Baba Nyonya: Wikis


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Total population
7 million
Regions with significant populations
Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.

Baba Malay


Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Chinese Folk Religion

Related ethnic groups

Chinese, Malaysian and Singaporean.

Peranakan and Baba-Nyonya (Chinese: 峇峇娘惹pinyin: Bābā Niángrě; Hokkien: Bā-bā Niû-liá) are terms used for the descendants of late 15th and 16th century Chinese immigrants to the Nusantara region during the Colonial era. It applies especially to the ethnic Chinese populations of the British Straits Settlements of Malaya and the Dutch-controlled island of Java and other locations, who have adopted partially or in full Nusantara customs to be somewhat assimilated into the local communities.

While the term Peranakan is most commonly used among the ethnic Chinese for those of Chinese descent also known as Straits Chinese (土生华人; named after the Straits Settlements), there are also other, comparatively small Peranakan communities, such as Indian Hindu Peranakans (Chitty), Indian Muslim Peranakans (Jawi Pekan) (Jawi being the Javanised Arabic script[1]., Pekan a colloquial contraction of Peranakan[1].) and Eurasian Peranakans (Kristang[1].) (Kirstang= Christians).[1][2] It also parelling to Cambodian Hokkien who are descendents of Hoklo chinese. They maintained their culture partailly despite their native language gradually disappear after the few generation settlement.[3]

Baba House Museum in Malacca, Malaysia, an area where many "Peranakan" Straits-Chinese lived.



In both Malay and Indonesian, 'Peranakan' is defined as 'descendant' with no connotation of the ethnicity of descent unless followed by a subsequent qualifying noun, such as for example Cina (Chinese), Belanda (Dutch) or Jepang/Jepun (Japanese)[4]. Peranakan has the implied connotation of referring to the ancestry of great-grandparents or more distant ancestors.[1]

Baba is a Persian loan-word borrowed by Malaysian as an honorific solely for grandparents; it was used to refer to the Straits-Chinese males. The term originated from Hindustani speakers such as vendors and traders and become part of common vernacular.[5] Female Chinese descendants were either called or styled themselves Nyonyas. The word nyonya (also commonly misspelled nonya) is a Javanese loan honorific word from Dutch Nona(grandma) meaning: foreign married Madam. Because Javanese at the time had a tendency to address all foreign women (and perhaps those who appeared foreign) as nyonya, they used that term for Straits-Chinese women, too, and it was gradually associated more exclusively with them.[6]

Straits-Chinese were defined as those born or living in the Straits Settlements: a British colonial construct of Penang, Malacca and Singapore constituted in 1826. Straits-Chinese were not considered Baba Nyonya unless they displayed certain Sino-Malay syncretic physical attributes.[7]


Most Peranakans are of Hoklo (Hokkien) ancestry, although a sizable number are of Teochew or Cantonese descent. Originally, the Peranakan were part Chinese, part Malay/Indonesian.

Baba Nyonya are a subgroup within Chinese communities, are the descendants of Sino-indigenous unions in Melaka, Penang, and Indonesia. It was not uncommon for early Chinese traders to take Malay/Indonesian women of Penisular Malay/Sumatera/Javanese as wives or concubines[7] Consequently the Baba Nyonya possessed a synergistic mix cultural traits.[7][7]

Written records from the 19th and early 20th centuries show that Peranakan men usually took brides from within the local Peranakan community. Peranakan families occasionally imported brides from China and sent their daughters to China to find husbands.

Some sources claim that the early Peranakan inter-married with the local Malay/Indonesian population; this might derive from the fact that some of the servants who settled in Bukit Cina who traveled to Malacca with the Admiral from Yunnan were Muslim Chinese. Other experts, however, see a general lack of physical resemblance, leading them to believe that the Peranakan Chinese ethnicity has hardly been diluted. One notable case to back the claim is of the Peranakan community in Tangerang, Indonesia, known as Cina Benteng, their physical look is very indigenous, yet they dutifully adhere to the Peranakan customs, and most of them are Buddhist. Some Peranakan distinguish between Peranakan-Baba (those Peranakan with part Malay ancestry) from Peranakan (those without any Malay ancestry).


