Visitors to our Archives since June 2003

 

NONYA PANTANGS OF YORE

While the Baba subscribed to traditional religious practices handed down by their Chinese forebears (prayers to honour ancestors, worship of both heavenly and household deities and even datoks (Malay saints), nevertheless it was the Nyonya who spent considerable time, money and effort honouring both spirits and ancestors. Deeply religious and over-meticulous the Nyonya Matriarch was considered chay-soo, or fussy. And indeed she was. Assisted by her female retinue comprising her daughters, daughters-in-law and servants, she was at hand to see that all details governing ritual observances were correct in order to ensure that the spirits of bygone ancestors, deities, gods or even datoks would be appeased. The Nyonya was trained from young to practice and uphold the traditional religious beliefs, advice and life-values of her ancestors. Equipped with such detailed knowledge pertaining to various religious rites, customs and traditions, she ironically became the unlikely a keeper of ancient, out-dated customs and traditions and with them, the superstitions and beliefs.

The Nyonya was not only religious but was quite liberal especially in her beliefs, tolerance and religious practices. Influenced to a. certain extent by her Malay and Indian neighbours, it was not at all surprising to witness a Nyonya praying at kramats (shrines of Malay holy men) as well as Hindu shrines with offerings of incense, nasi kunyit (tumeric rice), betel-nuts, sireh leaves and flowers. Often the Nvonya would not hesitate to consult a Malay bomoh when she was faced with personal problems. True, she would seek out Chinese mediums too but she would also put her faith in bomohs when the need arose. The Nyonya would not hesitate to make a personal vow, hair guan, or on someone's behalf (usually for one who was suffering from a prolonged, unexplainable sickness). Should that person recover from the illness, the worshipper would return to the shrine (where she had made the vow) with offerings of tumeric rice and probably some fruits as thanksgiving tarb sia and sia guan (fulfilling of one's vow).

For the removal or washing off one's bad luck, soay-oon, or sickness, the Nyonya would throw seven types of flowers (taken from Hindu temples or bought) into hot water baths and use the blessed water for bathing. This practice prevails to this day. The superstitious nature of the Nyonya was sometimes considered absurd or even stupid. Ever conscious of what the temple medium had told her in advance, the Nyonya would do whatever she could to avoid ch'iong, or the violent clashing of souls often resulting in sickness). Invitations to weddings and birthday celebrations would be turned down just on the simple excuse that her Chinese zodiac animal symbol under which she was born might clash with that of her host. As for paying her last respects to the dead, especially close relatives, she would first arm herself with some powerful talismans or hoo before she dared venture forth. To avoid ch’iong, children definitely would be discouraged or even prevented from attending funerals.

The Nyonya fervently believed in the power of hoo, a rectangular piece of thin yellow paper with red Chinese characters written on them, which she could not read, illiterate as she was in Chinese. This was obtained from mediums and priests to ward off evil. It was not surprising to see such yellow strips of paper being pasted at several places in the house, especially at the main doorway (entrance to the house). For the common daily ills and protection, the panacea seemed to be prayers followed by the burning of the peng-aun hoo and collecting the ashes in a glass of plain water and drinking the concoction. This was equivalent to drinking ayer jampi, the Malay bomoh's blessed water. Such a common practice exists today especially with those who worship Kuan Im, the goddess of Mercy and other faith-healing deities.

The Nyonya also believed that at certain times of the year, a person's oon-k’ee (soul), which was subject to strong or weak forces, would be low and at times high. When one's oon-k’ee was low, he or she might fall ill through huan tio, meaning his or her soul "being vulnerable to collision with evil forces” present at funerals and thus that he or she would fall ill. During the seventh month of the Chinese calendar, children were often forced to remain indoors to avoid ch’iong-huan – a meeting or collision with evil forces which lurked outdoors. When a child tio ch’iong (touched by evil forces) one merely had to kai kai (conduct a simple religious ritual), usually performed by an elderly woman. She would, hold some lighted joss sticks in her hands, a stack of gin chua or silver paper (square-shaped paper “money” for the dead), and burn it waving it in circles before the victim, at the same time uttering prayers. At the last minute, just before her fingers got burnt, she would direct the victim to spit at the burning stack, which was then tossed to the ground. After the victim had stuck some burning joss sticks on the ground, he must walk straight back home without casting a look behind. The exorciser would take a longer, circuitous route home. It was hoped that the devil, being engrossed in counting the money would lose track of the victim and leave him in peace to recover

According to Nyonya beliefs, to protect young children huan tio, a tang kai or talisman would be hung around their neck. In other cases, blessed strings or prayer beads (obtained from temple priests or mediums) were tied around their wrist or waist. Some sick-prone children were often given for “adoption” to temple deities in the hope that they would have protection from evil forces.

