Sunday, July 5, 2009

Peranakan/BabaNyonya - Its Historical Beginning And Culture At A Glance

"Peranakan", "Baba-Nyonya" and "Straits-born Chinese" (named after the Straits of Malacca/Straits Settlement under the British rule of Malaya) are terms used for the descendants of the early Chinese immigrants to the Nusantara region who inter-married with local folks. This region includes the British Straits Settlements of Malacca, Penang and Singapore and the Dutch-controlled island of Java.

The birth of Malaysia's & Singapore's unique Peranakan or BabaNyonya heritage dates back to the early 15th century when Melaka was ruled by a Malay sultanate kingdom in which during that time, it was also a prosperous and strategic trading port for herbs and spices. As a trading port for the region, Melaka had enjoyed very strong relations with the kingdom of China.
Before I proceed further, let me explain why are there different terms, how did they originate and used interchangeably?
The word "Peranakan" is also commonly used to describe Indonesian Chinese back in those days (am not sure if it still applies now). In both Malaysia and Indonesia local languages, "Peranakan” means descendant. "Baba" refers to the male descendants and "Nyonya" the female.
"Straits-born Chinese" simply means the descendants of Peranakan people who were originally born in Malacca (like me and my big family), and which also extended to Penang and Singapore, when these three places which are located along the shore lines of the Straits of Malacca were treatised as the British Straits Settlements.
Why did some spell it as "Nyonya" while some others in Penang and Singapore may spell it as "Nonya"?
Well, the answer is simple. "Nonya" (no-nee-yah) is the simplified version to ease its pronunciation. "Nyonya" (nee-yo-nee-yah - and you have to say it fast and not by syllable) is the original spelling and pronunciation which is still being retained in Malacca. According to sources, "Nyonya" was rather tongue-twisting to say for many Chinese (who are non-Peranakans) whose mother-tongue is not Malay in places like Penang and Singapore. Thus, the simplified version emerged. Please note that Peranakans are also Chinese in race, thus I specified the above as non-Peranakan Chinese (other dialects like Cantonese, Teochew, Hainanese, Hakka, Hokkien etc). However, majority of the Peranakans are part Hokkien (probably due to the ancestral heritage of China's Princess Hang Li Po - see History below).
History: How did this unique culture first emerged?
Well, in the early 15th century, close relations with the kingdom of China was established during the reign of Parameswara (the founder of Melaka way before Malaya -now Malaysia- was formed). Great tributes were given during the visit by China's Admiral Cheng Ho (Zheng He) to Malacca. In return for such tributes, a princess of China called "Puteri Hang Li Po" ("Puteri" means Princess) was presented as a 'gift' to the ruling Sultan of Malacca, Sultan Mansur Shah circa 1459 AD (who was Parameswara prior to his throning) to forge closer trading ties. The Princess and her entourage of servants then settled in Bukit Cina (means "Chinese Hill") in Malacca. With the Princess having married the Sultan and later her entourage also followed suit by marrying local Malay folks, thus eventually emerged the beginning of this centuries-old culture called "Peranakan" or "Baba-Nyonya". In addition, records also show that following the successful union of China and Malacca through the marriage of Sultan Mansur Shah and Princess Hang Li Po, more Chinese male and female immigrants had come to Malacca, leading to more inter-marriages and the continued development of this unique Peranakan heritage.
By the middle of the 20th century, most Peranakans were English educated as a result of British colonisation of Malaya (which included Singapore at that time). They filled jobs in civil service as they had embraced English culture and education openly. The interaction with the British also resulted in some Peranakans converting to Christianity, thereby they became influential under the British colonisation. The Peranakan communities were also known as the King's Chinese due to their perceived loyalty to the British Crown. The culture and heritage then developed further and flourished to Penang and Singapore as Malacca Peranakans were transferred to fill administrative and civil jobs at these places. At that time, Malacca, Penang and Singapore had been formed the British Straits Settlements.
However, some records show that in the 19th century even before British colonisation of Malaya, some Peranakans from Malacca, drawn by commerce, had also migrated to the bustling ports of Penang and Singapore, and settled there. (During this time, it was believed that Malacca had began to lose its ground as the most sought after trading port, and was overtaken by Penang and Singapore. Thus, more Malacca Peranakan began moving out to these two newer ports and contributed to establishing firmer and stronger presence of Peranakan heritage in Penang and Singapore. Perhaps, there are other accounts as to how the Peranakan heritage flourished in these two states which are not to my knowledge, hence no other sources of information included here.)
Many Peranakans became traders and merchants and had amassed great wealth, mainly by the 1st generation of Peranakans. This was said to be due to the 'business sense and acumen' that were inherent in the immigrant Chinese who came and married local folks. Unfortunately today, the Chinese proverb proved to be quite true - the 1st generation creates, the 2nd generation builds, and the 3rd generation squanders! Up till the mid 1900s, many Peranakans were really wealthy and the community had colonised most of the large Dutch-influenced houses on Hereen and Jonker streets in Melaka. Fyi, apart from and prior to the British, Melaka was also colonised by the Portuguese and Dutchmen once upon a time in history. After Melaka and other Malaysian states were formed as Malaya, the Japanese and British 'came over'.
Suffice to say that today, Malacca, Penang & Singapore remain the 3 distinct locations where the Peranakan heritage is firmly established, preserved and appreciated. And proudly, till today Malacca continues to be known as the original birthplace of the Peranakan heritage and where its culture most well preserved - not through newly built museums or newly acquired cultural artifacts but through the generation of thousands of Peranakan families who are still living there and living out the culture through normal everyday lives. Through the original language of Malay-Chinese patois, style and slang of talking, customs and traditions and most definitely, through everyday food.
Pic: An old map of British Straits Settlements in Malaya.
Culture & religion

