Pursuing the Peranakans

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STRAITS Chinese, Straits-born Chinese, Baba Chinese or simply Baba, and Peranakan are terms which have been used interchangeably. The Straits Settlements, comprising Penang, Malacca and Singapore, formed a historical, political unit which no longer exists. Throughout the period when it did exist, not all the Chinese living in the Straits Settlements were born there. Therefore, strictly, a distinction should be made between a Straits Chinese and a Straits-born Chinese. The latter, however used the term Straits Chinese as a contraction, so there is now no distinction between the two terms. However, those born in the Straits during the time when the Straits Settlements existed regarded this as the only essential qualification needed to be termed Straits Chinese. The expression which the Straits-born Chinese used for those not born in the Straits was Sinkhek or newcomers. The expression Straits(-born) Chinese has always meant those of the historical Straits Settlements, and does not include the Chinese in other states.

The etymology of the term ‘Baba’ has provoked much discussion. The term traveled to the Malay Peninsula when the English East India Company extended its trade influence from its stronghold in India to the Straits of Malacca. The word itself appears to originate from India, and ultimately from West Asia. In northern India where the Hindustani language is greatly influenced by Persian, Baba is a general title of respect; a Pakistani wife addresses her husband as ‘Baba’. The honorific term ‘Baba’ in time came to refer primarily to Straits Chinese men.

The word ‘Nyonya’ for Straits Chinese women is less exclusive, being applied also to the women of Sumatra and Java. In fact, Nyonya, and its variants Nyonyah, Nonya and Nona are traditional forms of Malay address for non-Malay married ladies of some standing, and can probably be traced to the Portuguese word for ‘grandmother’. Decendants of immigrants who were born in Malaya and Indonesia are called Peranakan, a Malay word that applies to those who are native by birth. The term is from the Malay root word anak for child or children. By definition, the Peranakan community encompasses all local-born Indians, Eurasians and Chinese, including those born in communities outside the Straits Settlements, such as the Indonesian Chinese. (There were also important coastal Chinese settlements in Java and Sumatra.) Thus, a Baba is a Peranakan but not all Peranakans are Babas.

In much earlier literature there is the assumption of a homogeneous Baba culture throughout the former Straits Settlements. The earliest members of these communities were from Malacca. These Malacca Babas were linguistically assimilated; speaking a form of Malay patois termed Baba Malay. The Babas of Penang, Malacca and Singapore, while being distinct groups within the Chinese population, existed at various levels of assimilation with the culture of the local Malays. Offspring of later Chinese immigrants, who had been acculturated to the Babas but who did not speak the Baba patois, form the next largest group within the Straits Chinese community.

Originally, only Chinese traders set up trading posts in the same manner as the European East India Companies, though on an individual basis. Leaving China with the North East monsoon at the end of the year, they sailed back with the Southwest monsoon in the middle of the year. They spent about five months a year in each port.

After awhile they set up second homes in Malacca, with local wives who looked after their business when they returned annually to China. Pioneering immigrants did not usually bring their womenfolk on dangerous journeys to faraway lands. Indeed, virtually no Chinese women came to Malaya until the mid-nineteenth century. In present day Malaysia, the marriage of a Chinese man to a Malay woman would necessitate his becoming a Muslim. In bygone days it is likely that this rule was not always observed, especially in Malacca where there were ethnic Malays who became the potential wives for Chinese husbands who were not Muslims.

In most cases the offspring of such inter-marriages would marry among themselves. Alternatively, the daughters were married to newly-arrived Chinese males who demonstrated industry and promise. Family records would not show details of the female lineage. At most, only names were mentioned. This was in line with the preoccupation of the Chinese, with male heirs. Male offspring of these early Malacca marriages were sent back to China for education while the daughters remained in Malacca with their local mothers.. A large majority of the members of these communities in the Straits Settlements were from the southern parts of China; Fujian, Chaozhou, Guangzhou and Hainan.

The Babas, being descendants of pioneers, and proud of their established position in the British colony, called themselves local-born or Peranakan, thus setting themselves apart from recent immigrants from China. The Nyonya adopted Malay dress and developed a spicy Malay-influenced cuisine. Partially assimilated into Malay culture, they also began to embrace the European ways of their colonial society. However they remained Chinese in their religious beliefs and ceremonies. The identity of the Babas, like their speech, tended to be a cultural blend of Chinese, Malay and European. The observation made by Viraphol (1972) about Bangkok Chinese could very well be applied to the Babas: “Their unique social structure was based on Chinese habits; but without renewal from China, great modifications by indigenous and foreign forces produced a distinct culture.” A Baba therefore had little incentive to visit China. He identified with the place of his birth, where the luxury he enjoyed was a product of his unceasing industry.

The Babas were an urban white-collared community who consciously allied themselves with the British government and sent their children to schools where English was the medium of instruction. In their evolution into the trading elite, they developed a rapport with the Europeans that resulted in their adopting westernized habits and procedures. The western culture that the Babas met with was that of a ruling class, and early indications of taking to British ways were ostentatious displays of wealth, such as big houses, carriages and collections of objects d’art. The period from around the mideighteenth century to the midnineteenth century could be said to be the heyday of the wealthy Baba elite and entrepreneurs. It was then that they became truly westernized. This was the period during which the already wealthy Malacca Babas, most of them merchants and landed gentry expanded their business network to Singapore. These urban, Malay and English-speaking Chinese began to be on the committees for all sorts of organizations and gained prominence. European entrepreneurs, together with Chinese merchants, were the nouveau riche of the time and their opulent mansions were statements of rank. As the nineteenth century advanced, Baba numbers increased with the assimilation of immigrant men.


There is a tendency to equate the Babas with the elite. This is because, inevitably, accounts of Baba lifestyle tend to record the cultural monopoly of the rich and their more memorable lifestyle. After all, they had dominated trade and social life in the Straits Settlements into the early decades of the twentieth century. One of the differences between the elite urban Babas and the less sophisticated rural Babas was the degree of borrowing from the Malay and British cultures. The three cultural influences-Chinese, Malay and Western-all operated, and the balance was related to social circumstances, and could change with social mobility, but generally the rural Babas were more inclined towards the Malays, while the urban Babas, who represented the upper and social stratum of their community, were more anglicized. In the 1930’s many of the Babas who owned extensive estates suffered greatly because of the Depression. During the Second World War and the Japanese Occupation of Malaya the Babas shared wartime hardships with other Chinese. The non-Babas, accustomed to hard work managed to recover from the war, but not so the majority of rich Babas who were by then, used to lives of luxury. After the war, they underwent a period of deprivation and decline and many sank into genteel poverty. In these circumstances, the highly developed culture began to disintegrate. Soon, the identity of the Baba community became blurred, partly as a result of their changed structure of society, and partly because of their conversion to Christianity.

In the early days, local birth-being a Peranakan-was a distinguishing feature of the Babas. It became irrelevant within the larger Chinese community as more and more Chinese were born in the country. Also, the post-war financial decline among the Babas coincided with the growing tendency of Baba sons and daughters to marry Chinese of more recent immigrant origin. Possibly this, more than anything else helped to erode the differences between the Baba and Chinese communities.

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