 

NONYA PANTANGS PART A

The nonyas also had great faith in séances - the lok-ten and often consulted temple mediums to find out what the departed ones required in the 'other world'. To the Nyonya certain unexplained phenomena could be attributed to the fact that the ‘other side’ was trying to establish 'contact'. The temple medium or priest would then hold a séance and explain what the departed needed to appease his spirit. The Nyonya also had absolute faith in the hoo, obtained from temples. These strips of yellow paper were burnt and the ashes allowed to fall or collect in a cupful of water. Those who were sick or in shock would be asked to drink a few mouthfuls of the 'blessed water' - a panacea for all ills. Neatly folded into a convenient size,tied with a yellow or red string and kept in a wallet or silver locket (‘tangkai long’), the yellow paper served as a talisman with protective power. Armed with such detailed knowledge pertaining to various religious rites, customs and traditions, the Nyonya of the Straits Settlements thus ironically became unlikely keepers of ancient, archaic customs and traditions which were long ago discarded in mainland China itself.

With the passage of time, the Nyonya found herself having the need to adapt herself to modern changes. Try as she might to uphold her role as matriarch the Nyonya mother-in-law found herself unable to impose or enforce her control over her modern daughter-in-law. Young married couples often moved out of the ancestral home and with married women having careers of their own, inevitably less time could be devoted to domestics. Gradually the observance of traditional beliefs, practices and customs were abandoned, though not altogether. White Frog, Albino Snake Being an animist, the Nyonya believed that trees, rocks, an ant hill or even new strange places had a semangat or ‘soul’ that must be respected and not abused. Young Babas were often advised to utter a short prayer of forgiveness first before they urinated or defecated in private behind rocks and trees. And of course, they must not forget to take along their talisman with protective powers.

Only Baba households in Penang worshipped the ‘God of Prosperity’ - Tua Pek Kong. To the Nyonya and Baba, the sighting of an apparition of an old man dressed, completely in white and with flowing white beard was considered a very good omen - akin to seeing the God of Prosperity and naturally, it was hoped that good luck would follow soon. Similarly the sighting of a white frog,
Crocodile, albino snake or a stray butterfly inside the house was associated with good tidings and one was not supposed to harm them (for fear of retribution). Even today, this belief has led many to release not only poisonous snakes but also unusually large creatures (scorpions, spiders, centipedes etc.) back into their natural habitat unharmed.

While the colour black might be considered fashionable today, it was certainly a taboo colour to the Nyonya. Black was reserved for mourning and often regarded as soay (of ill omen). Hence, during the mourning period (from 49 days to 3 years) the bereaved family often avoided visiting relatives or friends for fear they might pantang that ill-luck might befall them. Visitors at funerals were not supposed to wear brightly-coloured clothes, but dull-coloured clothes such as blue, black or grey were suitable for the occasion. Close friends and relatives often accompanied the funeral cortege to the cemetery for burial or the crematorium. As each guest left the house of the deceased he or she would be given a piece of red thread tied to two sweets (to be eaten). The red thread was supposed to bring good luck and prevent demons from causing harm. Lok Tang, K'an Bong For weddings and birthdays, those wearing black (in mourning) were often not invited and if invited, would politely decline the invitation (even though the host repeatedly asserted that he did not mind - no pantang). Those in mourning should never visit a home where there was a child below the age of one. The child might fall seriously ill as if in shock (ch’iong teok).

The Nyonya lived in constant fear of evil charms or kong t’au cast by her husband’s kept mistress. Though often unfounded, the Nyonya feared that the mistress would cast a spell on her to make her gila or mad so that the latter might usurp her as matriarch. Ever fearful or cautious of the evil charms that her husband’s mistress might do her in (cho kong t’au),the services of a temple medium or bomoh to provide her with a protective talisman or tangkai were sought. For the Nyonya who was really desperate to prevent her husband from taking mistresses, the advise was to take the dimension or size of her husband's male organ, obtain the stem of a yam plant and chant prayers over it so that the husband's penis would be ineffective or go limp when he tried to make love with other women. Should the husband continue with his philandering ways, what the enraged Nyonya would do was to utter a wicked charm before planting the yam plant in the ground with the belief that since the yam stem would rot, so would her husband's! Well, in those days, she never thought of delivering the Lorena Bobbit cut on her husband!


Nasi Kangkang The Mistress, on the other hand would do her utmost to retain her charms to entice the other woman's husband and share him for as long as she could. She would sometimes resort to implanting a small piece of 'charmed gold foil' in her forehead or even around her female genitalia (a process known as susuk). That was supposed to make her look perpetually beautiful in the eyes of men. However, once the magical spell was broken (when the charm-maker/bomoh died), the mistress would turn into a hideous witch. This practice was believed to have originated from the Malays or Siamese who practiced the black arts. In some desperate cases, confiding in and acting on the advice of some experienced elderly ladies, the Mistress would disrobe herself completely, stand naked with her legs wide open and while the pot of rice was still steaming, she allowed her sweat to trickle down into the steaming pot - a process commonly known as nasi wap or nasi kangkang. It was believed that after eating the cooked rice, the man was bound to abide entirely by her wishes.

