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Preserving Peranakan Culturean 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.


Peranakan" is a Malay word that means "born locally". Recent years have seen a revival of both historical and cultural interest in the Peranakan Chinese, a fast dwindling ethnic minority in the former Straits Settlements, particularly in Malacca (Melaka), Malaysia, and Singapore. The Peranakan or Straits-born Chinese are the descendants of Chinese immigrants that settled in the Malay Archipelago at least as early as the seventeenth century. Since there was a law against the immigration of Chinese women until the mid-nineteenth century, intermarriage with the native peoples of the region was common and engendered a unique culture that combined various customs and traditions. "Baba" ("Nyonya" for women and "Bibik" for elderly ladies) was a honorific term first used by Malays to differentiate these locally born Chinese from later immigrant Chinese. The distinct Baba-Nyonya culture was rapidly being diluted in the 1930s and had almost disappeared by the 1940s, becoming further undermined by post-war Chinese nationalism. The autobiographical fiction of Shirley Geok-lin Lim and C.M. Woon's recent historical novel provide insight into the vanishing grandeur of the old Peranakan families in the course of the twentieth century.

A comparatively neglected group are the Melaka Chitty or Malacca Straits-born Hindus, the descendants of traders from the Coromandel Coast in Southern India who visited Malacca from the fifteenth century onwards. Like the first Chinese settlers, Hindu traders married Malays, Chinese, Javanese, and Bataks, creating a unique new culture. While many Melaka Chitty have now settled in other parts of Malaysia as well as in Singapore, the culture's historical centre is Kampung Chitty, Gajah Berang, near Malacca.

In C. M. Woon's The Advocate's Devil (2002), set in 1930s Singapore, the first person narrator, Dennis Chiang, describes himself as a Baba, a Straits Chinese - "born and bred in the Settlements, and owing allegiance to the British Crown" (44). The novel provides a colourful portrayal of the Baba-Nyonya communities of the Straits Settlements, mapping not simply an erosion of traditions, but a commingling of old and new ways that is mirrored by the mixing of ethnicities as well as by the confusions over national allegiances. Contrasting with the frequently self-ironic representation of Dennis's perception of other ethnic groups or nationalities - British, Malays, and more recent Chinese immigrants among others - as stereotypes, the depiction of the Baba community of 1930s Singapore is affectionate, nostalgic as well as insightful, transcending both mere ethnographic realism and a sentimentalising of the disappearance of a unique culture.

Dennis Chiang speaks of "Babas" (the men, though also used as a general term), "Nyonyas" (the women), and "Bibiks" (elderly ladies) as well as of "Straits-born Chinese" and "the King's Chinese". Another term would be Peranakan, a Malay term for someone who is "born locally". The Babas are descendants of Chinese immigrants that settled in the Malay archipelago as early as the 17th century. Intermarriage with the native peoples of the region was common and engendered a unique culture that combined various traditions and customs.

In Woon's novel, the hero's great-grandfather came to the Straits Settlements in the early nineteenth century. Dennis is proud of his roots, even though his allegiances are brought into confusion by his schooling in England and later by his contact with Chinese communists. To his would-be girlfriend Siew Chin, his combination of the ideal English gentleman with his Baba background marks him out as "some strange laboratory specimen:” "The concept of a non-Chinese-speaking Chinese was evidently a contradiction in terms to her” (192). While his unfulfilled love for Siew Chin mirrors his at first indifferent and then conflicted feelings for China, Dennis increasingly draws his confident identification with the Baba community with its allegiance to the British into question. The experience of the Chiang family provides insight into the developments of an early Chinese diaspora. Dennis's retrospective musings on his changing perceptions of himself and his roots describe an important part of Singaporean history that has so far figured very sparingly in historical fiction:

Unlike most of his countrymen, [Dennis's great-grandfather] didn’t go home to China when he made his pile. It is the ambition of every Chinese coolie to become a towkay and go back to the ancestral village to put up a grand mansion and generally swank around. Great-grandfather didn’t. He stayed in the Straits, married and founded a family. My suspicion is that he couldn’t go back – the southern Chinese are notoriously rebellious, and I think that Great-grandfather may have trodden on the pigtails of some mandarins. Anyway, whatever the reason may have been, we became Babas – Straits Chinese, born and bred in the Settlements, and owing allegiance to the British Crown. We were the King’s Chinese, British subjects, whose loyalty was beyond question.


In the early fifteenth century, a beautiful princess from the Chinese Ming Dynasty, Hang Li Poh, arrived in Malacca to be presented as a bride to the Malacca Sultan. Part of her entourage included five hundred youths and several hundred women attendants of noble descent, to wait on her and keep the princess company in her new home.

This entourage settled down in Bukit China in the Malay Archipelago, eventually inter-marrying with the local Malays. The mixed marriages marked the beginning of a new generation of people in Malaya, the Peranakans or Straits Born Chinese.Later on, early Chinese traders from the Kwantung province in China intermarried with local Malay women, adding to the population of the Straits Born Chinese.Theirs is a heritage unique to Southeast Asia, a mixture of Malay and Chinese cultures with a dash of the English way of life.In their heyday, the Babas and Nyonyas were wealthy and influential people in the business world. This is evident in their jewelry costumes (sarung kebaya), shoes and embroidery pieces, items of refined workmanship highly sought after by art and antique collectors. The Baba's traditional costume is a Chinese dress, with intricate embroidery sewn using gold thread. The ladies wear sarung kebaya, a heavily embroidered Malay-style tunic with a Western style long skirt. They use silver ornaments like kerongsong (broaches), hairpins, earrings and pendants to decorate themselves. These are some of the designs they adopted to differentiate themselves from the Chinese labourers who came in droves at the end of the fifteenth century.

The Nyonya dishes are an amalgamation of Chinese and Malay dishes, giving it a distinct flavor of its own. Nyonya cooking is about the blending of spices, employing pungent roots like galangal, turmeric and ginger; aromatic leaves like pandan leaf, fragrant lime leaf and laksa leaf, together with other ingredients like candlenuts, shallots, shrimp paste and chilies. Sometimes, lemon, tamarind, belimbing (carambola) or green mangoes are used to add a tangy taste to many dishes. Some of the more traditional Peranakan dishes include pongteh (chicken, potato and mushroom cooked in gravy with sugarcane, fermented soya bean and Peranakan spices), ark tim (sour duck soup), bak wan kepiting (crabmeat), otak-otak (barbecued curry fish) and chicken kurmah (chicken cooked with spicy prawn paste).

Although Peranakan food takes a long time to prepare, traditional Nyonyas are fiercely proud of their unique cuisine, spending a better part of their lives in the kitchen to prepare these dishes.The Peranakan food is one of the most popular contributions of the community to modern day Southeast Asians, as proven by the many Nyonya restaurants that have opened all over Malaysia and Singapore in recent years.Nyonyas and Babas do not speak Chinese, or any other Chinese dialects. They have a language of their own, which is a form of patois Malay. Some inherit a type of sing-song Hokkien that is unique to the Peranakans. When the British colonized the country, the Peranakans were among the first group of locals to adopt the English language. They began to view themselves as superior to the other Chinese, who couldn't speak English. During the colonial era, many Straits Born Chinese regarded themselves are the "Queen's subjects", a fact that did not endear them to either the Malays or other Chinese, who were against British rule.

