Peranakan, Baba-Nyonya (峇峇娘惹) and Straits Chinese (土生華人; named after the Straits Settlements) are terms used for the descendants of the very early Chinese immigrants to the Nusantara region, including both the British Straits Settlements of Malaya and the Dutch-controlled island of Java among other places, who have partially adopted Malay customs in an effort (chronological adaptation) to be assimilated into the local communities.
The word Peranakan is also used to describe Chinese Indonesians. In both Malay and Indonesian, 'Peranakan' means 'descendants'. Babas refer to the male descendants and the Nyonyas the female. The word nyonya (also commonly spelled nonya) may originate from the Portuguese word dona, which means 'lady'.
Most Peranakan are of Hokkien ancestry, although a fair denomination of them are of the Teochew or Cantonese descent. Written records from the 19th and early 20th centuries show that Peranakan men usually took brides from within the local Peranakan community. Peranakan families also commonly imported brides from China and sent their daughters to China to find husbands. A small group of Indian Peranakans, known as the Chitty, does exist as well. Another similar group of Eurasian Peranakans also exist as Kristang people.
The language of the Peranakans, Baba Malay (Bahasa Melayu Baba) , is a dialect of the Malay language (Bahasa Melayu), which contains many Hokkien words. It is a dying language and contemporary use is mainly limited to members of the older generation; this is indicative also of the Peranakan culture at large. However most Peranakans do speak English, Mandarin and their respective Chinese dialects in addition to Baba Malay.
In the 15th century, the city states of the Malay Peninsula often paid tribute to various kingdoms such as the kingdoms of China and Siam. Close relations with China were established in the early 15th century, during the reign of Parameswara, when Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho), a Muslim Chinese, visited Malacca. In return for such tribute, a princess of China, Hang Li Po was presented as a gift to Sultan Mansur Shah, the Sultan of Malacca, at that time (+/-1459 AD). The royalty and servants who accompanied the princess initially settled in Bukit Cina and eventually grew into a class of straits-born Chinese known as the Peranakan. The Peranakan retained most of their ethnic and religious origins (ancestor worship), but assimilated the language and culture of the Malays. They developed a unique culture and distinct foods. A lot of sources claim that the early Peranakan inter-married with the local Malay population. However, the lack of physical resemblances have also led many experts to believe that the Peranakan Chinese ethnicity has hardly diluted. Some Peranakan distinguish between Peranakan-Baba (those Peranakan with part Malay ancestry) from Peranakan (those without any Malay ancestry). The Peranakan often sent their sons and daughters to China to look for spouses. Also, the religion of the local Malay population was Islam which forbids inter-marriage with other religions without conversion first. In the early 1800s, new Chinese immigrants to the Straits Settlements bolstered the Peranakan population.
Over the centuries, the Peranakans have evolved a unique culture that maintains many Chinese traditions, such as celebrating the Lunar New Year and the Lantern Festival, while adopting the customs of the land they settled in, as well as those of their successive colonial rulers. There are traces of Portuguese, Dutch, British, Malay and Indonesian influences in Baba culture.
By the middle of the twentieth century, most Peranakan were English educated, as a result of the British colonisation of Malaya, and the natural propensity of these people who were able to easily embrace new cultures. Because the Peranakans readily embraced English culture and education, administrative and civil service posts were often filled by prominent Straits Chinese. The interaction with the British also caused many in the community to convert to Christianity. The Peranakan community thereby became very influential in Malacca and Singapore and were known also as the King's Chinese due to their perceived loyalty to the British Crown. Because of the interaction of the different cultures and languages that Peranakans had, most Peranakans were (and still are) trilingual, being able to converse with Chinese, Malays and the British. Common vocations were as merchants, traders, and general intermediaries between China, Malaya and the West; the latter was especially valued by the British, since the Babas also enjoyed good relations with the Malay community and served as advisors to the royal Malay courts. In fact the term "Baba" is an honorific term in Malay; probably derived from Hindi/Sanskrit [Baba: literally means grandfather or father, and is used as a term of reverence and affection for an elderly gentleman].
Associations of Chinese Peranakan include the Peranakan Association of Singapore and the Gunung Sayang Association, a performing arts group. The Peranakan Association has about 1700 members, and the Gunung Sayang has about 200 members. Although the Peranakan Association consists of a mix of young and old, the Gunung Sayang Association has primarily elderly or retired members. In Malacca, there is an Indian Peranakan Association known as the Chitty Melaka. This is a tightly knit community of Saivite Hindus. Chitty Peranakans display considerable similarity to Chinese Peranakans in terms of dressing, songs and folk dances.
Historical and cultural items from the Baba culture are displayed in cultural establishments on Heeren Street, Jonker Street and other streets in the same neighbourhood in Malacca and in Penang in Malaysia, and at the Peranakan Museum in Singapore. There one can find museums displaying furniture, food stuff, and even traditional clothes of the Baba and Nonya. There are also a small number of "Nyonya" restaurants in Singapore, Penang, Malacca, and the West. Free weekly street shows featuring Baba performances, and traditional and pop Chinese cultural performances are found in Jonker Street in Malacca (Melaka). The shows are part of the night market scene, and are usually crowded with shoppers, both local and foreign.
The Peranakans were partially assimilated into the Malay culture (especially in food, dress, and language), while retaining some Chinese traditions (religion, name, and ethnic identity), thereby creating a fusion culture of their own. For instance, from their Malay influence, a unique "Nyonya" cuisine has developed using the spices of Malay cuisine (examples are Chicken Kapitan, a dry chicken curry, and Inchi Kabin, a Nyonya version of fried chicken). The women (Nyonyas) have taken to wearing the baju kebaya (a Malay dress, seen most notably as the uniform of Malaysia and Singapore Airlines' female flight attendants). However, most of the Peranakans are not Muslim, and have retained the traditions of ancestor worship of the Chinese; though some converted to Christianity. The wedding ceremony of the Peranakan is largely based on Chinese tradition, and is one of the most colorful and fascinating wedding ceremonies in Malaysia and Singapore.
Peranakan culture is disappearing. Without colonial British support for their perceived racial neutrality, government policies in both countries following independence from the British have resulted in the assimilation of Peranakans back into mainstream Chinese culture. In Singapore, the Peranakans are classified as ethnically Chinese, so they receive formal instruction in Mandarin Chinese as a second language (in accordance with the "Mother Tongue Policy") instead of Malay. In Malaysia, the standardization of Malay as Bahasa Melayu — required for all ethnic groups — has led to a disappearance of the unique characteristics of Baba Malay.
The migration of some Peranakan families, particularly the well-to-do ones, has led to a small Peranakan disapora in neighbouring countries, from Vietnam to Australia. However, these communities are very small, and with the increasing use of the various languages in their respective countries, the use of Peranakan Malay or Baba Malay will be diluted.
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