The language of the Peranakans, Baba Malay (Bahasa Melayu Baba), is a dialect of the Malay language (Bahasa Melayu), which contains many Hokkien words. It is a dying language, and its contemporary use is mainly limited to members of the older generation. English has now replaced this as the main language spoken amongst the younger generation.

In Indonesia, young Peranakans can still speak this creole language, although its use is limited to informal occasions. As is the case with many languages, young Peranakans have created new words (and lost others), so there is normally a difference in vocabulary between the older and younger generations.


In the 15th century, some small city-states of the Malay Peninsula often paid tribute to various kingdoms such as those of China and Siam. Close relations with China were established in the early 15th century during the reign of Parameswara when Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho), a Muslim Chinese, visited Malacca and Java. According to a legend in 1459 CE, the Emperor of China sent a princess, Hang Li Po, to the Sultan of Malacca as a token of appreciation for his tribute. The nobles (500 sons of ministers) and servants who accompanied the princess initially settled in Bukit Cina and eventually grew into a class of Straits-born Chinese known as the Peranakans.

Due to economic hardships at mainland China, waves of immigrants from China settled in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Some of them embraced the local customs, while still retaining some degree of their ancestral culture; they are known as the Peranakans. Peranakans normally have a certain degree of indigenous blood, which can be attributed to the fact that during imperial China, most immigrants were men who married local women. Peranakans at Tangerang, Indonesia, held such a high degree of indigenous blood that they are almost physically indistinguishable from the local population. Peranakans at Indonesia can vary between very fair to copper tan in color.

Peranakans themselves later on migrated between Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, which resulted in a high degree of cultural similarity between Peranakans in those countries. Economic / educational reasons normally propel the migration between of Peranakans between the Nusantara region (Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore), their creole language is very close to the indigenous languages of those countries, which makes adaptations a lot easier.

For political reasons Peranakans and other Nusantara Chinese are grouped as a one racial group, Chinese, with Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia becoming more adoptive of mainland Chinese culture, and Chinese in Indonesia becoming more diluted in their Chinese culture. Such things can be attributed to the policies of Bumiputera (Malaysia), mother tongue policy (Singapore) and the ban of Chinese culture during the Soeharto era in Indonesia.




The Peranakan retained most of their ethnic and religious origins (such as ancestor worship), but assimilated the language and culture of the Malays. The Nyonya's clothing was identical to that of the native Malay's: baju panjang (long dress), batik sarung (batik wrap-around skirt) and kerongsang (brooch). Beaded slippers called Kasut Manek were a hand-made made with much skill and patience: strung, beaded and sewn onto canvas with tiny faceted glass beads from Bohemia (present-day Czech Republic). In modern times, glass beads from Japan are preferred. Traditional kasut manek design often have European floral subjects, with colors influenced by Peranakan porcelain and batik sarongs. They were made onto flats or bedroom slippers. But from the 1930s, modern shapes became popular and heels were added.

In Indonesia, the Peranakans develop their own Kebaya, most notably 'kebaya encim', and developed their own batik patterns, which incorporate symbols from China.


Baba Nyonya subscribed to Chinese beliefs: Taoism, Confucianism and Chinese Buddhism, celebrated the Lunar New Year and the Lantern Festival, 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.[7]


Ayam buah keluak, a traditional Peranakan dish

From the Malay influence a unique "Nyonya" cuisine has developed using typical Malay spices. Examples are Chicken Kapitan, a dry chicken curry, and Inchi Kabin, a Nyonya version of fried chicken. Pindang bandeng is a common fish soup served in Indonesia during the Chinese new year and so is a white round mooncake from Tangerang which is normally used during the Autumn Festival. Swikee Purwodadi is a peranakan dish from Purwodadi, it is a frog soup dish.


It was not uncommon for early Chinese traders to take Malay women of Peninsular Malay or Sumatera as wives or concubines[7]

Consequently the Baba Nyonya possessed a synergistic mix of Sino-Malay cultural traits.[7][7]

Written records from the 19th and early 20th centuries show that Peranakan men usually took brides from within the local Peranakan community. Peranakan families occasionally imported brides from China and sent their daughters to China to find husbands.