Yet, despite of the adoption of various cultures in their daily life, they have clung to their Chinese identity in some aspects. They celebrate festivals like the Chinese New Year and Mooncake Festival on a large scale. The older generation continued to observe Chinese religious beliefs and rituals, though many younger Straits Chinese eventually converted to Christianity. The architectural style of Peranakan homes is very characteristic - being a fusion Eastern and Western designs. The "straits eclectic" styled Peranakan homes and buildings are easily identified even til today. The most distinct differences are the full-length French windows and colorful ceramic tiles on the floor and wall. These expensive tiles are believed to have been introduced by Dutch traders. Elaborate and striking Chinese carvings adorn the pillars. Being an affluent community, the Babas and Nyonyas spared no expense in acquiring Chinese blackwood furniture, Dutch tiles and porcelain vases to decorate their homes.

A typical Peranakan house has a main hall, second hall (tiah gelap), one or two courtyards, bedrooms, bridal chamber and kitchen. In those days, visitors to the house were normally allowed to the first hall. The second hall or tiah gelap was usually used by unmarried Nyonyas (who cannot be seen by members of the opposite sex) to peep through small openings dividing the first and second halls. Now, as the social life changes, the younger generation of Nyonyas no longer hides in the tiah gelap. In Malaysia today, there are still some "straits eclectic" styled buildings in Penang and Malacca, where most of the Peranakans lived during their heyday. The buildings are situated along a number of major roads in Penang including Magazine Road, Sultan Ahmad Shah Road (formerly known as Northam Road), Burmah Road, Prangin Creek and Muntri Street. In Malacca, the buildings can be seen along Tun Tan Cheng Lock (Heeren Street) and Hang Jebat Road (Jonkers Street). Although the intermarriage between Peranakans and other Malaysians and social developments have somewhat resulted in a more dilute Nyonya culture in day-to-day living, Straits Born Chinese still observe their traditional heritage on special occasions such as Chinese New Year, weddings and birthdays. "Old soldiers", the maxim goes, "never die, they only fade away" and this sentiment would appear applicable to the Baba and Nyonya heritage culture in Malaysia.


The origins of the Peranakans date back to the early fifteenth century when a Chinese Princess, during the Ming Dynasty, came to Malacca to be presented as a bride to the Malaccan Sultan. To keep her company and to wait on her, her entourage encompassed five hundred youths and several hundred women of noble descent. They made Bukit China in the Malay Peninsula their home, intermarrying with the local Malays. Their union brought about a fusion of two different cultures, a new generation of people called the Peranakans or the Straits Born Chinese. Thereafter, Chinese traders from the Kwangtung province of China would eventually settle down with local Malay women, increasing the population of the Straits Born Chinese. A new legacy was born.
The Peranakan Association, formed on August 1900 recently held its 102nd anniversary with an array of activities that included a Baba Convention, a dinner and dance, and a food and culture fair - reliving, reinforcing and reinvigorating a glorious heritage in danger of being extinct as the years wear on.

Theirs was a glorious, wealthy and influential heritage indeed. The permanent exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum would attest to that. Jewelry costumes, shoes and embroidery and pottery pieces, are among artifacts preserved for the viewing public as well as grandiose prayer altars, furniture and eclectic architecture. The Peranakans were descendants of Chinese traders who adapted elements of Chinese and Malay cultures, and who carefully differentiated themselves from lower class Chinese labourers who came in droves at the end of the fifteenth century. They developed a new language of their own, a form of patois Malay, heavily accented with Hokkien and colloquial Malay words. And a very unique cuisine, that has stood the test of time, and is still probably one of the most enduring legacy of this culture . When the British came to colonize Malaysia, they were the first group of locals to learn the English language, making them feel superior to the other Chinese who could only converse in the local dialect.

The Peranakans became very successful in their business. They led very illustrious careers. They were very affluent, and commanded a lot of respect in the field of business, the arts and civil service. Although the Peranakan culture has continually diluted over the years, it still kept alive with the observance of their traditional heritage on special occasions such as weddings, birthdays, and the Chinese New Year. As the descendants of the Peranakans continue to celebrate their legacy, there is a wish that there'll be a resurgence of a neo-Peranakan culture to emerge within the 21st century. The Peranakan culture has a lot of elements which could be 'mined' and appropriated, just as much as how the Balinese culture lent its craft and artistic sensibility to the world. The permanent exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum takes us to the colorful rich cultural life of the Peranakans. Hopefully the experience doesn't stop there.


The 1984 Festival of Arts performance of Felix Chia's play Pileh Menantu and the wedding pageant that followed coordinated by William Gwee Thian Hock created immense interest in the Baba play and influenced the writing or production of a succession of Baba plays (on an almost annual basis) through the 80s and into the 90s. This phenomenon has been described by many observers as the revival of the Baba play.1

As a member of the Programme Sub-committee of the 1984 Festival of Arts, I was given the responsibility of mounting a Baba play in late 1983. I had never seen a Baba play but there had been considerable interest generated in the late '70s and early '80s by a number of books written about the Babas by both Baba and non-Baba authors. 2 I approached two persons I know to help with the project, Felix Chia, who had just published two books about the Babas, and Gwee Thian Hock, a knowledgeable and avid collector of things Baba. I asked Chia to write the play and Gwee to advise on the playscript and production, which was to include a short version of a Baba wedding.

After Chia completed the first draft of his play and showed it to Gwee and myself, a discussion took place as a problem had emerged. There was disagreement over the extent of the use or presence of English in the play. Gwee was of the opinion that there was an excessive number of phrases and words, not to mention whole sentences, in English; Chia insisted that English education had, by the '30s, accounted for this fact. Both cited personal experiences; and while both had the common Baba heritage, divergent experiences partially explained the difference between Chia's eclectic and Gwee's puristic view of the Baba language. A further explanation will have to await another occasion. I asked Cecilia Ong to direct and she did so with understanding, patience and panache, and the rest, as most people will agree, is history.

In the years to come, I was pleasantly surprised to see a quick succession of Baba plays which made their way into Drama Festivals and Festivals of Arts. Felix Chia followed up with two more plays: Laki Tua Bini Muda for the opening of Peranakan Place in 1985 and another Sam Pek Eng Tai based on the classical Chinese legend which Chua Soo Pong directed in 1986 for the Chinese Theatre Circle. Chia decided to tackle a subject that was different from earlier and subsequent Baba plays because he feared that the "same domestic theme and comedy of the earlier Baba plays would have invited complaints of staleness...." 3

In doing this and saying so, Felix Chia showed commendable awareness of the dangers of repetition in popular entertainment, no matter how great the demand. While he freelanced with groups who were prepared to stage his plays, subsequent plays beginning from Menyesal, produced in 1986, signalled the individuals and institutions who were to dominate the Baba drama scene from then on. Among these individuals was William Tan, already an accomplished dondang sayang singer, who went on to secure his standing as a performer extra turns were not complete without his melodious crooning. As a play director he consolidated a partnership with a relatively new playwright, Henry Tan, who has been responsible for all new plays since 1986. Tan's plays are all domestic dramas, embodying a naturalism which easily and unabashedly moves into melodrama, pathos and bathos. Tan writes with an excellent knowledge of the key actors and actresses who have, over the years from 1984, become key performers in the Baba plays. Chief among the performers is G. T. Lye, whose portrayals of domineering and manipulating matriarchs are among the high acting points of the Baba theatre (more will be said about this later). Finally, the institution that established itself as the principal producer of the Baba play is the Gunong Sayang Association. Word spreads very quickly among fans of the Baba Theatre around festival times, whether it be the Festival of Arts, Drama Festivals or the Festival of Asian Performing Arts.

