression and WW2 - The depression of the 1930s and the Japanese Occupation delivered another blow to Peranakan culture. At their cultural apex, the Babas and Nyonyas were a very wealthy, powerful and elitist group, many wielded tremendous influence in commerce, economics and politics. Much of the material wealth and prestige of the Babas was lost during the Second World War, and the culture and lifestyles of the Babas went into serious and almost certainly irreversible decline after the Japanese invasion of Malaya in 1942 (Lee Su Kim 2008). This revealed to the Baba Nyonya people that western power no longer a supreme political power, it is time to change culturally and politically.

5. Narrower Economical Gap between Baba & Sinkhek - The Sinkhek become more economically improved and some have success in their businesses, this bring the discriminating perception to an fair level, the intermarriage between Baba and Sinkhek become common for the middle to upper class population. The cultural interaction and perception change, revealed that Western culture is not the supreme culture for success in life, the realization that the Chinese culture and language have their economical value. The political development after WW2 also expedited the process, as colonists left the countries, the culture lost the supporting factor in their culture.

6. The passing of colonists - The passing of the colonial regime, the Babas were left feeling isolated, unable to represent themselves as fully Chinese for numerous cultural and linguistic reasons and yet, not able to be assimilated into Malay culture, since religion was a barrier. In the past, it was possible for Chinese to marry Malays without conversion to Islam, but in present day Malaysia, this is hardly possible. Furthermore, Islam is so linked to Malay ethnicity that the Baba Chinese, whether Baba or non-Baba, regard it as being un-Chinese to embrace Islam (Tan 1988). Thus, as Clammer states, the Straits Chinese have been caught on the horns of their own cultural dilemma (1980). Since they feel more aligned to the Chinese ethnically, and in many respects socially and religiously, it is to the Chinese community of Malaysian society that the Babas and Nyonyas have had to look to for some sense of political and social shelter and belonging. In other words, some sort of “resinification” has taken place where the Babas have had to increasingly identify themselves with the larger Malaysian Chinese community(Lee Su Kim 2008).

7. “resinification”(the return to mother culture) - With the coming of Sinkhek, and the intermarriage between Peranakan and Sinkhek families, the sending of children into Chinese schools(especially in South Malaya), and the emerging of Chinese culture and economy regionally and globally, Chinese language has become increasingly important. Baba Nyonyo, being a sub culture group with strong adapting strength, begin to adapt to new global political and economical environmental changes, which affect culturally, a process of cultural identification and reorientation to their mother culture(Chinese).

8. Cultural succession problem - Migration to other countries, the more educated young baba and nyonya are very westernized, and adopting to western life easily. Many migrated to other countries after completing their education oversea. The culture sub group lost their cultural succession and critical mass to maintain their daily routine cultural practices.

If Peranakan culture cannot survive, we can only hope that the legacy of this extraordinary culture – a culture which brought out the beauty, grace, passion, joie de vivre, industry, resilience and resourcefulness of two major groups of people, the Chinese and the Malays in an amazing synthesis, will remain with us for a long time.

Author Felix Chia, said: "The Baba, a product of an accident of history, is a time traveler. He has come and he must go." But Baba Nyonya culture had become part of Malaysian culture, some of legacy will remain for the future generation. The Baba Nyonya cuisine is one of the example. Another potential cultural heritage to be remain are the Nyonya fashion, and the Baba Nyonya wedding ceremonies. Others will become history and museum items , and it will be historical heritage for future generation to see, that such fusion culture did exist and there are lessons to be learn from the cultural tolerance of Baba Nyonya in a multiracial society.

Penang Baba

Baba and nyonya culture in Penang is pretty different from the ones in Malacca (Melaka), Medan, Singapore or Kota Bharu. If there is a group of Nyonyas and Babas in Melaka who speak exclusively Malay, their counterpart in Penang speak a mixture of Hokkien, Malay and English. The food also has a slight variation too. Not surprising in this sense, since the two places are geographically different.The Babas and Nyonyas are of ethnic Chinese but they were born in Penang. They adopt a lot of local clothing, food, language and culture too in their daily lives,mainly from the Malay and European culture.
(extract from
The difference may be due to the Penang Baba and Nyonya are more receptive to accept new members and open to the cultural environment. The Strait born Chinese are accepted into the community, and the Strait born Chinese also adapt to the Baba Nyonya culture. Some Sinkhek also adopt some of the culture. You can still found some Relau/Sg Ara/Balik Pulau Hakka woman wearing nyonya costume or at least Sarong, and adopted the Baba Nyonya culture, some may be wife of Sinkhek or Strait born Chinese. Obviously they are not original Baba Nyonya people. This indicated that Penang Baba Nyonya was able to insert cultural influence to the Sinkhek and other communities. There are also elements of Sinkhek and Siamese influence in their cuisine. The Baba dialect however still remain more Hokkian biased, an adaption of Malay influence instead of adoption of Malay language directly. Their ancestor may be from Malacca or Indonesia, and they were even export their culture to South Thailand, but Penang Baba and Nyonya are more exposed to cultural diversity. They are not isolated community in Penang. The cultural adaptation of various cultural influence e.g Malay, Java, Achenese, Indian, Siamese, Burmese and British is stronger. Their Achenese and Siamese influence will be specially stronger than their counterpart from Malacca and Singapore. This revealed that there were more cultural interaction among the communities in Penang. It is not surprising as Penang was the cultural melting pot in the past. Penang Baba and Nyonya culture flourish in the environment. However the culture also faced similar problems as faced by the other Baba Nyonya people, their culture is also facing the sign of disappearing.

Related articles/websites:
2. Boost for Baba Nyonya culture(2009), by CHOONG MEK ZHIN, The Star online, dated 6-11-2009,
5. The Peranakan Baba Nyonya Culture: Resurgence or Disappearance?(2008),by Prof Dr Lee Su Kim, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
6. Life And Style: Downfallen Baba-Nyonya,
7. Peranakan, wikipedia
8. Can Peranakan culture survive?(2009), by CHAI MEI LING,
9. Little Nyonya, a Singapore blockbuster drama of 34 episodes featuring story of baba nyonya

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