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Tuesday January 22, 2013

Calls to preserve the Peranakan culture

A file photo showcasing the signature
sarong kebaya of Peranakan womenfolk,
worn here by girls from Malacca’s Baba
Nyonya Association performing a traditional dance. A file photo showcasing the signature sarong kebaya of Peranakan womenfolk, worn here by girls from Malacca’s Baba Nyonya Association performing a traditional dance.

Reflections chatty, cheeky and opinionated on a community that is arguably in a state of flux.

Writer’s note: My mother was a typical Nyonya. She was Malacca-born. Her first language was a Malay patois. She spoke no Chinese but picked up a smattering of Hokkien after marrying my father.

She habitually wore the Malay sarong kebaya. Cuisine was a unique blend of Malay and Chinese cooking styles. In other aspects, my mother was ethnic Chinese but of nationality a British subject and, in turn, a Malayan, then Malaysian citizen. When she passed away and I moved to Kuala Lumpur and then to Penang, I was cut off from the Baba-Nyonya culture. No matter, I thought, the Babas and Nyonyas were a dying community anyway.

When I came to know of the 25th Baba Nyonya Convention to be held in Malacca late last year, I excitedly asked for a place in the Penang contingent. I was lucky to be with the Penang group for an enjoyable outing – more so, to be given the chance to reacquaint myself with my roots. It was a revelatory experience.

PERANAKAN – used as a proper noun, much like the noun Creole – is derived from the Malay anak (“child”), and means “a descendant of a native and a foreigner” (Kamus Dewan, 1970. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka), with the connotation of being “local-born”.

“Local” is, arguably, associated with the home country Malaysia – specifically, Malacca, where it all began. The Peranakans are a community largely made up of descendants of indigenous Malays and Chinese or other immigrants from unions in some dim distant past; and the term Peranakan applies to their language (a Malay patois), their everyday wear (the signature sarong kebaya for the womenfolk) and their culture.

Another term, “Straits Chinese” or “Straits-born Chinese”, refers to the Chinese born and settled in the Straits Settlements of Malacca, Singapore, and Penang in British colonial days. The majority of them were Babas (for male) and Nyonyas (for female, but note: nona refers specifically to a young unmarried woman), so the Straits Chinese came to be synonymous with the Chinese Peranakans.

Another recognised Peranakan community, descended from early Indian immigrants, are the Indian Peranakans or Chitties. Penang has the Jawi Pekan (apparently a syncope of “Jawi Peranakan”, see Kamus Dewan) and the Arabic Peranakans (Merican, AM, New Straits Times/Life & Times, Dec 22, 2012, p11). For the rest of the discussion, “Peranakans” refers to Peranakans of Chinese ancestry, unless otherwise specified.

Museum pieces: Is there a next generation to carry on Peranakan traditions
from the current one, or is the community destined to be preserved only in
cultural displays like this? Museum pieces: Is there a next generation to carry on Peranakan traditions from the current one, or is the community destined to be preserved only in cultural displays like this?

Is there really a Peranakan identity? Malacca experienced three episodes of European incursion – Portuguese, then Dutch, then English – which engendered Eurasians of Portuguese, Dutch and English ancestry.

The Portuguese Eurasians are locally called Portuguese for short, while the others are just known as Eurasians, unspecified. Collectively the Eurasians are called, in Malay, Nasrani or Serani (the latter by corruption of the original Arabic Nasrani, meaning “Nazarene, Christian”). The Eurasians are not perceived as Peranakans.

In analogy, not all Malaysian-born Chinese are Peranakans. (It was therefore surprising to hear Ms Irene Huang, in her talk Celebrating Our Past at the 25th Baba Nyonya Convention, count Kapitan China Yap Ah Loy as a Baba.)

The convention noted that there are more than a dozen Peranakan associations including one each in Malacca, Selangor and Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Terengganu and Kelantan; as well as two in Singapore, two in Indonesia, one in Thailand and three in Australia.

Do all their members share a common heritage? Taking the Malacca Babas and Nyonyas to typify the Peranakans, we find that the Peranakans are a varied lot.

The Australian Peranakans are ostensibly representatives of a Peranakan diaspora and, surely, they cannot be said to be local-born in the strict sense of the word – that is, they were not born in their adopted country.

