Preserving Peranakan heritage


THE Baba and Nyonya community has a rich history in Southeast Asia with their humble beginnings in Malacca.

The term “Peranakan” (meaning descendant in Malay) is a generic term referring to ethnic Chinese population of the British Straits Settlements of Malaya and the nearby regions (such as Dutch-controlled Java) who have taken up local customs and assimilated into the traditions and lifestyles of the local communities.

The term Baba refers to the male gender of the community while Nyonya originates from the term “Nona” or lady in Javanese. Collectively, the most common term of “Straits-born Chinese” is used to describe the Peranakan community.

The idea of hybridization is very much reflected in the Baba and Nyonya culture; from its food, music, traditional games, architecture, clothing, lifestyle, and language.

On the topic of language, the Peranakan community is fast losing ground with many of the younger Peranakans losing touch with the original language due to their lack of interest in speaking the language and the difficulties in maintaining the authenticity of Baba Malay and its vast vocabulary.

This in part could be due to the influence of dominant international languages such as English and Mandarin, with the latter being partly responsible for the rapid decline of many popular Chinese dialects in Malaysia such as Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese and Teochew.

The Baba and Nyonya community in Malaysia is currently facing a threat to its culture and language by the very essence of hybridity that led to the birth of the community. The evolution in culture and society often sees new and fascinating languages and its variations manifest in the complex system of oral communication.

In a multi-lingual environment like Malaysia, Malaysian colloquial English or “Manglish” (a term frowned upon by linguists) as it is popularly known is thriving and has also undergone tremendous changes over the last 30 years due to the influence of popular culture and has adapted well to the evolution of change due to its linguistic flexibility and informal usage that is popular among Malaysian adults.

As a unique dialect of English spoken in Malaysia with its own syntax, lexicon, phonology and morphology, the growth of “Manglish” attests to the importance of evolution, adaptation, and hybridization as a means of survival in the linguistic wilderness of the 21st century.

Often, this evolution comes at the expense of traditional communities such as the Peranakan whose zenith of “evolution” has been reached, and where conservation and propagation is its current priority.

Being cultural beings (people), one’s culture is essentially a part of an individual’s identity and the survival of one’s culture is likened to the adaptability of the human race, a distinct feature of its survivability since the dawn of human civilisation.

Similarly, the Peranakan community has adapted to the changes in modernity through private initiatives on their own.

Through well-meaning individuals and collaborative efforts of the Baba and Nyonya community, several cultural awareness programmes were launched in Penang, Selangor, and Kuala Lumpur.

The setting up of private museums featuring the extensive legacy of the Peranakan community is another commendable effort in neutralising the massive exportation of Baba and Nyonya heirlooms to Malaysia’s neighbouring countries.

Nevertheless, such efforts are insufficient as the Government’s support is found lacking in the funding and preservation of such cultural artifacts.

In comparison, the Singapore government has recognised the importance of the Peranakan culture and has a substantial allocation yearly for the promotion and preservation purposes of the Baba and Nyonya community.

The mini-series The Little (2009) and a remake, Precious (released in 2014) was a hit with viewers regionally, especially in China, and this has resulted in the huge influx of foreign tourists to Singapore due to the popularity of the show.

While much more can be done to preserve the legacy and heritage of the Peranakan community, there must also be awareness among fellow Malaysians on the need to cherish a home-grown national heritage such as this.

From the uniqueness of its spicy dishes, to the beauty of its embroidery, and the grandeur of its historicity, the Baba and Nyonya community and way of life, from their beginnings over 500 years ago will forever be an integral part of Malaysia’s diverse multi-cultural landscape, being as vivid and distinct in the past as it is in the present.

DAVID C.E. TNEH

Petaling Jaya

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