Have you ever watched one of the most famously known Malaysian-Singaporean Chinese dramas, called “Little Nyonya”? It was indeed an amazing movie to watch! Despite the interesting plot which made viewers chase episode by episode until the end, many of the viewers also noticed the unique background and setting that took place within the drama. Viewers from locals even mentioned that the attire, spoken language, customs, and practices portrayed within the drama resemble the mixture of the three main cultures, the Chinese arts and crafts, the Malay dresses, and the Western-style architecture. The drama not only caught the attention of most viewers, but it also presented a lifestyle of an unknown ethnicity that is buried away within history and wants to reveal to the world. The setting was all based on the lifestyle and culture of the Baba Nyonya or known as the “Peranakan”.
To be honest, I’m proud that the drama was portrayed culturally appropriate as it made me, even more, realize and appreciate the heritage on behalf of my mother as she is Baba Nyonya as well. Every visit back to her hometown, Taiping, I would encounter things, like the Bakul Sia as I step into one of the bedrooms in the wooden house. However, nothing comes more appreciated than the Nyonya cuisine, like the Pulut Ikan which my grandaunt makes for us when we visit them in Taiping. As nostalgic it is, all of these have inspired me to write such an article as not only does it mean a lot to me as a half Chinese-Baba Nyonya, I feel that I might have a duty to explain much to our Multiracial society for better understanding about this lost heritage. Without further ado, let’s take a look at Baba Nyonya.
What is Baba Nyonya?
This is one of the questions when people ask me about Baba Nyonya and more questions like these: “Is your grandfather or grandmother a Malay?”, “do you speak Malay?” and even more question that is out of my expectations, like this, “So are you Bumiputera?” Well, I would like to dismiss it because it is a long story to talk about. Back on the topic, Baba Nyonya or known as Peranakan or Strait Chinese, which are terms that are used interchangeably, refers to a group of hybridized cultural ethnicity which mostly found in the Malay Archipelago regions, like Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. In Malaysia, the Peranakan culture has a stronghold presence and influence in states like Malacca and Penang. The presence of this unique culture resulted from the process of transculturation and interracial marriage for centuries. Without wasting time, let us hope for the highlight of this article.
Things that you might not know about it:
History and Origins of Baba Nyonya
First of all, the origins of Baba Nyonya traces back as early as the Ming Dynasty, around the 10th to 17th century. During that period, China was experiencing an economic downfall which forced people from China gradually moved to the South, the region which they called “Nanyang”, known as South East Asia that we call today.
During that period, Malaysia and Singapore were under the British Colonial Rule, where mining was the prime industry in the region. Seeking for sufficient labor force to meet the demand in the market, the British employed thousands of Chinese workers to work in the mining industry. Thus, all of them were granted a permanent settlement in the region. As a result, this allowed Chinese men to date and marry local women, mostly Malay, forming a new bloodline, which would be called Peranakan, in which males are called Baba and females are called Nyonya. It consists of the cultural blend with the ancient Chinese culture and the local Nusantara customs together, forming a new race.
Culture and Customs of Baba Nyonya
Besides that, the culture and customs of Baba Nyonya are both unique and exotic as it is a hybridized community consisting of a mixture of customs of Chinese and Malay. These are explained in several aspects, such as the attire, and some items which can only be found in the Peranakan community.
Attire and Footwear
This is the most obvious feature that differentiates the Baba Nyonya and the actual Chinese. In terms of the attire, the Baba normally wear baju Lokchuan or known as the Mandarin jacket which is identical to the traditional attire worn by most Chinese men. Meanwhile, the huge difference is the attire of Nyonya, which usually wears baju Kebaya along with batik sarong instead of Cheongsam that most Chinese women normally wear. The baju Kebaya is a very unique style of fashion, heavily influenced by a blend of Chinese and Malay.