Marriages within the community and of similar stature were the norm. Wealthy men prefigured to marry a chin choay: or matrilocal marriage where husband moved in with wife's family.[7]

Proposals of marriage were made by a gift of a pinangan, a 2-tiered lacquered basket, to the intended bride's parents brought by a go-between who speaks on behalf of the suitor. Most Peranakans are not Muslim, and have retained the traditions of ancestor worship of the Chinese, though some converted to Christianity.

The wedding ceremony of the Peranakan is largely based on Chinese tradition, and is one of the most colorful wedding ceremonies in Malaysia and Singapore. At weddings, the Dondang Sayang, a form of extempore rhyming song in Malay sung and danced by guests at the wedding party, was a highlight. Someone would begin a romantic theme which was carried on by others, each taking the floor in turn, dancing in slow gyrations as they sang. It required quick wit and repartee and often gave rise to laughter and applause when a particularly clever phrase was sung. The melodic accents of the Baba-Nonya and their particular turns of phrase lend to the charm of this performance.

Multichrome enamel porcelain tea tray with a traditional Peranakan "fenghuang"


Historical and cultural items from the Baba culture are displayed in cultural establishments on Heeren Street, Jonker Street and other streets in the same neighborhood in Malacca and in Penang in Malaysia, and at the Peranakan Museum in Singapore. There one can find museums displaying furniture, food stuff, and even traditional clothes of the Baba and Nonya. There are also a small number of "Nyonya" restaurants in Singapore, Penang, Malacca, Jakarta, Semarang, Surabaya, and the West. Free weekly street shows featuring Baba performances, and traditional and pop Chinese cultural performances are found in Jonker Street in Malacca (Melaka). The shows are part of the night market (pasar malam) scene, and are usually crowded with shoppers, both local and foreign.

In Indonesia a large population of Peranakans can be found in Tangerang, West Java.

Political Affinity

Baba Nyonya were financially better off than Chinese born Chinese. Their family wealth and connections enabled them to form a Chinese elite, whose loyalty was strictly to Britain or the Netherlands.[7]. Due to their strict loyalty they did not support Malaysian nor Indonesian Independence.[7]

By the middle of the twentieth century, most Peranakan were English or Dutch-educated, as a result of the Western colonization of Malaya and Indonesia, Peranakans readily embraced English culture and education as a means to advance economically thus administrative and civil service posts were often filled by prominent Straits Chinese. Many in the community chose to convert to Christianity due to its perceived prestige and proximity to the preferred company of British and Dutch.[7] The Peranakan community thereby became very influential in Malacca and Singapore and were known also as the King's Chinese due to their loyalty to the British Crown. Because of their interaction with different cultures and languages, most Peranakans were (and still are) trilingual, being able to converse in Chinese, Malay, and English. Common vocations were as merchants, traders, and general intermediaries between China, Malaya and the West; the latter were especially valued by the British and Dutch.

Things started to change in the first half of the 20th century, with some Peranakans starting to support Malaysian and Indonesian independence. In Indonesia three Chinese communities started to merge and become active in the political scene.

They were also among the pioneers of Indonesian newspapers. In their fledgling publishing companies, they published their own political ideas along with contributions from other Indonesian writers. In November 1928, the Chinese weekly Sin Po (traditional Chinese: 新報; pinyin: xīn bào) was the first paper to openly publish the text of the national anthem Indonesia Raya. On occasion, those involved in such activities ran a concrete risk of imprisonment or even of their lives, as the Dutch colonial authorities banned nationalistic publications and activities.

Chinese Indonesians were active in supporting the independence movement during the 1940s Japanese occupation, when the all but the so-called "Overseas Chinese Association", or residents of Chinese ancestry (traditional Chinese: 華僑中會; pinyin: Huáqiáo Zhōnghuì) were banned by the Japanese military authorities. Some notable pro-independence activists were Siauw Giok Tjhan and Liem Koen Hian, and Yap Tjwan Bing, a member of Panitia Persiapan Kemerdekaan Indonesia, who in 1960's became a citizen of the United States.