To rid yourself of your enemy completely was to devise a very cruel, tortuous method known as santau, believed to be most deadly if learnt from the Thais. The concoction of magic charms, poisonous lethal substances - grounded glass, bamboo needles plus a host of other minute substances including human hair and finger nails - often introduced into an innocent cup of black coffee - proved deadly to the victim. The symptoms included vomiting and passing out blood repeatedly without any apparent reason – a slow, excruciating death was assured. It seemed that only a bomoh could extract the deadly poison if he acted without delay. Magic potions to make people ill, fall in love, go mad and eventually die or go bankrupt could be obtained from the oil stolen from oil lamps at funeral wakes and 'accidentally' rubbed on the intended victim. More bizarre cases would involve the collection of body fluids (oils) oozing out of a rotting corpse. The concoction of magic charms, oil and personal effects, stolen from the intended victim often proved very potent if not, deadly.

 

NONYA PANTANGS PART B

Some Nyonyas fearfully guarded their personal possessions (namely photographs and inner garments) very well and avoided cutting their finger/toe nails at night. With such personal 'ingredients,' a terrible charm '- kong t’au - could be concocted by those with evil intent (the Mistress, for example), of course with the help of a. black sorcerer (kong t’au sian).

The superstitious Nyonya usually fought shy of Western doctors and hospitals unless she couldn't help it. She would prefer to put her faith/life in the hands of her sin seh (Chinese physician), and his herbal prescriptions (eio tnua), her own concoctions, patent medicines and most importantly, her peng aun hoo (protective paper charm.). As a last resort (at the insistence of relatives and friends) and when bed-ridden, she would insist on being lifted out head first rather than feet first (as a corpse) into the car or ambulance to be taken to hospital. The Nyonya as Matriarch would most likely fuss over her daughter-in-law who was expecting her first child. The mother-to-be must be extra careful that she should experience no rude shocks or be influenced by unpleasant things. The Matriarch would dish out her pantang larang (taboos). No lifting of heavy things, no sewing, mending, knitting or nailing of things for fear that the child would have a cleft lip! No slaughtering of poultry or chopping of crabs for fear of disfigurement. Green or red birth-marks were often attributed to this 'cruel act').

Monkeys Visits to the Botanical Gardens where monkeys roamed free was strictly taboo for fear of ch’iong, resulting in a hairy or monkey-like baby! The couple was also warned against any shifting of furniture, especially the bed in the bridal chamber for fear of the expectant mother suddenly suffering a miscarriage! Extra care was taken to ensure that the mother-to-be should not accidentally step over any rope, especially one that was used to tie up a cow or goat (for fear of a difficult child-birth). When delivery time drew near, all drawers and doors of cabinets were flung wide open in the belief that the process of delivery would be faster, easier and less painful. Well, so much for the caring mother-in-law! After delivery, during the confinement period of 44 days, the baby's mother was only allowed to take herbal baths followed by an oil massage. She had to avoid foods that caused 'wind'. Steamed foods in black vinegar, linseed oil, pepper and plenty of old ginger were more or less forced upon the 'new' mother. Body aches and swel1ing of finger joints and feet bore testimony that the Matriarch's advice had been ignored.

To fool them Baby boys, of course, were more precious than baby girls for only boys carried on the family surname. However, it was common for the Nyonya to give a girl's name (usually a nickname) to her baby son. He might even be made to wear a single ear-ring or don a girl's dress to fool the evil spirits into thinking that he was a girl . Even if the child was born handsome and fair, the Nyonya might purposely select an ugly name for the child, for example, Hitam, for a fair child. Relatives and other well-wishes who turned up for the 'full-moon’ (mua goay) ceremony usually brought gifts wrapped in red paper or gave red packets containing cash or jewellery for the child. They were advised to refrain from praising the child for fear evil spirits lurked and might take him away permanently! Often they would playfully criticise the baby so as to confuse the demons. Baby boys born in the Year of the Dragon were greatly favoured for they were believed to have been blessed with good health and good luck. After the bridal chamber had been decorated and blessed, usually a small boy (born in the Year of the Dragon) would be asked to roll over from one end of the bridal bed to the other three times in the hope that the couple's first born would be a boy!

Living testimonies of those dabbling in black sorcery and their consequences, huan tiok (collision with evil forces), k’an bong (communicating with the dead through a medium) and supernatural powers (some unexplainable) have been handed down to us till today. While many expectant mothers of today might mock sarcastically or laugh in great disbelief over the so-called 'stupid' Nyonya superstitions and nonsensical beliefs, there are still today 'survivors' who can testify that their physical imperfections (extraordinary hairy hands, red/green birth-marks on their faces, hands and foreheads, digital disfigurement etc.) were the result of their 'liberated mothers' acts when they dared defy the Nyonya Matriarch's pantang larang (taboos) and beliefs.

