“Peranakan” means locally born and bred and is the name given to Straits-born Chinese of the Straits Settlements whose roots can be traced as far back as the 15thcentury from the time of Admiral Cheng Ho’s visit to Malacca when the Chinese Princess Hang Li Po was presented as bride to Sultan Mansur Shah, who was the Malacca sultan then. The large entourage that accompanied the Chinese princess to settle in Malacca later intermingled and married the local populace, mainly Malays. They were also thought to be descendants of the early Chinese seafarers and traders who plied the trading routes between Southern China and Malacca, and who later settled down in Malacca after marrying the local dames. Therefore the Peranakans were popularly believed to be descendants of these inter-marriages between the immigrant Chinese and the locals and they have in turn, over time churned out their very own unique culture, language, dressing and also cuisine.

The Chinese Peranakan are generally of the Hokkien dialect, from Singapore, Malacca right up to Penang. However, we do have those who are Cantonese, Hakka and even Hainanese and this makes the community more interesting and richer culturally.

When the British colonized the country, there were the Federated Malay States, Unfederated Malay States, and also The Straits Settlements which were made up of Malacca, Singapore and Penang, of which Malacca was considered to be the cultural centre. Besides the Straits Settlements, Peranakans can also be found in quite large numbers even in Phuket in Thailand, Yangon in Myanmar and also Medan, Padang, Surabaya, Palembang and Bandung in Indonesia.

The Straits-born Chinese, who are also known as Babas (males) and Nyonyas (females) were much respected by the British for their wealth, good command of English, their political allegiance and also their role in helping the British government maintain law and order besides promoting social harmony among the different peoples. Many Babas were even appointed compradores of the bigger western companies and establishments. Being loyal subjects of the British crown, they were also fondly known as ‘King’s Chinese’ , ‘Queen’s subjects’ or ‘British subjects’ then. During that rich era under the British rule, the Straits Chinese British Association was formed in Singapore on 17 August 1900. In October that same year, a branch was quickly formed in Malacca and Penang followed suit in 1920. Its name was later changed to the Peranakan Association.

The older generation of Babas and Nyonyas were a uniquely vibrant, colourful, refined and elite urban community with a rich and proud cultural identity of its own. They led illustrious careers and have stamped their mark in the fields of sports, economy, culture, social as well as political and have produced a number of prominent sons over the years, the most famous being Tun Sir Tan Cheng Lock, one of the founding fathers and architects of Independent Malaya, his son Tun Tan Siew Sin and also Singapore’s foremost politician Lee Kuan Yew, the late former President Wee Kim Wee, and other famous figures like Goh Keng Swee, Toh Chin Chye and Tan Tock Seng, among countless others.

Over the generations right up to this day, the Peranakan community has been known for their undivided loyalty to the government of the day and their various contributions to society in general. By this inborn selfless attitude, the Baba’s and Nyonya’s of years gone by have left a valuable legacy of altruism and service to their fellow countrymen.

However, as is true with many other minority communities in this modern day, this rich and unique cultural heritage of the Babas and Nyonyas has inevitably been watered down over time. This cultural dilution is a truly sad fact and with emigration of the younger generation, inter-marriages, urbanization and modernization, less and less true blue Peranakans are practicing the way of life, culture or even the unique Baba language, let alone the dressing and culture. But fortunately enough, one thing is surely not losing its hold so fast, and that is the Nyonya cuisine which has over the years been a closely-guarded secret and passed on from generation to generation of Babas and Nyonyas.

Peranakan Cuisine or Straits Chinese food, which is more fondly referred to as Nyonya Food has its roots from more than 400 years ago and is one legacy of the Peranakans that has withstood the test of time and proven to be ever popular up to this day. Peranakan cuisine is a unique blend of Chinese and Malay culinary features with its own unique taste that is close to the heart of the true blue Baba and Nyonya and it is the pride and passion that makes it so special.
The recipes for authentic Nyonya food are always very complicated and its preparation painstakingly detailed and sophisticated. A lot of local spices and herbs are used in Nyonya cooking viz. Daun Limau Purut (kafir leaf), Daun Kunyit (turmeric leaf), Lengkuas (galangal), Buah Keras (candle nuts), Serai (lemon grass), Daun Pandan (fragrant screwpine), Daun Kadok, Daun Cekur, Kunyit (turmeric), Ketumbar (coriander), Jintan Putih (cumin), Jintan Manis (fennel), Kayu Manis (cinnamon), Bunga Lawang (star anise), Bunga Cengkeh (cloves), Biji Sawi (mustard seed), Belimbing (carambola), Assam Jawa (tamarind), Assam Gelugor (dried tamarind slices), Santan (coconut milk) and of course Red Chillies, Dried Chillies, Cili Padi and the mother of all ingredients, the Belacan (shrimp paste also known as “Malacca cheese”).

Nyonya cooking has also been influenced to a certain extent by the geographical proximity of certain countries in the region, for example Malacca and Singapore Nyonya cuisine has a little influence from neighbouring Indonesia and Penang from Thailand, with its slightly more sweetish and sourish taste. Nyonya cooking is actually all about blending the ingredients, timing and fire control. All said, Nyonya food is generally hot and spicy with a combination of sweet, sour and herbal and others, and will never fail to tingle your palate and provide a new exciting taste especially to those new to our special cuisine. Like they say, “You’ll never get sick of Nyonya food for every meal is a new & exciting experience.”