The Penang Peranakans may be “local-born” but their first tongue is Hokkien, not Malay. The Indonesian Peranakans are not local-born and their first tongue is undoubtedly Bahasa Indonesia (which, anyway, is akin to Malay).

Unlike the Malaysian Nyonyas for whom the sarong kebaya is no longer the default attire, the women delegates from Phuket were decked out in Peranakan garb even in the morning, just to register for the convention. But they, too, are probably not “local-born”, and spoke no Malay, whether patois or standard.

It is apparent that the term Peranakan, which can be interpreted in many ways, defies definition. Peranakan seems to be only a perception!

Nyonyas in casual workday attire. Nyonyas in casual workday attire.

The Peranakan patois

“Oh, pochot!” is something that you are likely to hear if you gently jab the back of an unsuspecting Nyonya. Peranakan ladies, like their Malay counterparts, are commonly “afflicted” with the unique condition called latah, a nervous paroxysmal condition brought about by surprise or shock and often taking the form of hysterical utterances and/or reflex movements (definition based on Wilkinson, RJ, 1960, An Abridged Malay-English Dictionary; London: Macmillan & Co Ltd).

Latah aside, and homing in on the word pochot, which does not seem to appear in Malay dictionaries. we may surmise that the word came about as a mispronunciation of puchok (in pre-Malindo spelling).

Consider another latah utterance, “Kus semangat”. Here the word kus is not a mispronunciation but is possibly a syncope of the word kurus.

The Peranakan patois is basically Malay, with words which started out as mispronunciations or tweaked in some way or other; and includes words of Chinese origin. The following are some examples (intentionally presented here in essentially pre-Malindo spelling):

(1) personal pronouns, of Chinese origin – gua for “I, me”, lu for “you” (singular), gua punya for “my, mine”, lu punya for “your, yours”, jorang (from dia orang) (instead of mereka) for “they”;

(2) insertion of an extraneous schwa sound (a short, neutral vowel sound) – keretas from kertas (paper), cheredek from cherdek (cerdik, intelligent);

(3) aphesis (omission of the initial sound of a word) – tapi from tetapi (but), tong saji from tudong saji (a conical food cover);

(4) syncopation (the omission of sounds or letters from within a word) – pi from pergi (go), piara from pelihara (preserve), kerosang from kerongsang (brooch);

(5) words pronounced and spelt in a departure from standard Malay – pandeh from pandai (clever), sampeh from sampai (arrive), nasik from nasi (rice), kechik from kechil (kecil, small), ambek from ambil (take), mo from mahu (want), piso from pisau (knife);

(6) words departing from standard usage – laki instead of suami (husband), jantan (used in standard Malay to refer to the male of animals, but in the Peranakan patois it refers to human males as well); bunting instead of hamil (pregnant); and

(7) alternative words in place of those in standard usage – kasi instead of beri (give), tengok instead of tonton, as in tonton wayang (watch a movie) or lihat (see), kodok instead of katak (frog), kuping instead of telinga (ear), kepiting instead of ketam (crab), changkir instead of chawan (cawan, cup), and bibik instead of mak chik (makcik, a polite form of address for an elderly lady).

The above examples appear in speech and song as well as in print. Note, too, that verbs are commonly used in their base form (without conjugational prefixes and/or inflectional suffixes), for example pukul instead of memukul (hitting), kena pukul instead of dipukul (hit), guna piso instead of menggunakan pisau (using a knife).

Furthermore, prepositions may be dispensed with, for example dia pi sekolah instead of dia pergi ke sekolah (he went to school).

Do we now update the Peranakan patois and bring its words in line with standard Malay? Such a move would rob it of its distinct flavour.

There could be one exception, though. The traditional song Geylang Si-Paku, Geylang has the word geylang which does not exist in Malay. Words that sound almost alike are gelang (a bangle or bracelet), which does not fit into the song’s context; and gilang (to gleam, to shine), which does. The song title must perforce be corrected to avoid confusion.

