500 to 600 years ago when Chinese traders arrived in parts of the Malay
The Chinese men did not bring their women folk along, and many
intermarried with the local women.
There are traces of Portuguese, Dutch, British, Malay and Indonesian
influences in Baba culture
Baba Nyonya subscribed to Chinese beliefs: Taoism, Confucianism and
A certain number of Baba Nyonya families were and still are, Catholic
According to a legend in 1459 CE, the Emperor of China
sent a princess,
to the Sultan of
token of appreciation for his tribute. The nobles (500 sons
of ministers) and servants who accompanied the princess
initially settled in
and eventually grew into a
class of Straits-born Chinese known as the Peranakan.
Chinese men in
slave women. Their
descendants moved to Penang and Singapore during
To introduce the
cultures of the Baba
Nyonya in Malacca.
To introduce the
practices of Baba
birth, wedding and
To compare the Baba
Nyonya culture with
the Chinese culture.
simply a random mixture, a pot-pourri of bits and pieces, it is a
genuine synthesis – something which not only incorporates but
also transcends the component parts out of which it springs.
The Baba language or Baba Malay is a patois of the Malay
language, with many words borrowed from Chinese (especially
Hokkien), Portuguese, Dutch, Tamil and English.
It is a creole language for intra-group communication and was
the lingua franca of the Straits Settlements.
Here are some examples of Baba Nyonya language:
Father‟s elder brother Nchek (Chek)
Father‟s younger brother
Male: Peranakans in the past wore the Kain pelekat as casual attire, which is a type of
Indian cloth made of cotton about 2m long and 1.2m wide.
Women: Nyonyas wore sarongs with various styled blouses as a 2-piece ensemble
known in Malay as the baju panjang which consists of a long tunic worn over a sarong.
Fastened with kerongsang (brooches), the tunics are worn with colourful sarongs. .
However, these ladies wore only an inner blouse with sarongs at home. This fashionable
blouse is hip-length and called a "short dress" in Hokkien. The V–shaped neckline of the
baju panjang would reveal the inner blouse and its high collar and complete with a large
square hankerchief (saputangan/setangan).
Peranakan food is a wonderful combination of Malay and Chinese cuisine with
influences from Indonesia, Thailand, India, Holland, Portugal and England. Nyonya food
is clearly unique and Malaysian/Singaporean in identity, according to Tan Chee Beng
Peranakan or Nyonya cuisine combines Chinese, Malay and other influences into a
unique blend. Nyonya cooking is the result of blending Chinese ingredients and wok
cooking techniques with spices used by the Malay/Indonesian community. The food is
tangy, aromatic, spicy and herbal.
Example of peranakan dishes are:
Ayam buah keluak
THE CELEBRATION OF BIRTH
At the full lunar month muar-guay ceremony, that is, thirty days after the birth of the
child Nyonyas would hold a ceremony whereby nasi kunyit (steamed glutinous
tumeric rice), chicken curry and red bean cakes in the shape of tortoises (ang-koo)
together with either ang-t'oe or ang-ee and two red hard-boiled chicken eggs would
be offered to the ancestors
The muar-guay ceremony also marks the end of the pantang (taboo or abstinence
period for the baby's mother) as was also practised by the Malay women after child
CELEBRATION OF DEATH
A Taoist priest or priestess is invited to help clean and
dress the deceased before placing the body in the coffin.
The deceased would be dressed in the white pyjamas
worn on his wedding eve.
The Peranakan believed that death is a continuation of
Thus, goods such as money, televisions or motor cars,
represented in paper crafts and made in miniature, are
burnt as offerings.
The family of the deceased is to mourn for a total of
one-and-a half-years. They are to wear twelve months of
black, the next three months in black
At death, all mirrors and other reflecting surfaces were
covered or concealed while all household deities were
covered with red paper.
THE CELEBRATION OF WEDDINGS
Peranakan weddings of old combined Chinese and Malay elements in the
The malay influence was apparent in the language used, the jewelry, the
proceedings, the use of the mak andam and pak chindek, the use of the pak
boyan in the wedding procession and other examples.
They begin with the presentation of the birth certificates “Sang Jee” &
preparation of the bridal chamber “Ann Ching”, On this day at the chosen
time, bananas, yams & citronella plants (serai) are placed under the bridal bed
by a young boy “Koo Yah” who is privileged to roll thrice on the bridal bed for
the first time.
On the eve of the Wedding besides mid-day luncheon or dinner being given
“Chia Lang Khek” the gifts for the bride & groom-to-be are exchanged
The Cheo Thau ceremony is one of the most important ceremonies and marks
the first occasion when the bride and bridegroom will wear their authentic
The father then prays at the High Altar and offers wine to God, the Creator, by
pouring wine four times on the floor. Following this he offers a sip of wine
from the same cup to his beloved daughter who is now a woman
The finale of the wedding ceremony, would be the dua belas hari or Twelfth
Day ceremony, where the marriage would be conformed and approved by
proof of the bride‟s virginity.
Peranakan women spoke only the Melayu Pasar or colloquial Malay that was
widely used throughout the islands of the archipelago, as they had no access
to Chinese education like some of their menfolk.
Peranakan identity is multi-faceted, evolving, slippery, and full of
contradictions. Perhaps also, all cultural identities are equally indefinable
wearing the cheongsam: with loads of diamonds on her dress and hair,
Penang, 1920s.Peranakan women emerged from the cosmopolitan, mixedrace environment of Dutch and British colonial towns several centuries ago,
via unions between Chinese migrant males from Fujian, and
enslaved females from Bali, Sumatra or Sulawesi among other islands.
Peranakan women have engaged with Chinese costume over the centuries, as
pioneers of transcultural cross-dressing, reveals how nebulous the concept of
„identity‟ can be.
Modern nyonyas in the 1930s abandoned their sarong kebayas for this, while
older ladies chose to wear the qipao at formal events where members of other
races were present.
Cantonese pronunciation of the term for a long gown, became widely current,
perhaps as a result of the rise of Hong Kong as the centre of popular Chinese
culture and film production.
The Babas and Nyonyas are a unique sociological and cultural phenomenon
that occurred in an era of momentous transition. They have significantly
enriched the Malaysian and Singaporean cultural heritage, cuisine, fashion
and the arts. I conclude with a quote from the late First Lady, Datin Seri
I am only too aware that many aspects of Malaysia‟s collective culture are
being eroded and may disappear altogether if steps are not being taken to
preserve them or to record them for posterity. I feel it is important that we do
not lose our own. Already there are signs that we have lost some big part of
this heritage. 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.