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Life And Style: Downfallen Baba-Nyonya

  • 24020(Photo courtesy: Sin Chew Daily)
  • Babas and Nyonyas stress on ancestor worship. (Photo courtesy: Sin Chew Daily)
  • Chan Kim Lay worships his ancestors with his children and grandchildren everyday. (Photo courtesy: Sin Chew Daily)
  • Offerings for the death anniversary of one of Chan's ancestors. (Photo courtesy: Sin Chew Daily)
  • Traditional Baba-Nyonya water containers. (Photo courtesy: Sin Chew Daily)
  • Fancy floor tiles and Western-style table. Such an integrated culture has deeply affected the daily life of Babas and Nyonyas. (Photo courtesy: Sin Chew Daily)
  • Babas and Nyonyas usually carve their windows with encouraging Chinese words. (Photo courtesy: Sin Chew Daily)

Malacca people are familiar enough with Baba and Nyonya. But there are not many who truly understand them.

Recent Singaporean drama The Little Nyonya has set off a Baba-Nyonya hit in Singapore and Malaysia, particularly Johor Bahru. Everyone is talking about this special clan and many scholars started to conduct studies and researches on the Baba-Nyonya culture.

Baba and Nyonya, Peranakan or Straits Chinese are Qing Dynasty descendants who have immigrated to Malacca, Penang, Indonesia and Singapore in the early 15th century. They moved from China, mostly from Fujian or Guangdong Chaoshan, while a small number from Guangdong and Hakka, to South-East Asia. They got married with local peoples and built their families here. Men are known as Babas while women known as Nyonyas.

Persistence in Chinese culture

The culture and customs of Baba-Nyonya have been influenced by local Malays and other non-Chinese. However, they are very persistent in Chinese culture and traditions.

"We worship our ancestors everyday. Everyone must pay respect to the ancestors at the ancestral room, unless they are abroad."

Malacca Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum owner Chan Kim Lay, 84, is the fourth generation of his family.

Chan told Sin Chew Daily that Chinese people used to look down at Baba-Nyonya at the early stage. And he used to be ridiculed by his classmates in school.

“Although we have been influenced by Malays in terms of food culture, our daily rituals and customs are derived from Chinese traditions.

“For example, we kneel to greet the elders during Chinese New Year but most of the Chinese do not do so. Such ritual is in fact originated from Chinese traditions,” he said.

“By now, my younger brothers still kneel to greet me during Chinese New Year. They insist on doing so even though I asked them to stop kneeling as they are already in their 70s. However, I'm firm with my children and grandchildren,” he added.

Stress on ancestor worship

Chan said Babas and Nyonyas attach great importance to respect for ancestors.

“We worship our ancestors everyday. Everyone must pay respect to the ancestors at the ancestral room, unless they are abroad,” he said.

“However, many descendants of Baba- Nyonya have converted to be Christians or Catholics as they were sent to study in English schools, which ran mostly by churches, during the British colonial era.

“After they have converted, they no longer follow the practice, and many traditional festivals are not carried on. Thus, many of them know nothing about their original cultural practices,” he pointed out.

He continued: “In addition, many Baba-Nyonya got married with local Chinese and as they are having different family backgrounds and lifestyles, lesser and lesser Baba-Nyonya customs are being transmitted.”

Baba Malay – Unique language

Baba Malay is a dialect of the Malay language which contains many Hokkien words.

Chan said the local Baba Malay contains many Indonesian words, together with Hokkien pronunciation, it has developed to be a unique language. He cited examples like the word “I” is “aku” in Malay but “gua” (Hokkien) in Baba Malay. “Handkerchief” in Malay is “sapu tangan” but “mi poh” in Baba Malay.

Chan said that as they speak Baba Malay at home, thus their descendants can still understand the language today.

Meanwhile, even though they attach great importance to etiquette, they are unable to adhere all rituals as times change.

Chan took kebaya, wore by Nyonya, as an example. He said not many can actually afford it nowadays as a single piece causes up to several hundred ringgit.

“Also, renting the bride and groom traditional costumes require thousands of ringgit. Thus, modern Baba-Nyonyas wear Western gowns in their wedding days,” said Chan. (Sin Chew Daily)

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