Nyonya Kueh (Nyonya cakes) is very popular for breakfast, tea time and as desserts. It owes its popularity to the elaborate preparations involved and the refined and tasty finished products. The Nyonyas make wonderful ‘kuehs’ like Kueh Koci, Kueh Talam, Kueh Bongkong, Kueh Kesui, Kueh Bingka, Ondeh-ondeh, Kueh Kuria, Pulut Inti, Pulut Tartar, Kueh Ku, Kueh Bangkit, Kueh Tear (pineapple tarts), Sagoon, Kueh Belanda, Dodol and so on and so forth.

And because of the widespread constant yearning for this special cuisine, we cannot help but feel that there is some sort of resurgence of the neo-Peranakan culture, especially its cuisine with the emergence of Nyonya food outlets everywhere, locally as well as around the globe. As far flung as its people are all over the world, so is the expanse of the Nyonya cuisine, which can be found in most major cities in the world like New York, Manhattan, Washington, London, Paris, Frankfurt, Sydney, Melbourne, Perth , etc.

For the Peranakans, most of whom were originally Buddhists, their Chinese traditions and customs die hard. They are a pious people and hold tight to the traditional religious and social customs, with some even practising till this day especially so during Chinese New Year, weddings , birthdays and so on. Their ceremonial traditions were often much more elaborate than the Chinese Chinese. But as time wears on unfortunately, the younger generations have been losing grip of this rich culture and have somehow simplified the often tedious customary traditional practices of yore. Many have also inter-married and embraced other religions and many have also been largely influenced by urbanization and modernization, thus losing even further hold of their ancestors’ traditions and customs which are actually in their twilight years, without much hope of revival against time.

By virtue of their better standing in society and their accumulated wealth, many Babas and Nyonyas of the bygone era had found it necessary to immortalize their status by building large mansions using all imported materials like Dutch tiles, long French windows with stained glass, Chinese wooden carvings and furniture made of blackwood and embedded with mother-of-pearls motifs. The huge mansions were usually colossal and consisted of a main hall, a second hall, one or two courtyards, bedrooms, a bridal chamber and of course a large kitchen. The interior as well as exterior décor were largely a fusion of eastern and western influences, making it a unique feature of the Peranakan home. There were many such homes built during the pre-war days but as history would have it, many were destroyed during the Japanese occupation of Malaya along with the loss of many valuable Peranakan artifacts and possessions including rare antique porcelain crockery.

Some of these buildings however still stand to this day and can be found in Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock (Heeren Street) and Jalan Hang Jebat (Jonker Street) in Malacca and Muntri Street, Magazine Road, Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah (Northam Road) and Prangin Creek in Penang.

The traditional dressing of the Baba was the Baju Lok Chuan and for the Nyonya it was the Sarong Ka which is actually a batik sarong and a baju ka. The dresses were then adorned with gold or silver Kerosang (brooches) instead of buttons . Also popular then was the silver belt used to hold the sarong in place. The ladies wore beautiful beaded shoes called Kasut Manik which was made of many minute and colourful beads which could be arranged to form interesting patterns. Even their purses were made from culourful beads.

The older ladies wore the Baju Kurong which was much like a loose-fitting overall dress over a sarong and sometimes with a big handkerchief flung over the shoulder. The ladies used to have their hair tied up and bobbed at the back into a Sanggul, either a Sanggul Siput, Sanggul Bob, Sanggul Lipat and others. And to add to its beauty they also used to have the Chochok sanggul (big & thick hair pin) which were usually made of gold or silver and sometimes embedded with diamonds. According to belief, these Chochok Sangguls were used not only for ornamental purpose but was also a multi-purpose tool, even for self-defence.

The Peranakan loved music and the favourites of the day were the Keroncong and old English hits, and gramophones and vinyl record players or turntables, the most popular brands of which were Blaupunkt, Grundig and His Master’s Voice (wind-up turntable with a large spout speaker) could be found in many of the homes as it was a status symbol then.

The Babas & Nyonyas of yore used to spend much of their time indulging in one of their favourite pastimes, which was Dondang Sayang, a sort of poetic banter (if you may) where the participants would sit together in a circle and Berbalas Pantun (challenge with poetry) with the accompaniment of the violins (biola), guitars, accordions & drums (rebana). They were really good at it and the sessions could last for hours upon hours amidst the hearty jokes, fun & laughter that prevailed.

Another pastime was the Joget sessions, which was actually dance sessions with very lively music from the accompaniment of the musical instruments mentioned earlier.

One more big favourite was staging of theatre plays using daily real life happenings as their scripts and employing only the Baba language. And for certain reasons, even the parts of the ladies were acted by the men dressed as Nyonyas, making it actually an all-male cast. Only in later years, were the real Nyonyas allowed to play their own parts. These plays used to play to packed houses and these sort of social activities were primarily instrumental in forging and keeping the Peranakan community together.

The old ladies then loved to chew on betel leaves (makan sireh) .

The Baba language is a form of patois Malay, being a mixture of Hokkien and colloquial Malay with many other languages like Portuguese, Dutch & English having substantial influence in it.

However there is one very distinct difference between the Baba language spoken in the south (Malacca and Singapore) as compared to that of the north (Penang, Phuket & Yangon) and it is very interesting to note that in the south, we speak Malay with a few Hokkien words whereas in the north, it is Hokkien with a few Malay words.

It is a unique language indeed and enjoyed only by the older generation Peranakan and a trickling of the current generation. And it was in fact the lingua franca of the community in the early days. However, this proud Lingo faces a serious threat of extinction as less and less Babas & Nyonyas can actually speak or communicate in their mother tongue. Once in a while we do get true blue Peranakans coming to our café who could actually speak the language and it is sheer joy to be able to communicate with them in our very own & unique lingo. I really look forward to these occasions as they bring back the sweet magic & nostalgia of days gone by – our mother tongue.

















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