The Peranakans were partially assimilated into the Malay culture, especially in food, dressing and language, while retaining some of the Chinese traditions and culture, like religion, name, folk medicine and festival celebrations they brought from China, thereby creating a new kind of mixed culture of their country of origin with local elements. Among those, like Peranakan cuisine which has developed with very strong influence of the spices of Malay cuisine and the famous Sarong Kebaya clothing for the ladies.

Peranakans are not Muslims despite the inter-marriage with local Malays because in those days, there wasn't any sort of law that requires any religious conversion. Thus, till this day and age, many original Peranakans have retained their ancestral worship tradition of the Chinese (unless they are Christians), especially of their wedding ceremony which is largely based upon the Chinese tradition.

The Peranakan culture has lived through centuries and it is so unique that there is almost a kind of 'exclusive status' prescribed to it now. This is so evident in that many would claim to be descendants of Peranakans through the bloodlines of their deceased ancestry although they may not be all too familiar with its history, customs and language. Nevertheless, it is important to keep this heritage alive.


Because the early Peranakans inter-married with the local Malay population, most early Peranakans are tan in skin color, albeit in this modern day and age where the ancestry bloodline for many have been diluted, it may not necessary be so anymore.
Pic: Nyonyas in Sarong Kebayas in the early days. No Nyonyas would be dressing this way anymore as the Sarong Kebaya has sinced evolved throughout the years. Sarong Kebayas in those days were normally in light shades of transparent pastel colors with small floral embroideries all around the edges. Kebayas are now bold in colors and huge on floral designs and other animal motifs (like the phoenix), and its bodily cut has changed quite a bit too since it re-emerged as a fashion element lately.

Personally for me, I am on the tan side and there were endless number of times where I was mistaken for as a Malay. This happened again just recently at the wet market near where I live (Ang Mo Kio, Singapore). I was buying fruits when a local Chinese aunty saw a packet of dried shitake mushrooms I was holding and she asked in broken Malay "Melayu ada masak ini kah?" (translation "Do Malays cook this?"). That was because dried mushrooms are typically used in Chinese cooking, not Malay. So, I politely corrected her (countless times I've done this!) that I'm not a Malay and am a BabaNyonya. That was when she let out an expression of "Oh, I see!" on her face. I just smiled!

