Baba Nyonya Culture – MV Training Tues 27 Nov

By Hani Abdullah (Batch 16)

Display at Gallery B
Display at Gallery B

Today we learnt the acronym OCBC refers not to the bank, but the way mainstream Chinese may look upon the Baba Nyonya community in Malaysia – as Orang Cina Bukan Cina (Chinese yet not Chinese).

This is because as the community took root and evolved in Malaya, slowly at first perhaps in the 12th century and flourishing from the 18th to 20th centuries, these Malay speaking descendants of Chinese immigrants to Malaya were seen as forsaking their own culture in order to assimilate.

Not only did they seemingly lose command of the Chinese language by choosing to speak in Malay, they also seemed to abandon patriotism for their homeland China, preferring to swear allegiance to the ruler of the day, be it the Dutch, British or Japanese.

To dilute their roots further, the men (Babas) began to dress more and more Western, and sound as English as the English, while the women (Nyonyas), who already spoke mostly Malay, dressed more and more, well, Malay. But all throughout this time, according to Cedric Tan who presented on the subject, the Baba-Nyonyas remained steadfastly Chinese at heart.

What may be confusing at first is that the Baba-Nyonyas celebrate every festival under the sun, regardless of race, religion or culture. As Chinese, they take part in the myriad of Chinese festivals, ancestral worship and customs practiced, which come from a mix of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. However the Baba-Nyonyas also personally participate in Hindu rituals, pray to Jesus and abstain from pork on certain days of the Muslim calendar. Because you see, “We don’t rely on Chinese deities only,” was Cedric’s rationale.

In a presentation as vibrant as the community itself, Cedric went into great detail on the quirky history and evolution of the community; the development of the Baba-Nyonya language (which really is the fusion of 4-5 different languages); the subtle differences between the terms Peranakan, Straits Chinese and Baba/Nyonya; and the intricacies of each festival celebrated, each custom practiced and the whys.

Thanks to Cedric, we know why the community produced in their heyday such a rich tapestry of cultural products from the clothing and embroidery found in the Nyonya kebaya and other linens, to jewellery, ceramics, furniture, elaborate architecture, and not least their epic cuisine.

Cedric also gave us many insider tips, for instance, “Buy the sarong first, then select the kebaya top material, but keep the colours bright!” He also said that while the community has in recent years gained more public interest and awareness, Media Corp Singapore’s production Little Nyonya makes the mistake of making the characters speak in Mandarin and not localised Hokkien, or even Malay for that matter.

Thanks Cedric, we had a great time.


Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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