What’s the story with the Babas and Nyonyas?

What’s the story with the Babas and Nyonyas?

Cultural retrospective

Text: Gwen Ong

Image: Getty Images

We take a closer look at the unique Peranakan community, its history and what makes its culture simply fascinating

Where it all started?

In the 15th century, Chinese traders travelled far and wide in search of new land and business, and this eventually led them to Southeast Asia. Due to an Imperial Decree, which forbade the womenfolk from accompanying the men out of China, many of the Chinese men settled down in this part of the world—the Malay archipelago, where Melaka was a popular trading ground. The men then intermarry with the local women who were mostly of Indonesian descent. This is where the Peranakan community was born. Children from these marriages were referred to as 'Babas' for the boys and 'Nyonyas' for the girls. 


Aside from Melaka, the Peranakans went on to set up home in the British-controlled Straits Settlement of Penang and Singapore as well. Hence, they were also collectively known as Straits Chinese. 


What's interesting is that not all Peranakans are of Chinese descent. There are also smaller communities of Peranakan Indians and Eurasian Peranakans; the former as a result of marriage between Tamil merchants and local women while the latter formed from the union of European Portuguese men with local Malay inhabitants.


What distinguishes the Peranakans from then to now?

The union of the Chinese and Malay brought about a distinct community, one that has its own unique culture, customs, cuisine, speech and fashion. In Melaka, the Peranakans spoke Patois Malay while in Penang, it was Baba Hokkien – Hokkien peppered with a smattering of Malay words. For the most part, they use the Malay language. The Peranakans generally observe Chinese customs and religious practices, but it is not surprising to find them adhering to Malay superstitions and beliefs as well.


This community is also known to be a boisterous group that enjoys dancing, listening to big band music and singing. A song that is made famous by the Babas and Nyonyas is theDondang Sayang, which is typically a recital of pantun or Malay poem in songs. 


What makes the Peranakan culture most notable is its cuisine—the nyonya food, named after the ladies who cook it. As was the norm, most nyonyas were expected to know how to cook and with due practice, they became known for creating some of the best dishes around. Thanks to its strong Malay and Indonesian influences, Peranakan cuisine adopts the use of rempah or spices, coconut milk and fresh chillies. A signature spread of nyonya food includes ayam pongteh, ayam buah keluak, kari kapitan, enche kabin, beef rendang and more. It was said that you can tell a nyonya's prowess in the kitchen from the rhythm in which she pounds the spices to make belachan


Aside from being savvy in the kitchen, the girls were also skilled in handiwork, namely embroidery and beadwork—the two distinctive features of Peranakan fashion. An outfit that has always been synonymous with Peranakan women is the nyonya kebaya, which is an adapted form of the Malay kebaya, consisting of long, loose-fitting blouse.


Traditionally, the women started with the Javanese style of baju panjang but with the turn of time, the nyonya kebaya is modernised with a shorter and figure-flattering top often decorated with embroidered motifs also known as sulam. The intricate embroidery meant that the kebaya would take about six months to make by hand in the past. Nyonya kebaya is traditionally worn over a camisole and secured with a set of three interlinked brooches called kerosang (or kerongsang in Malay) and paired with a batik sarong skirt. The outfit is complemented with hand-beaded slippers known as kasut manek.


To this day, the nyonyas are often colourfully dressed with their hair pulled back in an elegant chignon bun topped with jasmine or tuberose buds, and cucuk sanggul hairpins. To accessorise, the Peranakan jewelleries are known to be of exquisite craftsmanship with a rich blend of Chinese, Malay and even Victorian styles.


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