Tickets got sold very quickly the moment the box office opened and dress rehearsal nights became occasions where unofficial tickets had to be printed and issued to meet the demand. The Baba play, unheard of by the majority before 1984, had become a prized item among an avid minority which number among them the former President Wee Kim Wee and Mrs Wee. The 1992 appearance of Nasib in the Festival of Arts was sponsored by Shell and marks the fifth appearance of the Baba play and the fourth appearance of the Gunong Sayang Henry Tan-William Tan combination in the premier arts event of Singapore.

The Gunong Sayang Association now has the onerous responsibility of ensuring the preservation of this precious heritage. The question I ask is: is the cause of conservation served by giving audiences more of the same or by making some changes? Is the Baba theatre going to risk audiences saying "Jelak" (stale) eventually or is it to take a cue from English Language theatre which is in the midst of experimentation and transformation? I now turn to these matters.


What Is Good About Baba Plays

What are some of the reasons for its success? The reasons may be categorized as either extrinsic and intrinsic. The extrinsic reasons have mainly to do with the great interest in all aspects of Baba culture, shown by both the Babas and Nyonyas as well as by other Singaporeans. For the younger Babas, it is a chance to participate in and become acquainted with a culture that many feel is distinct enough to receive recognition as an identifiable way of life, and for the older ones it provides an opportunity to relive what they would like to believe were the good old days of Baba glory from the end of the 19th century to the Japanese Occupation. To other Singaporeans, there is curiosity about this community who look Chinese but speak a Malay language, whose women dress like the Malays and whose cuisine is strongly influenced by Malay and Indonesian preferences. Both these factors, a mix of recognition and oddity, fuelled immense press interest for the performance of Pileh Menantu before it opened at the Drama Centre on 18 June 1984. Nearly all the English press , as well as some Chinese and Malay newspapers, carried news about it and the originally scheduled run of 3 nights was extended to 5 and the play was the first item of the 1984 Arts Festival to sell out.

Patrons of Baba plays do not see themselves as going merely to see a play but as participants in a social occasion. This is apparent when one sees the older women folk in their traditional sarong kebayas and kerongsangs and gold and silver belts, accompanied by their spouses and their modern daughters who are pleased to dress like their mothers. They are all there in celebration: to meet up with relatives and friends at a rare artistic occasion, to speak the language again in public before the performance, during the interval and after -wards, and above all to laugh and cry at the recreation of domestic scenes on stage so rarely enacted in real life.

Yet, there is a déjàvu atmosphere about it, a nostalgia tempered by the fact that what they are about to see may be the last gasp of one aspect of Baba artistic culture and that they had better get the most out of it before it goes down forever, and Singaporeans sing it an Auld Lang Syne for the last time. Felix Chia, the author of Pileh Menantu, whose play triggered the revival, is ironically aware that Baba culture is fast disappearing, an awareness shared by Baba theatregoers as well as academics like John Clammer. 4 They throng the theatre (and their favoured venue is undoubtedly the Victoria Theatre) because they wish to demonstrate that the Baba play is alive and well, and, as long as it is doing so well, their culture will survive by their presence in overwhelming numbers they are ensuring that it will go on as long as they wish it to. The surest sign of celebration is presidential presence and the former President, Mr Wee Kim Wee, has graced several openings of Baba plays.

The intrinsic reasons for the success of Baba plays have to do with the writing and acting. The writing, which has been described as domestic dramas, contains within it elements of comedy, satire, melodrama and parody. It is a versatile mix with the comic element predominant. My personal reaction is that of being vastly entertained, laughing uproariously at familiar situations, characters and lines. Because these repeat themselves, much expectation is generated among the audiences, many of whom have been to the previous plays. This familiarity the almost similar formula and almost similar audience creates a large core of common meanings that generates immediate laughter because of what is predictable. Audiences await the expected coup de grâce the pai kiah (hooligan) or the unfilial daughter-in-law who gets what is coming to them. They revel in the expected because it conforms to their notion of what this kind of entertainment should be. They prefer not to be astonished by the unexpected. There are, of course, other reactions besides the comic, and these include emotional responses, especially from among the older generation of bibiks and their husbands who shed tears as the plays become deeply melodramatic and move towards the tragic. A prime example occurs in Nasib (1992) as the mother-in-law is about to be cast out of her own home, only to be saved at the last minute in the expected happy twist at the end.

The acting is very effective in serving the objectives of the playwrights to entertain through laughter and tears. Mr G.T. Lye is wickedly accurate in his female impersonation of the formidable bibik , down to details about his dress, body language (the betel-chewing, the toss of the handkerchief), the imperious female voice adept at scolding, nagging, melodramatic wrenching, the frequent asides and improvisations. Mrs Sally Gan as the Cantonese amah (servant) and a few other familiar faces complete the list of actresses and actors who play memorable , and in some cases, cameo roles, in the series. The Baba play, especially the ones produced in 1986 and after by the Gunong Sayang Association, know what audiences want and give them what they want unashamedly. Audiences are manipulated but they do not mind because they do not see it that way. This is soap opera, Baba-style, not on TV, but on stage.

What Is Less Desirable About Baba Plays

Recent Baba plays are supposed to reflect the good old days, to look back upon a Baba golden age. But this is a questionable claim because of three related reasons. The first has to do with the fact that the Baba play is largely domestic in setting and I find it hard to believe that the golden age of the Babas take place in sitting rooms, bedrooms and kitchens. Related to this is the fact that the characters in the plays are limited in depicting the roles people play in society: the women folk presumably work at home and the men appear to be gainfully employed but we are not told in what way. Finally, the major preoccupation of these plays is marriage and the intrigues involved with it. Can these domestic settings, these restricted people, this obsessive concern with matrimony provide true depictions of the complexity of the glorious Baba past and the complexity of the larger social history in which they are an integral part?

Not only are the number of characters in Baba plays severely few but they are stereotyped: the fierce matriarch, ho kiah (good boy) and pai kiah , unfilial menantu (in-law), Cantonese amah , spoiled grandson or granddaughter, and so on. They are one-dimensional people behaving in predictable ways. Are people, in reality, as simple and uncomplicated as these? The design and sets of the plays are simple and unsophisticated. The usual Baba furniture is placed against a flat painted set which exposes its lack of depth and imagination. Lighting is generalized with no use of colour, spot or moving lights, and does little to enhance the completely naturalistic sets. Finally, from about the middle eighties and banking on the tremendous demand, the plays have become repetitive and are produced according to a formula. There will always be those who cannot have enough of the same, but even among those who discovered this kind of entertainment in 1984 and went regularly to all subsequent plays, there are those who mutter, "What, more of the same?" Others, the younger, Western-educated audience, who are acquainted with complex staging and experimentation in the English-language theatre in Singapore and elsewhere, find Baba plays backward- looking and tiresome.

It is not an adequate defence to say, as many supporters do, that Baba plays must be good if they sell out every time. The reason is obvious; the majority of performers and members of the audience are not getting younger and how long can both sustain this wonderful season of plays which, in 1994, is a decade old? Perhaps another decade, and after that who will be there to perform and watch? But if the playwrights and theatre groups concerned are prepared to modernise, they will be able to attract both young and new acting and writing talent who will hopefully draw younger audiences to see Baba plays like the ones described, as well as to the "new" plays. Art and entertainment forms have always changed because of their own artistic impetus or changing demands. The Baba play must do likewise if it is to survive the nineties. I would like to make the following suggestions which will, I hope, strike a balance between tradition and modernity, between conservation and change:

1. Continue the writing of the traditional Baba play but commission or write "new" plays.

2. The new Baba play should think seriously about turning its back on domestic themes and situations and take on challenges that accurately reflect and interpret the changing, varying role of Babas and Nyonyas in society through the years, during the time in Singapore when they came to be recognized as a distinct society, through the ups and downs of history to the present day. They are proud of their heritage but many also see themselves as modern Singaporeans first and part of that larger society.

