Have You Heard of the Peranakan Culture in Malaysia?

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Malaysia’s Peranakan culture is uniquely Asian – a blend of Chinese and Malay ethnicities that still survives today. Manveen Maan discovers more about the hybrid culture that arose when these two worlds collided.

The “Straits Chinese,” also called the Baba and Nyonya, are ethnic Chinese of noble descent who have adopted much of the Malay culture into their own. The product of a gradual process which evolved over 400 years, the Baba Nyonya have developed a distinct and highly interesting culture unique to Malaysia’s west coast, particularly in the coastal town of Melaka.

Tentative Beginnings

Indeed, there are many tales that attempt to trace the origins and identity of this unique hybrid culture. Folklore suggests that Peranakan roots began with a princess from China who married a local prince. In the early 15th century, close relations with the kingdom of China were established during the reign of Parameswara (the founder of Melaka long before modern-day Malaysia was formed). On a visit by China’s Admiral Cheng Ho, great tributes were given by the locals. As a show of gratitude, a Chinese princess named Hang Li Po was presented as a “gift” to the ruling Sultan Mansur Shah in order to forge closer trading ties. The Princess and her entourage of servants then settled at Bukit Cina (literally translated to “Chinese Hill”) in the area. The princess’ entourage later followed suit by marrying local Malay folk, and thus emerged the beginning of the “Peranakan” or “Baba-Nyonya” culture. In time, more Chinese immigrants flocked to the port town, leading to more intermarrying and the continued development of the unique Peranakan heritage.

Culturally Ambiguous

The term Baba is an honorific term for a Peranakan male. Strictly speaking, a Peranakan-Chinese Baba is a descendant of a Chinese who resided in the Straits for a long period of time, as opposed to the local-born children of 19th-century Chinese immigrants. Nyonya is term given to a Peranakan lady of the same generation.The spelling of Nyonya often differs due to pronunciation issues. “Nyonya” (nee-yo-nee-yah, said quickly) is the original spelling and pronunciation which has been retained in Melaka and other parts of Malaysia. “Nyonya” was a bit of a tongue-twister for many whose mother tongue was not Malay, so “Nonya” (no-nee-yah) was born to solve the pronunciation conundrum.

The Baba-Nyonya partially assimilated into the Malay culture, namely in food, dress, and language used, but also retained some elements of Chinese traditions and culture. Religion, names, folk medicine, and festival celebrations did not change much, thereby creating a new sort of mixed culture. Most Peranakans are of Hoklo (Hokkien) ancestry, although a sizable number are of Teochew or Cantonese descent.

In The Nyonya Kitchen

Nyonya food is the stuff legends are made of. In a country that offers a dizzying array of delicious dishes, Nyonya cuisine proudly stands head and shoulders above its counterparts. A mix of Malay, Indian, Chinese, and even some European food, Nyonya cuisine has developed using the amalgamation of flavours from different styles of cooking. Famous Nyonya dishes include Chicken Kapitan, a dry chicken curry, Inchi Kabin, a Nyonya version of fried chicken, and Pong Teh, which is a stew with pork or chicken and potatoes. Of course the all-time favourite Nyonya Laksa is known the region over for its tangy, pungent flavours, as is Kueh Lapis, a type of multi-layered cake most often eaten at Chinese New Year to symbolise a ladder of prosperity.

Malay spices such as shallots, garlic, fresh lemongrass, and limau purut (kaffir lime) are staples in most Nyonya dishes, while desserts also exhibit local connections. Dishes made from gula Melaka (palm sugar), sweet potatoes, yam, and coconut milk are mixed with Chinese ingredients such as red beans and glutinous rice to produce a heady combination of tastes and textures. The most well-known Baba-Nyonya dessert is cendol, though many travel long distances to sample the community’s famous pineapple jam tarts – touted as the best in the country.

Language Matters

The Peranakans speak Baba Malay (Bahasa Melayu Baba), a creole dialect of the Malay language which contains many Hokkien words. Although not a completely distinct language, Baba Malay has its own nuances and words, such as saying lu instead of the Malay kamu for the word “you”, and gua instead of modern Malay’s saya for “I” or “myself”. Today, however, it is a dying language. English is widely spoken amongst the younger generation, who limit the contemporary use of Baba Malay to conversations with members of the older generation.


Interestingly enough, many of the pioneering Baba-Nyonya folk were the elites of society, more loyal to the British than to China. They were usually traders, the middle men of the British and Chinese, or of the Chinese and Malays, and were mostly English-educated and fluent in that language. Because of this, they almost always had the ability to speak at least two languages, which often came in handy in trade. A few generations on, some lost the ability to speak Chinese after being blended with the Malay culture, and Malay became the first language of many.

Clothing And Fashion

The Peranakan retained most of their ethnic and religious origins, but adopted the culture of the Malays. Traditional Nyona clothing called baju panjang (translates to “long dress”) was adapted from the native Malay’s baju kurung (a long top worn over a long skirt). The baju panjang is worn with a batik sarong and three kerosang (brooches).

Similarly, the nyonya kebaya is a spin-off the Malay kebaya. Made of silk, brocade, or velvet, the central opening of the blouse is fastened by brooches, rather than buttons. The kain (unstitched fabric several metres long) is wrapped around the waist, much like a sarong.

Beaded slippers called kasot manek were hand-made with much skill and patience – often sewn onto canvas with tiny faceted glass beads from Bohemia (now known as the Czech Republic). Traditional kasot manek designs often had European floral subjects, with colours influenced by Peranakan porcelain, and batik sarongs. However, from the 1930s onwards, modern shapes became popular and heels were added. The modern versions of these beaded slippers incorporate glass beads from Japan.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Baba fashion was not as intricate as its female counterparts, with most men wearing the baju lokchuan, a long-sleeved silk Mandarin jacket, worn with matching loose pants. Many of the younger generations don just the jacket with a Chinese collar, or a batik shirt.

Beliefs And Traditions

Traditionally, the Baba-Nyonya subscribed to Chinese beliefs including Taoism, Confucianism, and Chinese Buddhism, and celebrated the Lunar New Year and other traditional festivals, while adopting the customs of the land they settled in, as well as those of their colonial rulers.

There are traces of Portuguese, Dutch, British, Malay, and Indonesian influences in Baba culture. A number of Baba-Nyonya families were (and still are) Catholic. Today, in fact, a fair portion of the young Peranakan community has embraced Christianity. Most of the Peranakan population is not Muslim, but rather have retained the ancestral worship tradition of their Chinese roots, while their wedding ceremonies and funerals are largely based on Chinese traditions.

Perils Of Modernity

Sadly, the younger Peranakan generation is viewed as indifferent to the preservation of their culture. However, organisations such as the Persatuan Baba Nyonya have been set up with the aim of preserving and documenting the cultural practices of this unique culture. Much of the older generation lament the lack of awareness surrounding their heritage and hope that others will understand the importance of retaining the colourful traditions of this special culture. Like the best rojak in town, the Baba-Nyonya culture is a living metaphor for the wondrous fusion of different flavours – great on their own, but even better when mixed together.

Baba and Nyonya Heritage Museum
48-50, Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock
75200 Melaka, Malaysia
Tel: +606-283 1273
Website: www.babanyonyamuseum.com
Daily Tour Times: 10am – 1pm (last morning tour 11:45am) 2pm – 5pm (last evening tour 3:45pm)

Homepage Highlight Photo Credit: alcuin lai, Flickr


Source: Senses of Malaysia March/April 2014

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