Baba and Nyonya
The Baba Nyonya, also known as Peranakan or Straits-Chinese, are the descendants of Chinese immigrants who married and assimilated into local communities in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. The number of Chinese migrants increased when the tin mines in Kesang, Johor, opened and started operating. With Malacca as its centre, the Baba Nyonya culture has grown and developed into a rich identity of its own. The Baba Nyonya community is different from the ethnic Chinese communities, but they still consider themselves as Chinese.
“Baba” is an honorific term used for Straits-Chinese men, while “Nyonya” is used for the women. Most of them have lived along the Straits of Malacca for generations, and were mostly English-educated. Due to their background, they could speak two or more languages, and often acted as middlemen for the Chinese and British, and for the Malay and Chinese.
An origin myth of the Baba Nyonya
One of the myths or stories about the origins of the Baba Nyonyas can be found at the Humanity blog. In short, the myth claims that Zheng He of China visited Malacca in the 15th century and gifted Sultan Mansur Shah, then Sultan of Malacca, with Princess Hang Li Po.
Her entourage made a home for themselves in Bukit Cina and laid down the roots for the development of the Baba Nyonya culture.
The Peranakan retained most of their ethnic and religious origins (ancestor worship), but assimilated the language and culture of the Malays. They developed a unique culture and distinct foods. A lot of sources claim that the early Peranakan inter-married with the local Malay population. However, the lack of physical resemblances have also led many experts to believe that the Peranakan Chinese ethnicity has hardly [been] diluted. The Peranakan often sent their sons and daughters to China to look for spouses. Also, the religion of the local Malay population was Islam, which forbids inter-marriage with other religions without conversion first. In the early 1800s, new Chinese immigrants to the Straits Settlements bolstered the Peranakan population.
By the middle of the Twentieth century, most Peranakan were English educated, as a result of the British colonisation of Malaya, and the natural propensity of these people who were able to easily embrace new cultures. Because the Peranakans readily embraced English culture and education, administrative and civil service posts were often filled by prominent Straits Chinese. The interaction with the British also caused many in the community to convert to Christianity. The Peranakan community thereby became very influential in Malacca and Singapore and were known also as the King’s Chinese due to their perceived loyalty to the British Crown. Because of the interaction of the different cultures and languages that Peranakans had, up to the mid-1900s, most Peranakans were trilingual, able to converse with Chinese, Malays and the British. Common vocations were as 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 advisors 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.]
Baba Nyonya is the result of a marriage between a female Malay and a male Chinese. It was common for Chinese traders in the early days to marry Malay women from Peninsular Malaysia or take them as concubines. As a result, the Baba Nyonya boast a unique mix of Malay cultural characteristics. Peranakans of those days are married through arranged marriages with other Peranakan. Marriage in the olden days was not as easy and simple as it is now; marriage of same stature and within the same society were the standard during that time.
The Baba Nyonya community has various unique customs and traditions, especially when it comes to weddings. Marriage proposals are put into a 2-tiered lacquered basket, known as Bakul Siah, and placed into the hands of the bride’s parents by the middle-person who speaks on behalf of the proposer. Sometimes, instead of Bakul Siah, wealthy Peranakans would use beautifully embroidered gilded pagoda trays (Botekan Candi in Indonesian).
Wedding invitations were done in red because the colour red represents happiness and harmony. The invitation cards are typically sent by a dispatcher known as “Pak Chindek”, who usually takes about six days to deliver all of them.
Their wedding ceremony is predominantly based on Chinese traditions and is one of the most fascinating and colourful wedding ceremonies in Malaysia. The highlight of the wedding would be the 12-day ceremony and banquet, called “makan tok panjang” which literally means long table feast.
In the Chinese culture, it’s very important to hold the wedding ceremony on auspicious days and at particular times. The same holds true for the Baba Nyonyas. The auspicious days will be chosen according to the eight Chinese characters, which the Hokkiens call “pek ji”, based on one’s birth date and time. During this time, taboos are carefully and strictly observed. The marriages were mostly match-made, and the decision is made by the parents and/or elders, though the bride and groom are consulted during the process. The wedding rituals are witnessed by their ancestors, elders, and deities. Wedding items usually feature the prosperous colours of red, pink, orange, gold, and yellow, and are embroidered with unique motifs to establish a good marriage. Like the Chinese, they believe that it’s auspicious to have things that come in pairs, which is why there is usually two of each wedding item.
The Baba Nyonya culture is the result of the acculturation development, which occurs when a culture accepts and assimilates foreign customs and elements. The similarities between the Baba Nyonya and Malay cultures can be seen in food and clothing. Many Nyonya dishes are similar to Malay cooking, like, “bubur cha cha”, “nasi kerabu”, “sambal”, and “embuk-embuk”.