If this is done, playwrights will discover new themes. One instantly springs to mind when I see old photographs of my late father; there is always a white man seated around the dinner table whom I presume was his boss. The Babas enjoyed a close relationship with the British which is well- documented but no playwright has written about this. What about their relationship with the larger Chinese community and with the Malays?

If the past is searched selectively for prominent Babas and Nyonyas around whom plays could be written, many such persons will be found. Song Ong Siang's remarkable One Hundred Years of The Chinese in Singapore provides numerous historical examples. Post 1959 Singapore provides many prominent examples of Chinese of Baba origin (although they did not openly reveal this for political and personal reasons) whose lives could be the subject of plays. Some of them have made important contributions to the development of Singapore, like Dr Goh Keng Swee, or have distinguished themselves in other fields, like Dr Ee Peng Liang. If this is done the list of characters will increase a great deal and plays will not need to grapple with stereotypes but with rich, complex characters involved in variegated experiences that reflect a dynamic, ever-evolving society.

3. If the objection is that the current playwrights cannot or do not want to write modern plays or plays on the subjects suggested, perhaps the theatre groups who wish to focus on Baba topics could commission younger playwrights who could and the plays could be translated into Baba Malay. Or they could be in both Baba Malay and English and even include Chinese dialects and Mandarin, to reflect our multi -racial society. A play about Tan Tock Seng who spoke Chinese, married a nyonya (according to an SBC documentary about him), and had many dealings with the English, will make a fascinating multi-lingual play that explores varied themes.

4. Produce one traditional play a year and a "new" one the next year, to please both the diehard performers and members of the audience as well as new and younger members who feel the need to experiment and change.

If some of these steps are taken, audiences for the plays as well as influential policy-makers and keen watchers of the fast-developing cultural scene will realize that the Baba play, while heritage-conscious, is not an ostrich which loves to bury its head in the ground. These watchers will sympathise with the Baba passion for nostalgia, for the illusion that the Baba past is what the playwrights make it out to be and this I call romance; they will also applaud a hard, critical look at the Baba play beyond the present which I describe as realism. The Baba play will be seen as being responsive to change, not always bowing to audience demand but daring to seize the opportunity to suggest new directions that could point the way to the survival of the Baba play for a long time.


German scholar JURGEN RUDOLPHhas produced the latest, and possibly most comprehensive, social history of the Babas in Singapore. We publish an extract here on his account of the two key turning-points of their recent past. THE Japanese Occupation was a crucial turning-point for the Babas. This is already obvious in an analysis of the terminology. After World War II, the previously respectable designations such as "Baba" and "Peranakan" became almost terms of abuse if used by the "non-Baba Chinese". The non-Baba Chinese gave the Babas condescending names, which implied that they were not "complete Chinese" because of their (supposed) inability to speak "Chinese", their alleged adoption of "foreign" (i.e. non-Chinese) cultures and their British orientation.

The Japanese Occupation turned the Peranakan world upside-down by triggering important changes in the political role of the Babas as well as in their cultural identity. Many Babas fell victim because they were among the groups targeted during the Japanese sook ching operation. Hastily arranged "intermarriages" between Nyonyas and non-Baba Chinese were to lead to radical changes in the
Baba way of life and to "sinicisation". The British patronage of the Babas was interrupted in 1942 and was never again fully restored. The decline of Baba culture is usually thought to begin with the Japanese Occupation. The Babas lost fortunes and much of their "material culture" during this time. Much of the previous Nyonya and Baba material culture disappeared or deteriorated in the '40s and '50s. In addition, many ceremonies which were too time-consuming and expensive inthe new "environment" had to be abandoned or at least simplified.

The Japanese Occupation also forced many Nyonyas into the labour force, with the result that these true bearers of Baba culture became less domestic-bound. Other factors in the decline included conversions toChristianity (which usually conflict with ancestral rites), the dispersion of demographic concentrations and the trend from extended family units to nuclear ones. In an interview, Tan Kong Wee told me that he and other Babas realised their "Chineseness" during the Japanese Occupation:"The Japanese did not discriminate between the Peranakan and the China-Chinese. I remember my fellow Peranakans were shocked because they
suddenly realised that there was one thing missing. They did not know their roots. "They could not speak Chinese. They said: 'The Japanese called me aChinese. But all along, I would say I'm not a Chinese. I was 11 years old... it dawned upon me that I am a Chinese. For this, I have to thank the Japanese.' "

Although Tan's realisation may not have been shared by many Babas (the
Japanese, in fact, distinguished between the Straits Chinese and theChina-born Chinese, at least for the collection of the $50 million "gift"extorted by the Japanese), it is a fact that the Chinese-speaking Chinesewere becoming more influential and insulted the Babas mainly because oftheir inability to speak "Chinese".Consequently, many Babas made an effort to learn "Chinese". Whereas many English-educated Babas re-emphasised their allegiance to the British Empire and were afraid that full independence might harm their still privileged position, the vast majority of Chinese-educated Chinese were vehemently anti-colonial and anti-imperialist.


AS "sons of the soil", the Straits Chinese British Association's Straits Chinese defended their citizenship (or subjecthood) rights against the China-born Chinese and those first-generation Singapore-born Chinese who had a dual loyalty. The chasm between the Babas and the sinkehs (literally "guests", or recent immigrants from China) may also be illustrated by the typical occupations of the China-born Chinese which self-conscious Babas would have shunned. As S.C. Wong wrote, in a letter to The Straits Times in 1948: "Our China-born brethren are very useful in Singapore. Without them, we must look to automatic machinery, for few Straits-born Chinese care to take up the following trades: tailor, shoe-maker, launderer, barber, farmer,butcher, fisherman, grocer, market stallholder, carpenter, bricklayer,painter, machine-shop artisan, boiler-maker, blacksmith, lumberjack,sawmill worker, stevedore, lighterman, lorry-driver, taxi-driver, omnibusdriver and conductor, mining coolie, tapper, and the indispensablenight-soil coolie."Despite some signs of "resinicisation", many Babas tended to reciprocatethe insults and teasing of the non-Baba Chinese by calling them "country
bumpkins" and low-class guests.

With the increased ambiguity of the status of the Babas, many of them neither dared to admit they were Babas nor spoke Baba Malay in public. Thedays of Baba Malay as an inter-group language of commercial value were also gone, and Baba Malay stagnated and became confined to the domestic domain. The once flourishing literary activities in Baba Malay came to a grinding halt and wayang peranakan and dondang sayang were in crisis. Thus, the most important "Malay" aspect of the previous Baba identity was indeed in decline. On a political level, the good relations between the Babas and the Malays also deteriorated somewhat when, during the pre-independence struggle for Merdeka, the Malays were infuriated by secessionist Babas. To the Malays,those Babas were "puppets" or even "pariahs" of the British Queen. In contrast, the British, using eulogistic terms for the Babas, referred totheir loyalty to Singapore and their pioneer status.During the twilight years of British rule here, between 1945 and 1959, theSCBA appeared to continue with its successful tradition of providingleadership. In its midst were not only city councillors, executive andlegislative councillors, but also the presidents of the then leading political parties. The British openly viewed the "King's" or "Queen's Chinese" of the SCBA as the "natural leaders" of the Chinese of Singapore.