Language & Interaction
Because of the interaction with different cultures and as well as retaining their own, Peranakans, up to the mid 1900s, were trilingual. They were fluent in Malay, English and Chinese Hokkien. However, Peranakans have their own language which is Peranakan Malay - a Malay-Chinese patois hybrid. Many of the words are different from the actual Malay language, and contains the influence of several Chinese Hokkien and Indonesian words. The slang of the language and the way it is spoken are also somewhat different from the official Malay language in Malaysia. An example of Indonesian influence would be, an elderly Peranakan Nyonya in Malacca is often called a "Bibik" or in short "Bik" which means 'aunty'. It is an honorific term of endearment and respect for the elderly Nyonya ladies. Hence, my mom was so fondly known as "Bibik Chwee" (Chwee was her middle name) to many folks who knew her and our family.
The Melaka Peranakan way of speaking is very informal and sometimes could be perceived as rude. Let me give you an actual account between my dad and a friend of his at a coffee shop in Melaka years ago. I was with him walking into the coffee shop when he spotted a very old friend whom he had not met up with for sometime. When both of them spotted each other across the coffee shop, one went: "Oi! Mana lu pergi lama tak jumpa? Gua ingat lu dah masuk gol!" (translation: "Hey! Where have you been? Been a long time since I've seen you. I thought you have kicked the bucket!). The other responded: "Sial lah lu. Apasal lu tak carik gua? (translation: "You idiot! Why didn't you come look for me?"). This conversation was exchanged in the middle of hearty laughter, jest and care for one another, and in no way was that a slightest hint that a possible fight might ensue! This is just the fond ways of the Babas!
When it comes to the Nyonyas, there are two contrasting ends to their characters. Before that, let me outwardly say that Peranakan ladies have reputations that precedes them. They are either very gentle and soft spoken, or the complete opposite - fearless and fierce! Or both!! Just that different situations would command the different sides of them to exhibit itself. My late maternal granny whom I've never met was exactly like the latter description - fearless & fierce! My mom was just gentle, compassionate and loving to her family and friends but never incur her wrath, as that would warrant the feisty side of her to come out. My mom used to relay to us that when she was a young girl, she had once a while peered at the door when my granny was trying to bun up her hair. Each time the 'bunning' failed (in this case it means having just one single strand of hair out of place!), my granny would grab her comb or her slippers and fling it right across the room, aiming accurately at my mom, whilst shouting at her to go out and start pounding the spices. In this day and age, that is called 'child abuse'!! She had a 'pantang larang' (taboo) that no one should be watching her while she was trying to bun up her hair because it would definitely mean that the 'bunning' will fail.
Most, if not all, Peranakan families in Malacca still speak the original Peranakan language today. One can hear it at many corners of or across Malacca's many narrow streets or in coffee shops. We speak it at home, with relatives, and even with other non-Peranakan Malacca Chinese. In fact, a typical Peranakan person could not really speak Chinese, just like my dad, my 3rd sister and her husband. Meanwhile, Peranakans in Penang tend to speak more Hokkien (as I was told by a Penangite). The older generation of Peranakans in Singapore can still speak Peranakan language largely due to their roots and relations to Melaka Peranakans. This is not the case with the younger generation who are mainly English and Mandarin speaking.
There is an abundant of things to talk about with regard to this unique heritage of mine and many other Peranakans alike -whether they are from Malacca, Penang, Singapore or other parts of Malaysia and the world where many Peranakans live today. From its elaborate wedding customs to crockery to architecture to fashion - there is a story to tell.
I hope to post them bit by bit as I pursue them with more research going forward. Like any other modern-day Nyonyas challenged by modernity and pop culture, there is a whole lot for me to discover as well, as I live to share more about All Things Peranakan.
In the meantime, I hope you have enjoyed yourself reading this post.
Sources: my own recollection and knowledge passed down by my parents, relatives and family friends, my own interactions and observations with other Peranakans, information from various Internet sites and images.
Caveat emptor: additional historical facts/information may be missing. my above post is meant to give a quick glimpse only.


  1. You write a very detailed Peranakan history. And your blog have so many recipes for me to try out. Keep up the good jobs and blog more. ^-^ By the way, can I linked your Peranakan history to my site. Let my reader know more about Peranakan history?