Influenced by the Malay culture, the Nyonya cuisine uses the same common Malay spices. An example of a Nyonya dish is Chicken Kapitan, which is a dry chicken curry. Nyonya Laksa is a highly popular dish in Malaysia, and can be found in Malacca as well as Singapore. Pongteh is also another unique dish of the Baba Nyonya community. The primary ingredients of this savoury dish are shallots, fermented bean sauce, chicken, and black mushroom.
As for dessert, there are some very famous traditional Nyonya cakes (kueh) like Kueh Kochi, Lepat Kacang, Apom Balik, Kueh Bongkong, Pulot Inti, Ondeh-Ondeh, Kueh Genggang, and more. These traditional cakes are also made during festivals and celebrations.
Nyonya restaurants in Malacca:
1. Nancy’s Kitchen
Opening Hours: Monday – Sunday 11:00 – 17:30
Address: Jalan Hang Lekir off Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, Malacca
Phone: +606 283 6099
2. Kocik Kitchen
Opening Hours: Monday – Sunday 11:00 – 15:00
Address: 100, Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, Malacca
Tel: +6016 929 6605
3. Seri Nyonya Peranakan Restaurant
Opening Hours: Monday – Sunday 12:00 – 14:30, 18:30 – 22:30
Address: Hotel Equatorial Malacca, Banda Hilir, Malacca
Tel: +606 282 8333
4. Restoran Peranakan
Opening Hours: Monday – Sunday 12:00 – 14:30, 18:30 – 22:00
Address: 107, Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, Malacca
Tel: +606 284 5001
5. Amy Heritage Nyonya Cuisine
Opening Hours: Tuesday – Sunday 11:30 – 14:30, 18:00 – 22:00
Address: 75, Jalan Melaka Raya, Taman Melaka Raya, Malacca
Tel: +606 286 8819
The Baba Nyonyas speak Baba Malay, which is a creole language that contains words from the Malay and Hokkien languages. Due to their ability to quickly adapt to local cultures, most of the Baba Nyonyas can speak two or more languages and dialects, like Baba Malay, English, and Chinese.
Today, the Baba Malay creole is a dying language that is mostly used by the older generation. Many of the younger generation do not know how to speak it anymore and often use English or Chinese as their primary language.
The traditional clothing of a Nyonya are the Baju Panjang (Long Dress) and Baju Kebaya. The Baju Panjang is usually worn by the older Nyonyas while the younger Nyonyas prefer the shorter and more colourful Kebaya. It’s worn with a Sarong (Batik wrap-around skirt) and 3 kerosang (brooches). Their beaded slippers, called the Kasot Manek-Manek, are skillfully and patiently made by hand and can feature tiny multi-faceted glass-cut beads (Manek Potong) from Bohemia.
The traditional Kasot Manek-Manek mostly floral and oriental themed, influenced by the batik sarong and Peranakan porcelain. Mostly, they were made into flats or bedroom slippers, but, since the 1930s, heels were gradually added to the footwear.
Sharing similarities with the Malay Kebaya, the Kebaya Nyonya is traditionally made of “kasa rubia” fabric (a sheer cotton-like fabric) or printed cotton. Kebayas made from “kasa rubia” are embroidered with intricate flora and fauna designs with “kerawang” borders (floral scalloped borders). Traditional Kebayas also comes “tebok lobang” a line a tiny holes running on each side of the kebaya, from the shoulders to the hem to accentuate the wearer’s feminine form. As the Kebaya is sheer and almost transparent, a camisole or “baju dalam” is worn underneath for decency. Bejewelled “kerosang” are used to fasten the front opening of the Kebaya.
The Baju Panjang is similar to the Malay’s Baju Kurung but has an opening in front similar to the Kebaya. A set of “kerosang” is used as fastening. As the Baju Panjang is typically worn by the older Nyonyas, the colours and patterns of the fabric used are muted. The length of the Baju Panjang’s outer coat reaches the knees, unlike the Kebaya that stops at mid-hips. The inner wear is a white long sleeved blouse with a high collar.
A sarong is a long length of cotton fabric that’s often wrapped around the waist. It’s mainly worn by men and women in South East Asian countries like Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei. The fabric woven with checkered patterns or plaid are favoured by the men, while the ladies prefer floral designs. Nyonyas prefer their sarongs adorned with delicate floral designs such as the peonies, roses, morning glories and chrysanthemums. It is not unusual to see sarongs with phoenix and peacocks designs.
A kerosang is often made out of metal, such as silver and gold, and decorated with gemstones. It can be used as an ornament, but, most of the time, it’s used to secure the position of clothing, such as the baju panjang.
The Baba Nyonyas have adapted to Chinese belief systems, such as Chinese Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, as well as Christianity. Just like the Chinese, they, too, observe the Lunar New Year, the Lantern Festival, and many other Chinese celebrations. Their culture is also strongly influenced by the British, Dutch, Portuguese, Malay, and Indonesian.
Just like any other culture, Baba Nyonyas strongly believe in the observation of pantang larang (taboos), especially within the older generations. There are some pantang larang that were deemed too stiff and complicated. Today, in keeping up with the modern times, most of the Baba Nyonyas no longer practise these pantang larang.
