The Baba Nyonyas or Peranakan Chinese form a rich part of Malaysia’s multicultural heritage. Comprising early immigrants from China who journeyed to Southeast Asia between the 14th and 19th centuries and married local women, they formed a unique hybrid culture which incorporates Sino-Malay influences. Concentrated mainly in the Straits Settlements of Melaka, Penang and Singapore, their influence is still palpable today through their unique customs, dressing and cuisine.
“In the 1800s, the British colonisers provided commercial opportunities which the Babas took full advantage of, and they became the wealthy elite of the Straits Settlements. The Golden Age of the Baba Nyonyas was between the late 1800s and early 1900s. They prided themselves on their sharp business acumen and a meticulous approach to all aspects of life – from daily dealings to household dynamics,” says Dr David Neo, cultural researcher and senior lecturer with the College of Creative Arts at UiTM Malaysia.
“Malaysia and Indonesia have a rich Peranakan legacy. The term ‘Peranakan’ essentially means locally born and refers to communities formed of mixed ethnic ancestry. In Malaysia itself, there are apparently nine different Peranakan communities including the Baba Nyonyas (Peranakans with Chinese ancestry) in Melaka and Penang, the Chetti in Melaka (Peranakans with Indian ancestry), the Jawi Peranakans (Peranakans with Arab ancestry), the Eurasians (Peranakans with European ancestry), and Kelantan and Terengganu Peranakans,” Dr Neo added.
Baba Cedric Tan, a sixth-generation Melakan Baba active in the promotion of Baba Nyonya culture and also the immediate past president of Persatuan Peranakan Baba Nyonya Kuala Lumpur & Selangor (PPBNKLS), said, “The Baba Nyonyas spoke Patois or Baba Malay, a colloquial dialect. It comprises classical Malay words, Javanese, and a sprinkling of Dutch, Portuguese and English. Patois was spoken mainly by the Baba Nyonyas in the southern states of Melaka and Singapore.
The communities here share many similarities as during the formative years of Singapore, many Baba Nyonyas from Melaka moved there.”
“There is a close connection between them unlike with the Baba Nyonyas in Penang, whose culture has had a shorter developmental time. The Baba Nyonya community in Penang was smaller and constantly growing with newly arrived Chinese migrants. Thus, their language did not develop to the level of the Patois spoken by the communities in Melaka and Singapore. Penang Patois is more heavily accented with Hokkien and Kedah Malay words.”
Dr David Neo shared amusing examples of Patois used to great effect by his sharp-tongued Nyonya grandmother in the 2015 issue of The Peranakan magazine: “Tengok mulot dia macham geledak abis idung dia pesak sekali!” (Look at how wide her mouth and flat her nose is!) his grandmother would say as she berated a newscaster on television. When she was contemptuous of a lady singing in church, she said, “Dengair mak dia nyanyi macham itek gila!” (His mother sings like a crazy duck!).
Among the cornerstone events in the lives of the Baba Nyonyas were weddings and the practice of ancestral worship. Both involved elaborate rituals and customs. Dr David Neo said, “The Baba Nyonyas, especially from prominent families, prided themselves on how detailed they were in their rituals and customs. Sumptuous dishes were prepared during these events and cooked in large amounts. There would be no cutting of corners in any aspect and we must understand that this is central to their culture. Everything that they did was to display their wealth and status, and this was a way of distinguishing themselves and upholding their image.”
Cedric Tan said, “A full Baba Nyonya wedding would usually last 12 days. The event would begin on the wedding eve with a special luncheon for Nyonyas only, followed by a formal dinner for all guests. After dinner, the Cheo Thau or hair combing ceremony would take place. It is an important rite of passage signifying the entrance of the couple to adulthood. This ceremony culminates in the bride and groom wearing their elaborate wedding robes for the first time.”
“Cheo Thau is essentially a vow taking ceremony in front of the Jade Emperor. It involves the use of several symbolic objects such as a pair of scissors (to signify decisiveness, as there would be no retraction once wed), a razor, ruler, small set of scales (to show fairness in dealings), a comb and a piece of red thread that is three metres long. The red thread is wound around the hair bun of the bride or the hair braid of the groom and signifies hope that their lineage will last for at least three generations.”
“On the actual wedding day, the groom will make his way to the bride’s house with a lot of fanfare. He will be welcomed with yellow turmeric rice and rose water, and then invited to the bridal chamber where he will unveil the bride and they will have their first meal together. That will mark the end of the first day when they actually become man and wife. In modern times however, the 12-day ceremony has been truncated to just a weekend of festivities.”
Another cornerstone of the Baba Nyonya culture is their ancestral worship practice which has become an art form. Dr David Neo takes us through the ancestral worship practices of the southern Baba Nyonyas.
“Affluent families would have a Rumah Abu (ancestral home) which houses the family ancestral tablets and usually there is a Tiah Abu (ancestral hall) for these. The ancestral tablets would date back to their earliest forefathers. From the tablets, which would have the same information as that engraved on their gravestones, the families would be able to trace their genealogy.”
“The eldest son would usually assume responsibility for the Rumah Abu as the patrilineal heir. The Baba Nyonyas would place much importance on Sembahyang Abu or ancestral worship, which was observed a few times yearly, especially for important events such as before the Chinese New Year, on the death anniversaries of ancestors, during Ching Ming and during the Hungry Ghost Festival (Bulan Tujoh/ Hantu).
For some families, there might be Sembahyang Abu nearly every month. This practice is more for the living than the dead, and to ensure that ancestral blessings would prosper the current and future generations.”
Today Baba Nyonya culture is kept alive in Malaysia by active associations such as Persatuan Peranakan Baba Nyonya Kuala Lumpur & Selangor. Formed on 28 July 2008, its immediate past president Cedric Tan spoke about efforts to spread awareness of the rich culture and heritage of the community. “When I was President of the association from 2014 to 2020, I focused on outreach programmes such as to universities. We organised programmes at Taylors Lakeside University, Sunway University, Berjaya School of Hospitality and also Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.”
“We also spent a lot of time building cultural capacity and organising cultural performances such as for TV2, TV3, the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture and for MATIC in Kuala Lumpur. We were pleased to also publish a cookbook in 2020, commemorating the treasured stories and recipes of our mother and grandmothers.”
“We truly hope that Malaysians today continue to take the trouble to understand the deeper meaning behind the Baba Nyonya culture, and its importance within a rich multicultural country such as ours. Finally, we hope that our passionate efforts in the spreading of knowledge and insights into our heritage will continue to keep it vibrant and alive in our diverse community,” Cedric Tan concluded.
Cover Image: A wedding segment re-enacted during the Gala Dinner Night of the 26th Baba Nyonya Convention in Kuala Lumpur in November 2013 (Photo courtesy of Cedric Tan)