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Tales of the Baba Nyonya

As the saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”; getting used to foreign cultures and customs helps one adapt to life in a different country or region, especially one that is drastically different from where one came from. It is also crucial in creating unique mixes of ethnic groups and cultures, such as the Baba Nyonya culture, which continues to be preserved and celebrated in modern-day Malaysia.

Origins: Fact or Fiction?
Malacca is considered the birthplace of Malaysia’s Baba Nyonya community. It was an important trading hub in the 15th century.
Image source: www.trailsofindochina.com

The term Baba is an honorific term for a Peranakan male, while Nyonya is the term given to a Peranakan female.

The birth of Baba Nyonya, or Peranakan culture, can be attributed to trade activities taking place centuries ago. In the 15th century, the Malay Peninsula, especially Malacca, became an important trading hub following the birth and rise of the Malacca Sultanate. The Ming dynasty, who ruled Mainland China at that time, also established a diplomatic relationship with the Malacca Sultanate, thanks to Admiral Zheng He’s visits to Malacca during his various expeditions between 1405 and 1433. This led to many Chinese traders and migrants arriving and settling in Malacca.

Legend has it that a marriage may also have led to the establishment of Baba Nyonya communities. According to legend, the Emperor of China arranged for a princess named Hang Li Po to be married to the Sultan of Malacca, in order to further improve diplomatic ties; the servants who accompanied the princess to Malacca settled in Bukit Cina, Malacca, eventually forming a class of Straits-born Chinese: the Peranakans.

Two people in Baba and Nyonya clothing.
Image source: thehistoryofmalacca.blogspot.com

Due to economic hardships in mainland China, waves of immigrants from China settled in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. The Baba Nyonya identity began to form when Chinese immigrants intermarried with local women and adopted local social practices. Therefore, many aspects of Baba Nyonya culture have seen significant influence by Malay culture. Many descendants of Malacca Peranakan people moved to Penang and Singapore during British rule in the 19th century, and became an important part of the British administration in these regions.

Culture
Kebaya Nyonya displayed in a museum.
Image source: Marc Chang Sing Pang/Wikimedia Commons

Although the Peranakan retained their Chinese origins and customs, they also assimilated aspects of the Malay culture; the Nyonya’s traditional clothing, Baju Panjang (long dress), was adapted from the Baju Kurung worn by Malays. Traditionally, Baba Nyonya also wear Baju Kebaya, as well as intricate, hand-made beaded slippers called Kasut Manik.

Adorned with little beads and sewn with great care, a pair of Kasut Manik usually costs hundreds of ringgit.
Image source: http://linedanz.blogspot.com/2014/06/nyonya-kasut-manik-nyonya-beaded-shoes.html

Most Peranakans still hold Chinese beliefs such as Buddhism and Taoism, but a significant number of the modern Peranakan community have embraced Christianity.

The Baba Nyonya culture is also well-known for its cuisine. The unique mix of Chinese and Malay culture gave birth to dishes such as:

A bowl of Penang laksa, a variant of asam laksa. Nyonya laksa (and its variants) are popular in Malaysia.
Image source: Michael J. Lowe/Wikimedia Commons
  • Nyonya laksa (a spicy noodle soup)
  • Asam laksa, a variant of nyonya laksa
  • Pongteh (braised chicken and potatoes in fermented soybean sauce)
  • Nyonya rice dumplings
    • Traditional cakes and confections such as Ang ku kueh (stuffed cakes made with glutinous rice flour, shaped like a tortoise shell), apam balik, tapai, and kuih kapit (love letters)

Baba Nyonya also accepts matrilocal marriage – upon marriage, the male moves into his wife’s house instead of the female moving out.

There are museums around Malaysia dedicated to Baba Nyonya culture, such as Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum and Pinang Peranakan Mansion. Baba Nyonya culture has also been featured in films and television series, such as Baba Nyonya (a Malaysian comedy drama series popular in the 1990s) and The Little Nyonya (a highly praised Singaporean drama series first airing in 2008).

Though the influence of modern Malaysian culture has caused the Baba Nyonya culture to diminish, this ubiquitous culture is still preserved in Malaysia.

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