Baba and Nyonya: Now a vanishing culture?

By Nurul Azirah Japin

As Baba and Nyonya community or popularly known as Peranakan keep adding up to the population of the country, it seems that there have been a decline in the appreciation of their tradition and cultures, particularly among the younger generation.

The gradual geographical dispersion of the Babas, modernity, and socialisation with other tribes are all the elements that have somewhat contributed to the decline of Baba culture. 

Baba’s society had its most profound origins in Malacca. From Malacca’s (Melaka’s) main origin, the culture eventually spread to Penang and Singapore. 

The Babas progressively dispersed throughout Malaya and Southeast Asia, and as they became more socialised with other groups, they lost much of their originality and exclusivity.

Inter-marriage that took place between the Straits Chinese and the non-Straits Chinese is also leading to a dilution of the Nyonya culture.

Due to being put under threat from languages like English and Malay, customs and rituals were less practised, and language was passed down less from generation to generation.

Other than that, the role of Nyonya also changes where in the past, a Nyonya was raised entirely to be a good daughter, wife and mother, not to mention Baba Nyonya marriages were generally planned and arranged in those days. 

And because it was considered that too much schooling would make Nyonya become too free and wild, they received just a basic and little education.

During the British colonial period, more Nyonyas were educated in English-medium schools and their way of life gradually became more emancipated than it had been previously. As a result, Nyonyas have lost touch with their cultural history and are unable to preserve it. 

The majority of modern Nyonyas are unable to prepare traditional Peranakan meals, unable to pass on the language to their children, do not adhere to the rigorous rites and conventions, and prefer to dress in modern clothes rather than traditional garb, except on rare occasions.

According to the passage of time, the clothes become more stylish and trendy that make them, the Peranakan, further away from practising their traditional clothes.

In the old day also, it can be seen that the preparation and making the traditional and unique food of Baba and Nyonya are all traditionally made by hand and hours being spent by using mortar and pestle to grind and crush the spices to release their full flavours.

However, the sound of a pestle striking a mortar is now a thing of the past in most Peranakan kitchens, as the electric blender has taken its place, saving time and aching arms the next day. 

Traditionally, a young Nyonya used to be required to learn cooking skills from their moms and grandmothers, but with the pressures of modern life, fewer are opting to do so.

Aside from the cuisine, other Peranakan characteristics such as the language, a Malay dialect with many Hokkien vocabulary and customs are steadily diminishing as the Peranakan marry outside their community.

The fact is that the Peranakan’s heritage of tradition and culture is facing a challenge especially among the new younger generation as less of the tradition is being practised today.

As Lee Su Kim, the President of Malaysia’s Baba Nyonya Association in Selangor said, “As each generation goes by, more will be lost, that’s the challenge that we are facing today as a lot of the younger Babas (men) and Nyonyas (women) don’t quite know what it’s all about.” ***

(This is the first part of the three-segment special report series on Baba and Nyonya written for Feature Writing class)

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