The Peranakan repertoire

The Peranakan repertoire consists of songs in the Peranakan patois, mostly performed to the accompaniment of the faint but unmistakable thump of a Malay drum (gendang). Most of the songs relate to local situations, yet they include a tune in reminiscence of the River Solo in Indonesia. Such inclusion is of no consequence. The said song, Bengawan Solo, easily integrates with the traditional songs in both language and style.

In fact, there are many Malay and Indonesian songs that can be adapted and/or adopted into the Peranakan repertoire. Additionally, keronchong could be considered.

At the convention, the same old chestnuts were trotted out repeatedly. Credit must be given to the Peranakan associations in Singapore, which have taken steps to address the seeming paucity of Peranakan songs. They composed several fresh numbers to add to the stock of Peranakan songs.

Not only are the songs in the Peranakan repertoire becoming seemingly fewer (from the number performed at the after-dinner sessions), but they are also becoming definitely leaner.

Barring the aforesaid limitations, the after-dinner hours were rollicking times, with singing on stage and swinging on the dance floor. Picture the many oldies with supple limbs and swinging hips readily taking to the crowded dance floor. The delegates, even of advanced years, were a healthy lot with the stamina to stay on their feet over three or four consecutive and long dance numbers.

It was enjoyable just to watch the attendees having a good time.

What’s next?

Are today’s Peranakans for real? The convention provided some insight. Traditionally, the sarong kebaya was the signature attire of the womenfolk; but matched with elaborate adornments wrought in silver, gold or alloy plus beaded slippers (kasut manek), it was also formal attire for special occasions.

These adornments are the chochok sanggul (a set of hairpins to hold in place the sanggul or bun), the kerosang (a set of three brooches set in a chain to clasp together the flaps of the kebaya, an embroidered blouse); and the tali pinggang (an ornate articulated metal belt to tie the sarong, a tube of ornate fabric wrapped around the waist).

At the convention, however, the sarong kebaya was not in evidence at all times except for the abovementioned Thai Nyonyas who, even in the morning, turned up in colourful kebaya with full accoutrements!

Malay patois was not used much at the convention, admittedly for the sake of Peranakans from overseas. The hours during and after dinner were happy hours, so to speak – without the alcohol but with much singing and dancing.

Food was sumptuous, though attendees saw little or none of signature Nyonya dishes like ayam masak keluak, pongteh and itek tim.

Everyone was caught up in the merry-making, though something seemed to be missing.

The convention need not be an annual exercise in celebration of nostalgia. It could, perhaps, be spruced up with a song contest but with a difference: Peranakan style, patois and performance could be made criteria in the judging.

The convention could also expand its scope to showcase other aspects of Peranakan culture such as joget and ronggeng dances, dondang sayang and pantun.

What about the participants? The attendees were mostly oldies, with very few youngsters. This does not bode well. The Confederation of Peranakan Associations is 25 years old, yet its convention failed to attract participants from the 20-to-40 age group.

Consider the sombre reality: there is no next generation of Peranakans to take over from aging Peranakans and carry on the culture. The grace and refinement of a unique community is losing out to the blandishments of Internet-driven fads and games!

It would be a pity if the Peranakan culture, so rich and unique, were to wither away only to exist as a tourist attraction, such as in Malacca, “the Peranakan stronghold” as Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam put it in his welcoming speech.

The state government has strongly supported and continues to support the objectives and endeavours of the Malacca Chinese Peranakan Associatioon.

The Chief Minister has even established a Department of Peranakan Affairs, staffed by three Nyonyas – officially clad in sarong kebaya!

Closing note: The president of the association, Datuk Phua Jin Hock (a most amusing raconteur at the convention), deems himself a re-born Peranakan. My friend Johny Chee, with a Baba father and a Nyonya mother, considers himself a two-way Peranakan.

What am I? My father was the son of a Chinese immigrant and my mother was a true-blue Nyonya. I think I am half Peranakan, although I am not sure whether it’s the top half or the bottom half.

Even the Peranakan association in Penang apparently has been wrestling with the problem of its own identity. It has changed its name twice. It now calls itself the State Chinese (Penang) Association, a nondescript moniker. “State Chinese” does not mean anything in the present context unlike “Straits Chinese”, which at one time referred to those from the Straits Settlements (who were largely Peranakans).

Nevertheless, I am going to apply to be a member of that association. I wonder if I qualify!

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