Going deeper into Baba and Nyonya culture

By Nurul Azirah Binti Japin

Baba and Nyonya, also going by the name of Peranakan or King of Chinese street, are mainly found in Southeast Asia, namely Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand.

Although the terms “Baba Nyonya” and “Peranakan” are sometimes interchangeable, “Peranakan” refers to an ethnic group identified by their genetic heritage from the earliest waves of Hokkien settlers in the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian archipelago.

There are actually many different subgroups of Peranakan with many different influences, but nowadays, “Peranakan” is most usually used to refer to Chinese who have intermarried with locals. Then, they adopted the Malay language and culture, and so the men are called “Baba” while the ladies are addressed as “Nyonya.”

As most of how the cultural display worked, Baba and Nyonya also shined and are acknowledged for their own unique and distinctive cultures.

The Chinese kept their ethnic identity and heritage in terms of religion, name, ethnicity and cuisine. 

One of the most prominent manifestations of Peranakan culture may be seen in the kitchen, where uniquely spicy food is typically prepared by hand. Although some of their cuisine was impacted by the Malay style, due to lack and unavailability of certain ingredients, there was still room to improvise.

So, as a result, they applied Chinese culinary techniques to Malay ingredients or discovered new items to integrate into their existing recipes, resulting in the emergence of a new Peranakan/Nyonya cuisine. For example, laksa Nyonya, ayam Pongteh, chap chye, acar, and itik Tim just to name a few.

It is invalid if we do not touch on the attires of Baba and Nyonya that are known to be the distinctive feature that distinguished their culture from other races – especially the Nyonya kebaya, a form of blouse woven of silk.

The Nyonya kebaya is believed to have developed from the Malay baju panjang (long dress) which consists of a knee-length tunic worn over a batik sarong (printed tube skirt).

Despite it having Malay and Javanese origins, the Nyonya kebaya has evolved into a distinctive Nyonya attire that is generally considered as part of the Chinese Peranakan community’s cultural identity.

The ladies also wear various accessories such as beaded shoes, brooches, embroidered handkerchiefs, bun spikes and many more which are mostly inherited from their ancestors.

Making a Nyonya kebaya is also considered a separate Chinese Peranakan art form. Sewing and embroidery art used to be considered vital abilities for Chinese Peranakan women to have.  The ability to sew and embroider one’s own kebaya, in particular, was regarded as a mark of a Nyonya’s domestic prowess and upbringing.

The Baba and Nyonya community also adapt a lot to the local Chinese community’s traditional cultural and religious celebrations. Among them are Chinese New Year, Tung Check, Cheng Beng, ghost prayer, moon prayer, Ong Yah and May festival.

Weddings among Baba and Nyonya also have their own customs where it is held for 12 days usually at the bride’s house. And ceremonies are conducted such as Lap Chai or the exchanging gifts, and Cheo Thau, which is an event where the bride and groom wear their authentic wedding dress for the first time together.

The Baba and Nyonya community is very significant to Malaysian cultural landscape as it adds colour to our multicultural spectrum with their special elements.***

(This is the final part of the three-segment special report series on the topic written for Feature Writing class)

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