Preserving Peranakan Culture
an excerpt from Anne Pakir's paper on Peranakan In Plays: Culture Record or Compelling Drama

The Chinese Peranakans in Singapore, Malacca and Penang are a distinct, culturally vibrant people with a heritage dating from the sixteenth century. The Chinese Peranakan community is also synonymously known as the Baba community and the Straits Chinese community.

Generally, there has been a confusion about the term "peranakan" because the term applies not only to the Babas of Malaysia and Singapore but also to a host of other people in the region. The term "Peranakan" simply means "born of the soil, native, locally-born" and applies to anybody born here. There are other "Peranakan Jawi" (locally-born Arabs), Peranakan Yahudi (locally-born Jews) and Ceti Peranakan (locally-born Malay speaking Hindus from southern India). However, the numerical superiority of the Peranakan Cina, or Chinese Peranakan, has resulted in their simply referred to as Peranakans. "Peranakan in this paper then, alludes to the Chinese Peranakans.

There is a lack of written records documenting the origins of the community but it is generally accepted that the first Peranakan community arose in Malacca through intermarriage between Chinese immigrants and Southeast Asian women.

Peranakan dress and cuisine are influenced by the community's Malayan history. The dress for the females (called Nyonyas and Bibiks) are adapted from the Malay baju kurong and the sarong kebaya. The food - Nyonya cuisine - is well-known for its spices and flavours characteristic of Malay and Thai cooking. Peranakans spoke (and still do, although in diminishing numbers) a Malay dialect, called Baba Malay, which shows heavy borrowing from Hokkien (a Chinese dialect) and English. In its rites and rituals, however, the Peranakans follow old Chinese traditions.

In its more recent history, specifically the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Peranakans sent their children to English-medium or Christian mission schools, rather than to Chinese schools. Many were sent to England for tertiary education or professional qualifications and returned to jobs in the then British Colonial Civil Service or in British trading firms. The Peranakan community reached the zenith of its existence in this period, enjoying immense wealth, cultural expansion, and good relations with the Malay royalty and the British colonial administrators.

The decline of the Peranakan community coincided with the period of World Ward II, especially during the Japanese Occupation (1942-45) in Malay and Singapore. Many fell into poverty and debt in the ravages of war, and had to sell off their landed properties in Singapore and Malaya and their family heirlooms.

Today, there is the question of the future of Peranakan language and culture. Modernisation and rapid urbanisation, westernisation and the erosion of identity through inter-marriage with non-Peranakan all pose threats to its continued existence. There is a great deal of nostalgia and regret for that is perceived as a beautiful but dying culture and a rich, incomparable language.

As a result, there has been in recent years - especially in the 1980s - a revival of interest in the Peranakan community and its language.

In a footnote to a chapter in my dissertation, A Linguistic Investigation of Baba Malay (1986), I recorded a phenomenon that was happening in Singapore in the mid 1980s regarding the Peranakan (or Baba or Straits Chinese) community and their language, Baba Malay:

"Younger Babas in their twenties in Singapore who would have by now abandoned Baba Malay in a language shift to English are beginning to use it again. This has been mainly a result of their having taken part in recent drama productions in Baba Malay which are enjoying a current revival after an almost thirty year gap. The recent plays are Pileh Menantu "Choosing a Daughter-in-Law" (1984), Buang Keroh Pungot Jernih "Let Bygones be Bygones" (1984, unpublished), and Laki Tua Bini Muda "The Old husband and the young Wife" (1985). Baba plays were extremely popular in the 1950's in Singapore.

The resurgence of interest in the language can also be seen in the Catholic Church of the Holy Family, in the district of Katong, where most Babas in Singapore are to be found today. This church has recently held masses in Baba Malay (beginning in 1984)."

Today, the "peranakan phenomenon" is still evident. The Catholic masses in Baba Malay are continuing to attract the Baba Chinese in Katong and elsewhere in Singapore. These masses are celebrated to usher in the Chinese Lunar Year. Several more Baba plays have been written and produced, and like their recent predecessorts have played to full houses, admission to which is a much prized privilege.

The strong revival of interest in the Peranakan language, culture and community in Singapore and also in Malaysia in this decade is plainly evident. In 1983, Kuala Lumpur had a Warisan Baba (Baba Heritage or Legacy) exhibition at the Muzium Negara (the National Museum). In October 1988, the National Museum in Singapore organized the Peranakan Heritage Exhiition and Lecture Series. In December of the same year, Penang organized a Minggu Warisan Peranakan, Peranakan Heritage week, including a seminar on the Heritage of Peranakan Cina (Chinese Peranakan). In December 1989, Malacca hosted the 1989 Baba Convention. THe convention organised by the Persatuan Peranakan Cina Melaka (or, the Peranakan Chinese Association of Malacca) had for its theme, "The Future of the Peranakans".

The frenzied activities revolving round Peranakan life and language in this decade could perhaps be seen as the frantic last throes of a dying or declining community. Perhaps not. But the Peranakan community seems determined to re-assert its identity in the face of encroaching modernity and loss of traditional culture and within the context of language shift and re-acculturation.


















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