  2. hi food paradise, thanks for yr comments. greatly appreciated! i would be delighted if you would like to link this to yr blog site. :D

  3. ohh.. i came frm FoodParadise blog..! hehhe..luv nyonya food and peranakan cuisine...errr..actually I eat anything! LOL!

    Great detailed write-up! So enlightening!
    I'm lookin forwd to more of ya recipes!!

  4. This is the best account I have seen written anywhere. Well done.

  5. Hello fellow Nyonya :) Found your blog by accident, and I truly fit the part about us Nyonyas' reputation precedes us.

    Anyways. About those who claim to be Peranakan even though they have no clue? Well, I call them the "Baba Celup", and I'd rather that they not claim to be something they are not. Honestly, some of them thought that by wearing the sarong kebaya, that would make them instant Nyonya. Or look like one, when their gerk-face and gaya stand out like a sore thumb.

    Napsu sekali, but it says alot about the Singaporeans' lack of clear identity. Or they are simply wanting to bask in the glory.

    Well, thank you for showcasing our heritage and I really look forward to "returning" to our hometown again some day :)


  6. Ah ee look nice lah!I see also want to eat!

  7. what a great Nyonya culture & history information! Keep it up!

  8. Intrested individualMarch 3, 2010 at 11:29 PM

    Thanks for your interesting info! It will be nice if you could tell us some peranakan language examples. Maybe Angie, the proud nonya, could teach us some too, like writing a paragraph in peranakan language?

  9. Thank you very much for such an interesting article. I am looking for a Nonya Kuih Pie Tee mould. I have asked many times in Singapore and could never find one. I will be visiting Singapore in June and wonder if you could please tell me if you know where to buy one? My email address is

  10. VERY VERY well-informed history of the Peranakans from the Straits. It's interesting to know that not-so-different history with the Indonesian Peranakans in Java & Sumatra. I found another blog writing about the Indonesian Peranakan with their close-ties to the Dutch colonial ruler.

  11. Thanks for sharing a nice blog for ! Peranakan History Peranakan History .

  12. Hello, are you a real Peranakan in Malaysia?

  13. Wow! This is great. My maternal grandfather and grandmother were Penang Baba and Nyonya. I kind of know a little about the cultural background from stories told by my aunties when we were little. But your blog has so much more details in it that it connects the dots for me.

    And I'm with you about being mistaken as Malay. When I was in Malaysia, I've been mistaken as malay, too, because of my tan skin. Now that I'm live in the US, I've been asked whether I'm Thai or Filipino or Vietnamese, and I've always have to correct them. :)

    Really enjoy reading your blog. Please continue posting.

  14. Sadly these days they can't even write perfect grammar and vocabulary. I wonder if they could really learn to improve it if not what a waste of website. Guess what actually they could have 2 languages English and Malay where no need to mess up their translation.

  15. Hi, may I know where can I buy nice "Kam Cheng"?

  16. OMG, my dad speaks like that too. LOL!

  17. Not a pure peranakan but I do identify with quite a bit of what you wrote. Mostly because my mom seems to have raised us like that. So that we end up having problems fitting in with Chinese people. And being seen as weird by them. Not that being weird is ever a problem, is it?

  18. thank you for the well presented information.

  19. Hi, ive been searching for very long, but there are no websites with peranakan occupation, I was wondering, do you have any information about their occupation? I have a history project due in 2 days, that would really help me a lot, thanks :)

  20. I see now why your mum's recipe is similar to that by my mum's. She's also a peranakan from Melaka, and a very good cook.

    I remembered when my grandma and her siblings met up they will speak half BM,Chinese and English - the peranakan way. It's nice and I could relate to the baba-nyonya language although I don't speak much of it. My grandma spoke to me mainly in our main dialect.

    All I know is that most nyonya Melaka are good cooks because all my aunts are also very good cook just like my aunt. That's how I was groomed to love spicy food since young.

    My grandma told me the wedding ceremony she had long ago were a very long one spanning over several days/weeks unlike the modern times. I'm glad it's simpler nowadays.