Speaking about the Nyonya Kebaya, it is a lovely, translucent, figure-hugging embroidered blouse composed of lightweight fabric, such as silk, thin cotton, or semi-transparent nylon or polyester, and embellished with extremely talented hand embroidery in the past or machine embroidery in the present. Since the traditional Kebaya does not have buttons along the front, a beautiful metal brooch is worn on the breast to seal the blouse opening – which is known as the “Kerosang.” It is composed of brass, iron, silver, or gold and is embellished with semi-precious stones. Along the Kebaya dress comes the batik Sarong which is a long piece of cloth sewed together to make a broad tube, which is then kept together by a belt, generally a silver belt. It is worn around the waist and is tied together by a silver or metal belt or rope.
Besides that, the footwear for the Nyonya is called the Kasut Manek or Manek Shoes. These shoes are beaded slippers that are meticulously beaded and sewn. Both Babas and Nonyas wear these slippers, although the ladies wear them more frequently. Heels were progressively used with the “Manek” slippers beginning in the 1930s.
Bakul Sia and Kamcheng
Besides that, do you remember the Bakul Sia which I mentioned before during the visit to Taiping? Well, Bakul Sia or known as an auspicious basket by some, is a Melaka Malay and Nyonya traditional basket. It is often made of rattans, bamboo, or wood and covered in thick paper or leather (lacquered), and the basket is dyed red and black before being decorated with gold auspicious designs to represent success and wealth. Nowadays, people utilize this basket for a variety of purposes or events, such as weddings or feasts, to store fruits, cakes, Dodol, or traditional Melaka snacks/products.
Meanwhile, ‘Kamcheng,’ a Hokkien term, implies ‘close’ or ‘in a good connection.’ ‘Kamcheng’ is a covered jar in Peranakan Chinese culture. This brightly colored porcelain is only used on exceptional events and celebrations. Surprisingly, some Kamchengs are decorated with images of living beings, such as the Phoenix signifying man and Peony blossoms representing ladies. ‘Kamcheng’ was traditionally used as a container for water, pickles, and other forms of food. Because it can be found in practically every Peranakan Chinese household, ‘Kamcheng’ is one of the most identifiable specimens of Peranakan Chinese porcelain.
As we all know Patriarchy is the norm of society, especially in Asian nations. However, the norm of Baba Nyonya stands out as the community would practice Matriarchy as the norm. It sounds like women are the head of the family, but females have traditionally been advised to wear kebaya and stay at home except on the 15th day of the Chinese New Year. They are the head of the family as Nyonyas carry the duties of making choices for the family while men go to work. So you’ll be shocked to learn that the Nyonyas can not only sew, embroider, and cook, but they can also guard their family. Thus, matrilocal marriage is acceptable was common in the past. Instead of the females going into the male’s house, it turned the other way around, with the Baba moving into the Nyonya’s house to reside.
When someone passes away in a house, a white masking tape would mark an “X” over the family plague which is usually hung above the main door to signify that the family was in mourning. The duration of the full funeral lasts for three years which is similar to the Chinese custom. However, the attires are slightly different as Babas wear sackcloths while Nyonyas would wear sackcloths to baju Kebaya in black with Sarong depending on the stage of the mourning. Also, Nyonya would adorn themselves with pearl mourning Jewellery in silver, which symbolized droplets of tears. Such practice is culturally similar to the Victorian west which was the result of the British colonial influence. To mark the end of the mourning, Nyonyas would wear a bright-colored attire along with an Ixora flower insert onto her chignon.
The Nyonya Cuisine
Furthermore, the Nyonya cuisine is both outstanding and delicious thus it is often recommended for tourists who wish to taste the bits of true local cuisine. As seen, the Chinese kept their tradition in terms of religion, name, and ethnic identity, while their cuisine was impacted by the Malay, owing to the lack of certain products, forcing them to innovate. As a result, they adopted Chinese cooking methods towards Malay ingredients or discovered new ingredients to incorporate into their existing dishes, giving birth to a new array of Peranakan/Nyonya cuisine.
Besides the Pulut Ikan which I mentioned before, some of the most popular of which include Laksa Nyonya, Kapitan Curry, and Acar, to name a few. The Nyonya food is known to be quite time-consuming as the dishes are prepared with ingredients with detailed steps as a skip of a step would cause a huge difference in the results, such as the taste and appearance of the dish. Patience will pay off in the end as it is worth the taste.