HOWEVER, there were early warning signs of the Babas' loss of influence. Eventually, with the waning British influence, the failure of the secessionists, the death of conservative "Baba politics" and the rapid rise of the People's Action Party which led to self-rule in 1959, the Babas reached the second crucial turning-point in their social history. This usually ignored turning-point was marked by self-rule and the takeover by the PAP. Although leading members of the PAP, such as Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Toh Chin Chye and Dr Goh Keng Swee, were publicly described as English-educated Babas, the Babas as a group were openly belittled as "deculturalised".As a result, the Babas' influence as a group further declined in every respect. Many Babas were in a state of shock and attempted to behave lessconspicuously in the immediate post-1959 period. With the British no longer holding the reins of power, and the PAP's victory, the SCBA and its successor organisations, the Singapore Chinese Peranakan Association and the Peranakan Association, became politically impotent.

While the aims of the SCBA had been to serve Straits Chinese interests politically in the context of British colonialism, the PA officially emphasised values such as inter-racial and inter-cultural harmony, religious tolerance and a common national identity. Unofficially, though, the PA turned apolitical and revived its somewhat dormant tendency to preserve the Babas' cultural heritage, a tendency which became more marked with the so-called "revival of Baba culture". The post-1959 period highlighted the relative unimportance of the Babas as a politically, legally and economically defined group. The Babas, who were formerly a rather heterogeneous group were affected by political interests and an emphasis on a particular "Chineseness", and soon lost their rationale for existence. With the disappearance of this rationale and the heavy stress placed on thepolitical correctness of a "Chineseness" other than that of the Babas, we not only observe radical changes in Baba culture but also an ever-increasing number of intermarriages between Baba and non-Baba Chinese.

Marital unions between non-Baba Chinese and Babas had been facilitated earlier by the Japanese Occupation and the anglicisation of Singapore society. Baba cultural traditions or values no longer tended to be transmitted to the children of these unions.Other important factors which led to radical changes in Baba culture were the erosion of demographic concentration and the subsequent disruption of interactive networks, the advent of modern communications and the simultaneous processes of "sinicisation" and "Singaporeanisation". As a result, former courtship and marriage practices as well as othercustoms and traditions such as ancestral and funeral rites were largely abandoned. From the end of World War II, many Babas abandoned Chinese religion and a syncretic system of beliefs, and embraced Christianity,particularly Catholicism. Moreover, Baba Malay and dondang sayang standards deteriorated, the sarong kebaya was less seen in public and the art of Nyonya cuisine was at least simplified, if not abandoned.


THIS is not to deny the possibility of unexpected comebacks, such as the current renewed interest in beaded -- and even beading! -- slippers in Singapore or the recent revival of dondang sayang in Malacca, according to William Gwee, an expert on Baba culture.Baba Malay as a lingua franca had been on the decline from the '20s onwards, and after Merdeka, English became the most important lingua franca. In addition, a gradual and incomplete switch in mother tongue from Baba Malay to English occurred among the Singapore Babas. Although the level of Baba Malay tended to be still high among the older generation, it was deteriorating among, and not transmitted to, the younger generation. The younger Babas, in particular, showed little interest in Baba culture and were often reluctant to conceive of, or at least to openly identify, themselves as Babas or Nyonyas. Occasionally, there was an outright rejection of one's "Babaness", as in this view of one Baba who declined to be named: "My brother thinks the Baba culture is chaotic... it is completely out of touch. You are a Chinese living in a community of Chinese, so how to survive? "My grandmother, grand-aunties, according to my brother, are such misfits. My brother hates it with a passion. When he makes fun of the Peranakans, he will always speak in a fake Malay accent saying, 'I not Malay, I Chinese.' He finds that most humiliating, hard to break away from a 'non-culture'."

The same informant told me about a middle-aged Nyonya and the perceived impracticality of the way of life of the older generation: "One of my aunts purposely denies her 'Peranakanness'. To the Peranakans, [it is] 'just enjoy', happy-go-lucky, almost ostentatious, leaving things in the hands of God. To this auntie, materialism is more virtuous, frugality, more to take charge of the future and welfare of your family,investments. This is conceived of as more 'Chinese'."Auntie said, 'I'm glad that I married a Chinese. Mother is impracticallymeticulous. [She] wants to go to church every day.' She curses her mother right in front of her. 'My mother is good for nothing. She doesn't seem able to cope, and she considers work a burden.' "Generally, the younger generation became less and less distinguishable from non-Baba Chinese.

In 1984, the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew remarked: "In the generation that is under 40 years, the differences between the Chinese-educated and the English-educated have been blended and blurred by interaction in integrated schools, the schools that first started to teach Chinese-stream and English-stream students in the same school. "Then there were many integrated families where some children went to English-stream and others went to Chinese-stream schools. So the cultural differences have almost disappeared." The most important move towards a single Chinese identity among the Chinese Singaporeans was the Government's equation of Mandarin with the Chinese language. In 1981, a new educational policy for ethnically Chinese pupils was put into effect, which makes the learning of Mandarin as their "mother tongue" compulsory.


FOR the Babas, the significance of the new policy was that they no longer had the option to elect Malay as a second school language, but were obliged to study Mandarin, a language which many of them regarded as rather alien. A good number of Babas were in disagreement with the notion of Mandarin being the "mother tongue" of the Babas and other Chinese Singaporeans, and the equation of Chinese ethnicity with the ability to speak Mandarin was contested. They also felt strongly that their culture was no less Chinese than that of other Chinese Singaporeans. However, by force of circumstances, the Babas have accepted the heavy emphasis placed on Mandarin and have done what the Babas have always been particularly good at: They have adapted to the situation. With the younger Babas becoming less and less distinguishable from non-Baba Chinese, the former's need to separate themselves from the Malays was no longer a problem. Significantly, it was in Malaysia rather than in Singapore that the Babas were seen as in a "unique position" to bridge the gap between the Malays and Chinese.

In Singapore, only the traditional Baba wedding was perceived by observers such as Seow Peck Leng of the Young Women's Christian Association in 1968 as a "concrete proof that the spirit of co-operation, tolerance and compromise did exist between the early Chinese immigrants and the early Malay residents of Singapore".Although the British as colonial masters were history, a leaning towardsBritish traits could be observed among some younger Babas. For instance, Dick Lee (an internationally acclaimed Singaporean pop star), in a newspaper interview in 1993, said he had suffered an identity crisis for all of his life. "My [Nyonya] grandmother was very British. She drank tea at four and read Jane Austen. I thought I was a character in an Enid Blyton novel."He only realised he was not English when he visited England at age 14.

In my description of the social and cultural history of the Babas, I have refused to apply a modern, culturally-based definition of the Babas. While the public focus until the electoral victory of the PAP was clearly on Baba politics, there began -- after a decade of silence and the Peranakan Association's intermittent attempts to restore some political weight -- a public emphasis on Baba culture. Ironically, this switch of emphasis occurred at a time when aspects of Baba cultures not only began to disappear or be diluted, but they were also commercialised and used to promote tourism. The new cultural definition, which necessitated a deviation from the equation of "Baba" with "Straits Chinese", is thus, in historical terms, rather recent. This assessment is not contradicted by the justifiable assumption that the synonymous usage of the terms Straits Chinese, Peranakan and Baba in written records was trailing behind the rapidly changing social reality of Singapore and was becoming increasingly ambiguous.