Current status

Peranakan culture is disappearing in Malaysia and Singapore. Without colonial British support for their perceived racial neutrality, government policies in both countries following independence from the British have resulted in the assimilation of Peranakans back into mainstream Chinese culture. In Singapore, the Peranakans are classified as ethnically Chinese, so they receive formal instruction in Mandarin Chinese as a second language (in accordance with the "Mother Tongue Policy") instead of Malay. In Malaysia, the standardization of Malay as Bahasa Melayu — required for all ethnic groups — has led to a disappearance of the unique characteristics of Baba Malay.

In Indonesia, the Peranakan culture is losing popularity to modern Western culture, but to some degree Peranakans try to retain their language, cuisines and customs. Young Peranakans still speak their creole language, although many young women don't wear the kebaya, and marriages normally follow western culture.

The migration of some Peranakan families, particularly the well-to-do, has led to a small Peranakan diaspora to neighboring countries, from Vietnam[8] to Australia[9]. However, these communities are very small, and with the increasing use of the various languages in their respective countries, the use of Peranakan Malay or Baba Malay has been diluted.

Current Associations

Associations of Chinese Peranakan include the Peranakan Association of Singapore and the Gunung Sayang Association, a performing arts group. The Peranakan Association has about 1700 members, and the Gunung Sayang has about 200 members. Although the Peranakan Association consists of a mix of young and old, the Gunung Sayang Association has primarily elderly or retired members. In Malacca, there is an Indian Peranakan Association known as the Chitty Melaka. This is a tightly knit community of [10]. Chitty Peranakans display considerable similarity to Chinese Peranakans in terms of dressing, songs and folk dances.

Notable Peranakans


  • Tun Dato Sri Tan Cheng Lock - Founder and first President of Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA)
  • Tun Tan Siew Sin - Third President of Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA)
  • Nyonya Tan Abdullah
  • Khoo Salma Nasution
  • QuaChee
  • Kenny Chan


  • Candice Kimberlee Miller - Host of Kids Central's Programme "Has accomplished lots in life, role model to teens":
  • Teri Yeo - Contestant of Campus Superstar Season 2
  • Goh Keng Swee - First Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore
  • Dick Lee - Celebrity pop singer, composer and playwright
  • Lee Kuan Yew - First Prime Minister of Singapore
  • Wee Kim Wee - Fourth President of Singapore
  • Pierre Png - Mediacorp artiste

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Sadaoh Nasution, Kamus Umum Lengkap: Inggris-Indonesia Indonesia-Inggris, University of California: 1989: 562 pages
  2. ^
  3. ^ The Chinese in Cambodia By William E. Willmott
  4. ^ Harimurti Kridalaksana, Kamus Sinonim Bahasa Indonesia, Nusa Indah: 1974: 213 pages
  5. ^ Joo Ee Khoo, The Straits Chinese: a cultural history, Pepin Press: 1996 ISBN 9054960086: 288 pages
  6. ^ Soeseno Kartomihardjo, Ethnography of communicative codes in East Java Dept. of Linguistics, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University: 1981: ISBN 0858832550: 212 pages: 96
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Keat Gin Ooi, Southeast Asia: a historical encyclopedia, from Angkor Wat to East Timor ABC-CLIO: 2004: ISBN 1576077705: 1791 pages
  8. ^ "Chinese/Native intermarriage in Austronesian Asia". Color Q World. Retrieved 2008-11-16. 
  9. ^ ""babas_and_nonya.html"". 
  10. ^ Saivite Hindus

Further reading

  • Lee Chin Koon: Mrs. Lee's Cookbook. Nonya Recipes and other favourite recipes.
  • Mahmood, Datin Sari Endon: The Nyonya Kebaya: A Century of Straits Chinese Costume, ISBN 0-7946-0273-8
  • Rudolph, Jürgen (1998). Reconstructing Identities: A Social History of the Babas in Singapore. Singapore: Ashgate. costumes
  • Khoo, Joo Ee (1998). The Straits Chinese: A Cultural History. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: The Pepin Press. 
  • Chang, Queeny (1981). Memories of a Nonya. Singapore and Selangor, Malaysia: Eastern Univerisities Press Sdn Bhd. 

External links


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