The Baba Nyonyas also believe in shamans (a practitioner of magic). For example, when a baby cries non-stop, they will seek help from shamans as they believe that an evil spirit is at work. Another taboo involves forbidding pregnant women from leaving their house at dusk as they believe that this is when demons and evil spirits are active. It is also said that the blood of a pregnant woman attracts Pontianaks (women who died during childbirth and turned into spirits). When a pregnant woman has to travel, they will always bring items that are made of metal, like a knife, as they believe that metal scares the evil spirits away.
Cultural and historical items from the Baba Nyonya culture are displayed at the Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum, the Straits Chinese Jewellery Museum, and other historical establishments found in the neighbourhood of Jonker Street and Heeren Street in Malacca. Other notable Peranakan places of interest are: the Pinang Peranakan Mansion in Penang, Malaysia; and the Peranakan Museum, Baba House, and the Intan Museum in Singapore. Exhibits include food, furniture, and even traditional clothes.
Free weekly shows featuring Baba Nyonya and traditional Chinese cultural performances can also be found at Jonker Street in Malacca. Other Peranakan traditional collections, such as batik and bead-works, can also be found in museums outside of South East Asia. The Honolulu Museum of Art and Australian Museum are known to exhibit such collections.
1. Pinang Peranakan Mansion
Address: 29, Church St, Georgetown, 10200 George Town, Penang, Malaysia
Phone: +60 4-264 2929
Monday to Sunday including Public Holidays from 9:30 am to 5 pm
Adults: RM20.00; Children(below 6): Free
2. Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum
Address: 48-50, Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, 75200 Melaka, Malaysia
Phone: +60 6-283 1273
Daily Tour Times: 10am – 1:00pm (last morning tour 12noon); 2pm – 5:00pm (last evening tour 4pm)
Extended Hour on Weekends: Fri, Sat, Sun (last evening tour 5:00pm)
Adults: RM 8; Children (aged 5 to 12): RM 4
3. Straits Chinese Jewellery Museum
Address: Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, Taman Kota Laksamana, 75200 Melaka, Malaysia
Phone: +60 4-2642929
Opening Days: 7 days a week, 9.30am-5.30pm
Adults: RM20/person; Children: RM10 (below 6 year-old: Free)
In the 1950s, the Baba Nyonya culture was featured in several Hong Kong films, such as: Niangre/ Nyonya (娘惹，1952), Fengyu Niuche Shui/ Rainstorm in China town (风雨牛车水，1956), Niangre yu Baba/ Nyonya and Baba (娘惹与峇峇，1956), and Niangre Zhi lian/ Love with a Malaysian Girl (娘惹之恋，1969).
In Malaysia, the popularity of the comedy drama show entitled “Baba Nyonya” turned it into the longest-running TV series in the country. The TV show ran from the late 1990s till 2000, with 509 episodes in total, and earned a place in the Malaysian Book of Records.
The Baba Nyonyas have a very unique style of architecture that brings together Western and Eastern components, like elaborated plaster works and ceramic artwork. They are particularly renowned for their unique colonial bungalows. In most of the houses, you’ll notice a distinctive infusion of artworks from both the Malay and Chinese cultures, which is definitely the only one of its kind.
The architectural styles of Baba-Nyonya properties in Malaysia are usually associated with the Straits Eclectic Style. The Straits Eclectic Shophouses started appearing in the mid to late 20th century (1940 – 1990). In the early 20th century, shophouses in the Straits Settlements began to incorporate full-length French windows with a pair of full-length timber shutters, an arched or rectangular transom over the window opening, pilasters of classical orders, and plaster renderings. Reinforced concrete was later used to allow wider roof overhangs and more elaborate cantilevered brackets which sprung from above the pilasters.
A shophouse, or row house, has two or more storeys. The first floor is usually used for commercial purposes, such as warehouses or sundry shops, and the second floor served as living quarters. The shophouse is not a standalone building. Like terrace houses, it is one of the several separate units that share dividing walls. One building can be made up of any number of shophouses.
The shophouse is easily found in the urban areas of Malaysia. Some people may prefer to live in these houses with no intent of opening a business. The building itself will have a huge entrance with a timber bar locked into the door head, and louvred panel windows. A 5-foot way (kaki lima), or a walkway with veranda, is one of the unique features of this particular house. This covered 5-foot walkway commonly features an arched opening that joins one house with the rest of the street front. This standout feature has become an instantly recognisable characteristic of a Baba Nyonya house.
For more interesting information:
- Thaipusam – The Festival of Lord Murugan
- 25 Mouthwatering Dishes Of Malaysia
- A Muhibbah Celebration: The Lantern Festival Charity Bazaar
- Cleaning Up Bentong for Malaysia Day
- Traditional Clothes of Malaysia
- Indians in Malaysia
- Guan Yin Day
- The Dragon Boat Festival: A Fusion of Traditional and Modern Culture
- Gawai Dayak – The Celebration of Bountiful Harvest
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