In my interpretation, the Babas' newly-published distinctions between "Straits Chinese" and "Babas" along cultural lines have to be taken seriously when accounting for the time of their appearance and the more recent past, but not further back (namely, the period preceding the Japanese Occupation). According to the new cultural definition, a Baba should also be a Hokkien. According to some purist Hokkien Babas, who regard themselves as true-blue Baba jati, non-Hokkien Babas are only Baba chelup. The expression suggests that the Baba chelup are only superficially dipped in the paint of Babaness and are at best "nominal" Babas. Apart from the conceptual history until the late '50s which contradicts such a narrow conception of a Baba, we have a few examples of prominent non-Hokkien Babas.

First and foremost, there is Hakka Baba Lee Kuan Yew (who regards himself as a Baba only technically). Others are the Melaka dondang sayang singer and serunee player Yeo Kim Swee, who is a Hainanese Baba, and Ambassador to Germany Walter Woon, who is a Cantonese Baba. With the new public focus on Baba culture between the late '60s and '70s onwards, many Babas conceived of their culture as dying. Unlike these prophets of doom, less fatalistic Babas acknowledged the decline, but were more optimistic, contending that Babas should become more conscious about, and more action-orientated towards, their cultural
heritage. Signs of a so-called revival of Baba culture were many: mock traditional Baba wedding ceremonies, television documentaries, Nyonya fashion contests,the commercialisation of so-called Nyonya food, Peranakan festivals, the Baba "material cultures" turning antiques and museum exhibits, the preservation of the so-called Peranakan architecture, books, popular
magazine and newspaper articles, the revival of plays in Baba Malay, annual Baba Conventions and so on.

In addition, efforts were made to promote cultural tourism via the "exotic" and glorious aspects of the "unique" Baba culture. However, it soon became clear that the "revival of Baba culture" was nothing more than just a nostalgic curiosity item, an exotic tourist attraction and a museum showpiece. These developments notwithstanding, there is a minority of Babas who still follow what they perceive as the "essence" of Baba culture and who attempt to transmit this "essence" to the younger generation. The writer, a German, is a senior researcher with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation here. Reconstructing Identities: A Social History Of The Babas In Singapore (Ashgate/507 pages/$108) is based on his thesis for his PhD from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany. Field work was done here between May 1992 and October 1994.


THE publication of the Straits Chinese Magazine in 1897 marks one of the earliest local efforts to find voice in the burgeoning print media. Its editors and writers--Western-educated scions of Peranakan culture--had decided that it was time local concerns were heard by the colonial administration. This millennium marker, an early one for this year, charts the issues that were pertinent 100 years ago. Before exploring the first issue of the quarterly magazine, it is perhaps important that we look at the careers of the people behind Malaysia's first local intellectual journal.

The editors of the magazine came from a cosmopolitan culture. Dr Lim Boon Kheng's grandfather, Lim Mah Peng, had left Fujian province, China, for Penang in 1839. The family moved to Singapore, where Lim attended the Cross Street government school before entering Raffles Institution in 1879. He won the Queen's Scholarship to study medicine in Edinburgh University, Scotland, where he graduated with first class honours in 1892. Lim would later enter the world of banking academia--where, in 1921, he became chancellor of the University of Amoy, China, and more importantly, the world of letters, his mouthpiece being the Straits Chinese Magazine.

The other editor of the magazine has an equally impressive curricula vitae. Song Ong Siang, also a Queen's scholar, earned his Master of Arts and Bachelor of Law degrees from Cambridge University, Britain. He would later author the seminal One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese in Singapore.Editors of the `Straits Chinese Magazine', from left, Song Ong Siang, Dr Gnoh Lean Tuck and Dr Lim Boon Keng. The third editor, Dr Gnoh Lean Tuck (@ Wu Lien Teh featured in a previous Millennium Marker as the "Plague Fighter'') held a medical degree from Cambridge and went on to be the medical adviser of the Foreign Office, Peking. Dr Lim and Song, however, played more prominent roles in the Magazine.

Throughout the colonies, colonial administrators were assiduously trying to capture local practices through writing. To the colonialists, the power to subdue and rule is linked to the power to silence. Thus, one British viceroy to India laid the claim that all the literature of India and Arabia were inferior to a British primary school library. In British Malaya, both Dr Lim Boon Kheng and Song Ong Siang must have, on some level, realised the need to break this silence and subsequently dethrone Britain's monopoly on the written word.

In the inaugural issue of the Straits Chinese Magazine, they explain to their readers that the magazine would serve as a bridge between oriental and occidental concerns, thus undoing the stitches that kept the East mute. To list the Magazine's concerns could take a whole book. Thus a selection would have to suffice. What is most interesting about the Straits Chinese Magazine is that it allows us to piece together Peranakan intellectual thoughts and ideas as well as describe the larger concerns of the Chinese in the Straits Settlements. In other Chinese publications such as the Lat Pau (Straits newspaper), interests for the reform of China and local news made up the primary contents. In the Straits Chinese Magazine, apart from news about local societies and briefs concerning the Chinese business community, the magazine also highlighted the problems of being Straits Chinese.

In the very first volume, a sermon-like article by a British Sinologist attempts to define the Straits Chinese identity and what is expected of the Straits Chinese.Basically a British agent overseas but with all the characteristics of the Chinese, the Straits Chinese must act as intermediary between the local and the colonial. However, this position did not necessarily mean that he/she was privileged. In the third volume of the magazine, Song Ong Siang asks the question "Are the Straits Chinese British subjects?'' Explaining that the Naturalisation Ordinance of 1867 makes clear that the Straits Chinese are British subjects overseas, Song later ponders on Britain's acceptance of China's insistence that all overseas Chinese are subjects of the Chinese empire.

Till today, the problem of dual nationality plagues the overseas Chinese. However, Song's explanation may still be a relevant rebuttal for those who question the Chinese community's loyalty because though the "Straits Chinese are as jealous as the immigrant Chinese of all their inherited Chinese customs, manners and prejudices, to the great majority of them, the feeling of patriotism or love of their fatherland is absolutely awanting.'' Later issues would be devoted to problems of not belonging, or as in sophisticated academic jargon, problems of hybridity. Dr Lim Boon Kheng, having had a strong Chinese education as well as an excellent Western one, was able to make the best of his "in-between'' position. He would write articles on Confucianism and Buddhism and refute claims that the Straits Chinese were capricious and ungodly. While Song was more typically Straits Chinese, speaking and writing in Malay and English, Dr Lim eventually saw Western scientific knowledge as a means to enrich Chinese culture. He would eventually lead a movement to do away with the towchang (or queue) as well as revive Confucianism.

Putting this philosophy into practice, Dr Lim Boon Kheng, a medical practitioner, also included articles on medicine in the magazine. In a particularly important article, readers were informed about small pox and the need for vaccination. All three editors were also champions of the anti-opium campaigns. In the second volume of the Magazine, Dr Lim wrote an extensive article on "The Attitude of the State Towards the Opium Habit''. In his exulting style, Dr Lim pens: "From the helpless coolies' point of view, it is most cruel tyranny that a man in a free country should be able to get any amount of opium for the gratification of a vice but could not get a remedy for the cure of the habit without being run in by the police and, in all probability, sent to gaol for non-payment of fines.''