NONYA PANTANGS OF YORE PART C

1. Time was an important factor to the Nyonya. Certain religious rites must he performed within the appointed time or hour otherwise chiong might occur. Time for prayers, time to fetch the bride accompanied by its numerous rituals and time for the hearse to start moving and time for burial were predetermined by the priest performing the funeral rites. 2. The Chinese Almanac (t’ong soo) was often consulted on matters relating to marriages etc. 3. If given a knife or any sharp instrument by a friend, or relative, a small red packet (ang pau) must be given in return as a gesture of goodwill so that their friendship might not be severed by the knife. Similarly if given a plant, the gift should be reciprocated by an ang pau.. Good luck or wealth was also attached to the Adenium flower or foo koo hua. 4. If visitors entered by the front door, they must depart by the same door, otherwise the host's daughter might end up a spinster!

5. At death, all mirrors and other reflecting surfaces were covered or concealed while all household deities were covered with red paper. Superstition and fear had it that the ghost of the deceased might catch the soul of the living relative to accompany it to the underworld 6. Ever fearful of demons on her wedding day, over her wedding gown the Nyonya bride wore a Phoenix collar - an embroidered multilayered neck band with long tassels and ribbons dangling down the back from which small reflecting mirrors hung, facing away from the bride to protect her against evil spirits. 7. Pat kua boards or octagonal mirrors surrounded by the eight trig rams for extra protection were hung above main door-ways. It was believed that evil spirits, approaching with intent to harm, would see themselves reflected in all their hideousness, got so frightened by their own reflection that they scooted off without causing any mischief. This old-fashioned practice prevails to this day.

8. To celebrate the opening of a new restaurant or shop lot, it was common for friends and business associates to present the proprietor with a large number of wall mirrors inscribed with well-meaning Chinese characters. While the mirrors were meant to enhance the interior walls, they were also tokens of good fortune, their reflecting surfaces multiplying the good luck and prosperity of the establishment. 9. Many a superstitious Nyonya would refuse to have a group photograph taken of her and two others for fear that the one in the centre would be the first to die. It is said that one grandma, upon seeing her grandchild placed in the centre in a group photo, not only gave the child's parents a lecture but unhesitatingly removed the child with a snip of her scissors. 10. While the Nyonya generally favoured things in identical pairs such as lanterns, oil lamps, candle stands, vases etc. the mention of the number 4 (see) which has the same sound as ‘death’ is discretely avoided.

11. It was taboo for children to point at the full moon, for which the feared punishment was a cut around the ear by the Moon Goddess. 12. Positioning oneself at the corner of the dining table was considered taboo, it was as if a sharp knife was pointed at the person seated there. 13. Cutting one's finger nails, toe nails or hair at night was considered taboo; it seemed that ghosts would pick them up and haunt the owner. 14. One should never sleep with one's legs pointing towards the door - it was the ‘death position’, when the ch’i or good forces would flow out. 15. One should refrain from using words associated with death, especially in the morning. Yeow siew, tay miah was a curse often uttered by an enraged Nyonya with the wish that the cursed person would have a short life. K’ee see lah (go and die) was another familiar curse. Such harsh utterances might be prophetic.

16. While sweeping the floor, care must be taken to avoid touching anyone with the broom for it was considered bad luck or suay. The offender should say pai and the whole incident would be forgotten. Usually, during the first three days of the Chinese New Year, no sweeping was done for fear that good luck would be swept away. On the fourth day, one could only sweep the rubbish inwards so that good luck would flow in, not out for the rest of the year. 17. Children were often encouraged to stay up late on Chinese New Year eve to usher in the new year and also to promote longevity for the elders and one's parents. 18. In a Nyonya household, three deities would have to sit on the main altar table, but not two, for fear that they would quarrel. The presence of the third deity provided an arbitrator in case of disagreement.

19. Being believers in hong sui (geomancy) the Nyonya believed that in death the best possible site for a grave would be one that chay snuah kn’ua hai (sitting on a hill, viewing the sea). It was believed that living family members and future generations to come would enjoy prosperity and long life if their ancestors occupied such a propitious site. 20. It was considered inappropriate to give a piece of salt fish kiam hoo (which could be a reference to a corpse) to a friend or relative though it would be all right as a cooked dish

If you have any contributions on this topic of nonya pantangs Email the Webmaster and we'll put it here in this section as soon as we receive it.


Search Our Site Now

[Archives][Thoughts][Reflections][Pantuns][Baba Malay][Recipes][Research][Pantangs][Personalities][Audio][Essays]