The Houses of Baba Nyonya
The houses of Baba Nyonya consist of some features which modern houses will not built in nowadays. The Baba Nyonya houses are often known as “Chinese Baroque” architecture, are a blend of European, Chinese, and Malay elements. This is since the Peranakan Cina began to adopt European patterns while working closely with the Dutch and British throughout the colonial era. They resided in colonial bungalows or Anglo-Indian villas and had a high life.
The most eye-catching feature within the house is the indoor courtyard which is common in most western-style homes. The courtyard is intended to be both functional and spatial. It serves as natural ventilation for fresh air to enter the room as well as a natural skylight for the surrounding surroundings. The courtyard provides natural light areas and a view of the inner garden while being surrounded by other rooms or architectural features that are open to the sky for spatial objectives that enrich the spatial experience.
Language of Baba Nyonya
Baba Malay is the language of the Babas and Nyonyas, or Chinese Peranakans, who live in the erstwhile Straits of Settlement of Singapore, Malacca, and Penang. This one-of-a-kind language may be categorized as a creole, which is a one-of-a-kind language formed through the encounter of two or more languages. Malay and Hokkien are the two languages in this example. The Baba language, in particular, borrows its syntax from Hokkien and a major percentage of its lexicon from Malay, except family words. Linguists who study the language refer to it as ‘Baba Malay,’ but some members of the community who speak the language prefer ‘Baba Patois,’ while others refer to it as ‘Baba Language’ or ‘the Peranakan Language.’
Surprisingly, many people might not notice that Baba Malay has three different varieties due to the location across the Malay Peninsular. There are the Baba Malay from Penang, Malacca, and Singapore. Starting from Malaysia, in Penang, the Baba Malay is heavily based on the Hokkien dialect which is one of the Chinese dialects while the Malaccan dialect is heavily based on the Malay Language. Lastly, the variant in Singapore is heavily influenced by the English Language.
The current State of Baba Nyonya
Last but not least, this is my least interesting fact about the Baba Nyonya. Most people might not notice the fact that Baba Nyonya has the status of Bumiputera, However, due to political reasons and the change in social status in the regions, especially in Malaysia, Baba Nyonya has lost its prestigious status when a policy by the Malaysian Federal Government was introduced that showed all Baba Nyonya are categorized as Chinese. This made this uniquely hybridized ethnicity lose its status as Bumiputera which was highly regarded during the former British Colonial Rule.
Moreover, most current descendants of the Baba Nyonya family have started to embrace the return to the original Chinese culture making the culture less influential and forgotten over time. Plus, over the past years since the end of the 90s, the implementation of other race-religious-based policies further driven out the Baba Nyonya population to foreign countries, like the United Kingdom. Plus, the Baba Language assimilation got faster in Singapore when more Peranakan families sent their children to Chinese or Convent schools to learn additional languages, like Mandarin or English. In Malaysia, the Standard Malay Language is mandatory for all students to acquire, including the minority ethnic groups, like Baba Nyonya. This situation made the Baba Malay irrelevant to the point it is classified as an endangered language with only around 2000 speakers in Malaysia and Singapore as in 2014.
Despite the uncertainties ahead, several associations provide the best efforts to save and preserve the almost lost culture, like the establishment of Baba Nyonya museums in Penang, Malacca, and Singapore, which are promoted as tourist destinations. At the same time, online classes are available to learn the Baba Malay Language which is conducted via zoom on weekly basis.
Baba Nyonya is the most unique community to have ever appeared in Malaysia. It is a result of a multiracial society that lived harmoniously with other ethnicities as it used to be in the past times. Sadly, due to political reasons and changes in society, the culture of Baba Nyonya will soon be diminished over time. In my opinion, the efforts to preserve and save the culture from extinction is a huge glad for me as I believe that this once forgotten cultural heritage will soon be back in the public eyes.