Their opposition to a lucrative yet heinous activity was met with opposition from the British Government and the powerful revenue farmers (as opium, spirits and gambling barons were called). However, the anti-opium movement in England won the day and eventually, the colonial government could no longer justify carrying on the practice and banned opium farming. Once again, the editors managed to convey the schizophrenia of imperialism, where exploitation and the civilising agenda went hand-in-hand, as the opium debates reveal.The Straits Chinese Magazine was particularly forward-minded in its support of women's rights. In its earliest issues, Song Ong Siang wrote extensively for the liberation and education of women. Straits Chinese women, one writer charged, needed to be properly educated before being allowed physical freedom. Song, however, defended women's liberties by explaining the need for more physical and economic freedom for women if society is to be more equitable.

The Magazine, despite Song's interest in gender politics and Dr Lim's preoccupation with the politics of nations, also published several very interesting literary pieces. Short stories such as The President's Ball, Rodney's Salvation and The Travels of Chang Ching Chong presented local ideas about being a Victorian gentleman, the hypocrisy of the colonial enterprise and local views about the world. The Magazine, according to its advertisement in the first Malay newspaper Bintang Timor, could be purchased as far north as Penang and as far south as Batavia. Though centred in Singapore, the magazine appealed to Peranakan communities all over South-East Asia and, by extension, became relevant to all colonised communities.

In 1900, amidst the pinnacle of Straits Chinese economic and cultural achievement, the Straits Chinese British Association (SCBA) was established. The Magazine carried news about SCBA and its activities as the latter grew out of the activities of the publication's editors, writers and readers. It carried on till 1907 before quietly slumbering off into the annals of history due to "a lack of support and interest from the very community it has been intended to benefit''. Song added that the younger generation was also not interested in undertaking the heavy responsibilities that came with publishing.However, the Magazine's editors would chart marvellous careers in Malaya. In keeping with the spirit of the Magazine, it would be a good idea to allow this marker its own voice in the 21st century through an extract from Vol VIII March 1904 No 1 of the magazine.

"With this present number begins the eighth volume of this Magazine. During the seven years of its existence, we have constantly kept in view our aims for the advancement of our people and have met adverse criticism, abuse and even monetary discouragement with an unflinching heart, knowing well that our cause and purpose are right. That these aims have, to a great extent, been fulfilled may be judged by the distinct change in public opinion amongst the Straits-born of the present day. In the circulation of the magazine also, we may congratulate ourselves on our success, for it is now being read in almost every part of the world.


One of the most visible aspects of any society is the language. "Even more striking than Malay physical appearance is the Baba's general Malay behavior: hence they not only look like Malays, but they walk, gesticulate, shake hands, eat, chew betel, sit, squat, expectorate, defecate, laugh and talk like Malays." (L. A. P. Gosling, 1964: pg. 212)

Malay, particularly the bazar or "pasar" Malay, has been the primary lingua franca, or "business language" of the Malay Peninsula and Indonesia between the many different ethnic groups. Before the coming of the British, Dutch and Japanese, each of whom promoted their own language curriculum, Malay was the preferred language of choice in doing business with other people outside of one's own community. It is therefore reasonable to expect that this language, as a primary index of acculturation and assimilation, should be spoken by any community which has achieved some degree of successful adaptation and accommodation within the larger Malay social world. Tan Che-Beng, in his study of the "rural Chinese" of Kelantan, notes.

Part of the reason for this assimilation has been the proximity and convenience of Malay schools and the lack of availability of Chinese or English-medium schools. But linguistic acculturation is also a normal and expected aspect of accommodation to a host society--children acquire the socially predominant language quite naturally through indirect means, whether it is spoken in the home as a primary language or not.

The early article by Chia Cheng Sit ("The Language of the Babas" in "The Straits Chinese Magazine" Vol. II, 1898) noted that though in religion, manners, customs and though the Babas remain Chinese, for the most part they speak Baba Malay with little Chinese infusion, except for the Penang Babas. The article claimed that the Baba spoke a "patois" of Malay adulterated with many borrowed idioms and words. The grammar was greatly reduced, dropping the many particles of proper Malay speech, and, similar to Chinese, without prefixation or affixation and with the syntactical significance of words defined by their relative positioning. In somewhat condescending manner, Chia noted that the patois was sufficient for everyday business and practical matters, though insufficient for the expression of ideas on social, ethical and philosophical subjects.

A more informed linguistic analysis by Sonny Lim (1982 Baba Malay: The Language of the Straits Born Chinese Master's Thesis, Australia: Monash University), comparing Baba Malay to Pasar Malay Chitty and Portuguese Malay, places it along a continuum bridging the gap between Baba Malay and Standard Malay. Baba Malay is primarily used intra-communally--i.e. spoken between themselves. It is defined situationally by a number of elements, including accommodation, and is variably mixed with English and Chinese. Literacy and illiteracy has been an important factor in the history of the language. "The Rising Star" was an awkward Baba attempt at standard Malay. The rise of Baba Malay as a lingua franca in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries reflected the economic importance of the Chinese--it represented the growth of a pidginized Malay to a Creole Malay featuring a syntactic reduction and simplification. Thus Baba Malay is a special creolized form of the wider form of Bazaar Malay, arising from the latter as an early pidgin or pidginized variety.

According to Lim's analysis, Baba Malay has a reduced topic-comment structure featuring the "Punya" article meaning literally to "possess" and is semantically related to the Hokkien form "e". This particle has three functions, as a possessive marker, as a marker of temporal and locative modifiers and as a relativizer, all of which correspond exactly to the Hokkien word "e" but which are foreign to standard Malay. Similarly the particle "kasi" or "to give" is related to the Hokkien "ho" and has the same functions of benefactive, causative-benefactive, causative and passive marker. Also "kena" corresponds almost exactly to the Hokkien "tioh?" with overlapping semantic fields. Similar particles include "Mau" (intention), "Pigi" (to go), "Nanti" (to wait) and the sentence final "la" which is originally a Hokkien form and which is an emphatic marker signaling "rapport, solidarity, familiarity and solidarity between speakers."

The word order of Baba Malay is Hokkien, in which noun phrases preceded by a marker will embed a sentence with an obligatory "punya" relativizer. Lim summarizes the admixture of Malay and Hokkien as strictly syntactic-semantic in nature--meanings and syntactic functions have been borrowed from Hokkien but not the forms, and mostly constitute direct substitutes for parallel and convergent Malay forms. Lexicon is mostly Malay with Hokkien elements borrowed which cover those Chinese aspects of Baba culture--kinship, marriage, religion, birth, death and some moral precepts. The pronomial system has also been modified by Hokkien.

"Baba Malay is essentially the Malay language pared down to the minimum, with the expected morphological and some syntactical features of Malay altered or missing, and with radically modified phonology." (Lim, 1982:p. 11) The sentence structure of Baba Malay reflects the passification or topicalization, or a "topic-comment" structure of Standard Malay. Information "is arranged such that the part of the information that is given, or the part that is already familiar, is placed at the front of the sentence (and thereby highlighting it as well)." (Ibid. p. 116)

Robert Winzeler, in his study of the village-Chinese in Kelantan, notes that these communities never completely lost use of their Chinese dialects as the Baba and Peranakan communities of the Straits and Java had, but usually became bilingual or even trilingual. Code switching and code-mixing is a common pattern in radically plural societies. In Penang, fused and independent bilinguals with competence in three or more languages are not unusual, but, on the contrary, are to be expected. Ann Pakir's linguistic study of the natural discourse patterns of members of a Baba community in Singapore reveals a pattern of code switching; between Malay, Hokkien and English in which speakers attempt to negotiate "a collective social identity" and accommodate to other speaker/hearers. I have observed extensively a similar pattern among Penang Chinese--many speakers being quite expert in code-switching/mixing between several different languages. Such linguistic skills seem to be acquired quite early and remain permanent part of speakers' linguistic facility.

