Tuesday, November 09, 2010

People: Baba Nyonya Community

Melaka is very popular with it harmonious multiracial community such as pure Malays, Java, Chitty, Baba Nyonya, Portuguese, Indian, Chinese, Banjar and some indigenous people. They live together over centuries ago with harmony and respects each other culture, religious and traditions.

One of the unique community in Melaka is the Baba Nyonya. Peranakan and Baba Nyonya are terms used for the descendants of late 15th and 16th-century Chinese immigrants to the Nusantara region during the Colonial era. This community in Melaka, they address themselves as "Nyonya Baba" instead of "Baba Nyonya". Nyonya refers to the ladies and Baba are for the gentlemen. Let's take a look about the history, ancestory and language of the Baba Nyonya community.


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. They are the elites of Singapore, more loyal to the British than to China. Most have lived for generations along the straits of Melaka and not all intermarried with the local Malays. 

An old photo of Nyonya ladies

They are usually traders, the middleman of the British and the Chinese, or the Chinese and Malays, or vice versa. They almost always have the ability to speak two or more languages. In later generations, some lost the ability to speak Chinese as they became assimilated to the Malay Peninsula's culture and started to speak Malay fluently as a first or second language.

While the term Peranakan is most commonly used among the ethnic Chinese for those of Chinese descent also known as Straits Chinese 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, Pekan a colloquial contraction of Peranakan and Eurasian Peranakans Kristang (Kristang = Christians.

The group has parallels to the Cambodian Hokkien, who are descendents of Hoklo Chinese. They maintained their culture partially despite their native language gradually disappearing a few generations after settlement.

'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). Peranakan has the implied connotation of referring to the ancestry of great-grandparents or more distant ancestors.

The Baba Nyonya wedding costume

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 with Hindustani speakers, such as vendors and traders, and became part of common vernacular. Female Straits-Chinese descendants were either called or styled themselves Nyonyas. 

The word nyonya is a Javanese loan honorific word from Italian Nona (grandma) meaning: foreign married Madam. Or more likely from the word Dona, from the Portuguese word for lady. 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. Nona in javanese means lady.

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

Nyonya deliciacies


Most Peranakans are of Hoklo (Hokkien) ancestry, although a sizable number are of Teochew or Cantonese descent. Originally, the Peranakan were mixed-race descendents, part Chinese, part Malay or 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 or Indonesian women of Peninsular Malay / Sumatera / Javanese as wives or concubines. Consequently the Baba Nyonya possessed a mix of cultural traits.

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 or Indonesian population; this might derive from the fact that some of the servants who settled in Bukit Cina who traveled to Melaka with the Admiral from Yunnan were Muslim Chinese, Cheng Ho. 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 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 Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum, Melaka


The language of the Peranakans, Baba Malay (Bahasa Melayu Baba), is a creole 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 Melaka 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.

Hang Li Po's Well in Bukit Cina

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.

Nyonya basket (bakul sia) is one of the most popular Baba Nyonya equipments

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 or 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.