Several brief studies on "Baba Malay" are extant. There seems to be about as much linguistic variation across Peranakan societies as anything else, and in general a "Peranakan" dialect can be said to rest along a continuum of creolization between mainly Hokkien, Malay or Indonesian, as well as a third or more languages, whether English, Dutch or another Chinese dialect or another regional language--for instance Siamese, or Dayak. It appears that the degree to which Chinese or Malay is the predominant language of discourse is a measure of the extent of acculturation of the particular peranakan community. But for the majority of Hokkien peranakans of Java and Malacca and Singapore, Malay appears to be the base language. "Baba Malay" is structurally and lexically the same as other vernacular dialects of Malay, with only a few phonological "dialectical" variations in the form of glottal stops, dipthongs, final alveolars and fricatives.

There are numerous Hokkien loan words, associated with Chinese-derived institutions, which has had otherwise relatively little effect on the phonological system (Anne Pakir, 1986) According to Pakir, Baba Malay stands as a unique dialect of Malay, in which the influence of Hokkien has been overestimated by other scholars. Hokkien borrowings are present in extent limited to certain semantic and cultural fields, including value judgements and emotive terms. Though other Malay dialects have incorporated Hokkien terms, the way that Baba Malay uses Hokkien is unique.

According to Tan Chee-Beng, Penang Hokkien is also unique due to its Baba cultural influence, by its incorporation of many Malay words. Baba Malay spoken in Penang is also held to be different from the variety spoken in Malacca and elsewhere because of the greater influence of Hokkien and English. The Hokkien of Kelantan that is spoken by the "village Chinese" is also dialectically distinct in intonational patterns, due to the alleged influence of Malay and Siamese.

Victor Purcell, in his book The Chinese in Malaya (1948), declared that Baba Malay was different from Malay in many important respects, and is "practically a different language." He stated that a great many Malay words were unknown to the Babas, as well as the "more polished syntax of the Malay. They are ignorant of the words connected with the Mohammedan religion. Also they mispronounce many Malay words..." (pg. 294)

He goes on to state that the greatest divergence between Baba Malay and Malay is in its construction, in which the former follows the Chinese pattern in a reduced form. It is possible that the sources of data between Ann Pakir's analysis and that of Victor Purcell, or Rev. Shellabear's, are different, reflecting substantial areal variations in the pattern of the 'patois' as different speakers range along different parts of the continuum. If Purcell's interpretation was accurate, it would reflect speakers who are using Chinese as the basolect, and Malay as the mesolect. On the other hand, Pakir's source suggests just the reverse--Malay remains the base language only slightly modified by the superimposition of Hokkien lexicon.

It is evident that Purcell based part of his study on the earlier study made by Reverend W. G. Shellebear, published in the Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, (Vol. 65, 1913), which was reprinted as an appendix in John Clammer's work Straits Chinese Society (1980). Shellabear emphasized the influence of the Chinese idiom, and the distinctiveness of Baba Malay from either the High Malay of the literature of the Malay Peninsula, or the low Malay spoken in Indonesia. "It is true that the number of Chinese words which have become assimilated with this dialect is not very large, and that many words have been borrowed from English, Portuguese, Dutch and Tamil, and from other neighboring tongues, but it is rightly called 'Baba Malay,' for it is largely the creation of the Baba Chinese, and is their mother tongue, so that it belongs to them in a sense that no other people can or do claim it as their own." (Ibid. pg. 156)

Tan Chee Beng takes a more restrictive definition of Baba Malay as that dialectic spoken by the Baba's of Malacca, that became the 'business dialect' of the three Straits Settlements--Penang, Malacca and Singapore. The Malay learned by members of each of these settlements was dialectically different--and the bazaar Malay or "Melayu pasar" from which Baba Malay developed was a lingua franca for commerce.

Hokkien loan words are more salient in areas of customs, religion and kinship, for things related to the house, furniture, food, utensils, personal effects and other things. "In general it may be said that Chinese loanwords are used mostly for things and concepts which are of Chinese origin or which have no Malay equivalents." (Tan Chee Beng, 1980:156)

Maurice Freedman, who made an important study of the kin terms in Baba Malay, stated that "in general, Malay words were used for junior relative and Hokkien-derived terms for senior. And this usage appears to correspond with that of the analogues of the Babas across the water in Java, the Peranakans, among whom both Malay and Javanese terms come into play for junior relatives." ("Chinese Kinship and Marriage in Singapore," 1962)

Tan Chee Beng concluded by noting that "Linguistic acculturation does not necessarily mean that a people have to speak the same dialect or language of the "host" group. In fact, a new dialect may develop, giving the people a distinct dialect which also serves as a crucial symbol of ethnic identity..."(1980:165)

Language serves as one of the most important agents and vehicles of social integration. In a plural context, it can be both a barrier and a facilitator to interethnic interactions. Racial, ethnic, and class differences are all reflected in linguistic differences, and linguistic difference is an important indicator of an individual's social status, orientation toward the larger social world, background, and ability to successfully interact in the world.

The contribution of a unique genre of Peranakan literature from Java is noteworthy. It was a genre of fictional novels, poems and plays that have not been well studied. The Babas of Singapore made their own contribution to Peranakan literary development in the form of stories translated from the Chinese and English in Baba Malay, newspaper and journal articles, as well as a few original works in English. "Baba Malay literature; continued to be printed in Singapore until about the Second World War." (Maurice Freedman, 1962)

John Clammer points to several interrelated social factors in the relative paucity of this literature. Many Peranakans up until the turn of the century were basically illiterate. Furthermore, as an interstitial community, there was a fundamental ambivalence of cultural identity which precluded any such great literary florescence--even what language to primarily publish in Chinese, Baba Malay or English, remained a critical trilemma. Due to the basic ambiguity of their cultural identity "at the nexus of three civilizations" and their lack of any clear political culture, except that framed by the colonial administration, the Peranakans lacked the appropriate developmental or cultural context conducive to the cultivation of a refined literature. "The mutual reinforcement of socio-political-cultural and literary values of this kind was absent from Straits Chinese society at its outset. Indeed, what peranakan culture had to do was to find or create precisely such a nexus of interrelated influences."(John Clammer, 1980: 68)


The Babas are descendants of an early Chinese community that settled in the Malay archipelago at least since the 17th century. Many members of the early community were seafarers who traded between the ports of southern China and those of Southeast Asia. The oldest Chinese communities can be found in Malacca. As Chinese women were by law not allowed to leave their native country until the middle of the 19th century, many of these early traders married non-Muslim natives of the Malay archipelago, such as Balinese or Batak slaves

In the 18th and 19th centuries the Babas were involved in opium, sireh, nutmeg and liquor farming, pepper and gambier cultivation, tin mining, commodity trading and property. In the early 20th century, many Babas invested in rubber. They also worked as compradores (Chinese middlemen) for big Western companies and banks. As a Chinese community that always considered Malaya home, many Peranakans were involved in civic projects and local government, and numbered among the key players in Malaysia and Singapore's road to independence. Many Nyonyas also led the way in female emancipation.

In the 21st century, the Babas face the same dilemmas and problems as other Chinese communities in Singapore and Malaysia--the decline of traditions, the inability to speak the dialect, the growing number of mixed marriages. All these factors lead to the great changes in the culture and uncertainty about the future. However the growth in Baba cultural activities as well as in memberships of Baba organisations indicate a growing awareness of the community's heritage and the importance of seeing it into the future.


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