Life Travel

Who and How Did The Nyonya Baba People Come To Existence in Malaysia

Wedding portrait of a Peranakan Couple. Image from WikiCommons.

Nyonya Baba or Peranakan people are descendants of Chinese immigrants who came to the Malay Archipelago back in the 15th century. Nyona stands for the Peranakan women while Baba refers to the Peranakan men.

However, the term “Peranakan” originally means local born. Over time, it is generally used to define the Straits-born Chinese to differentiate Chinese people who are born in China or in the Malay Archipelago. The Malay Archipelago consists of BruneiSingaporeMalaysiaIndonesia (excluding Western New Guinea), the Philippines and East Timor.

Most Peranakan or Nyonya Baba people are also of a mixed race. The most common mix would be Chinese with Malay/Indonesian. There are also minority amount of Peranakan people in Cambodia and Myanmar. Peranakan people are parallel to Cambodian Hokkien, who are descendants of Hoklo Chinese, and the Pashu of Myanmar, a Burmese word.

Yes, there are several other kinds of Peranakans other than the majority Peranakan Chinese even in Malaysia. For example, Peranakan Arabs, Peranakan Dutch, and Peranakan Indians. Sometimes Malaysians refer descendants of these interracial marriages to be Serani too.

The Peranakan Culture

Many of us (disclaimer: I am a descendant of the Nyonya Baba people) are multilingual. Though these Chinese immigrants’ native tongue will be Hokkien dialect and Mandarin, they learn the local Malay language. Under the British influence, Nyonya Baba people who can afford school would have attended English schools.

Over the years of being multilingual, the Peranakan people developed their own language called the Baba Malay. This language consists of English, Hokkien, Malay and Mandarin. It can be very confusing for most people to understand the Baba Malay. Despite Malaysians being multilingual too, the words and phrases used in Baba Malay are rather different from the rojak (mixed languages) that Malaysians speak these days. Thus, Baba Malay is now a dying language.

We preserve most of our Chinese traditions and yet, our food is made up of Indian and Malay spices. Some of the delicacies of Peranakan cuisine will be buah keluak chicken, Nyonya dumpling, asam pedas fish, cap cai, pongteh pork and cincaluk omelette. Some of Malaysia’s famous desserts are of Peranakan origin as well. For example, ang ku kuih, cendol, seri muka, kuih koci and pineapple tarts.

peranakan food, nyonya baba
A wide range of Peranakan food. Image from Flickr.

Even our clothes is a mixture of Malay sense of fashion. This can be seen clearly with Nyonya kebaya, a body fit 2-piece female wear. While the Peranakan architecture embodies the elaboration of olden China yet, it is built like an English building.

nyonya kebaya, peranakan culture
A colourful selection of Nyonya kebaya. Image from WikiCommons.

How did the Nyonya Baba people come into existence?

It is hard to pin down when it was the actual period to when or how the Peranakan come into existence. Thus, I will write based on the story that I have been told since I was a kid by my mother and aunties whoare pure Peranakan women from Malacca.

Once upon a time (14th century), Sultan Mansur Shah, the reigning Sultan of Malacca in 1459-1477 visited China to pay allegiance to the Emperor. As a sign of friendship, the Emperor of China bestowed the princess to the Sultan of Malacca.

It is noted that Zheng He first disembarked in Malacca in 1405 and made friends with the Sultan of Malacca. His visit to Malacca is seen to be the reason for Sultan of Malacca to visit the Emperor in China later on.
zheng he, cheng ho, admiral, eunuch, peranakan, malacca
The depiction of Zheng He ((鄭和; romanized as Cheng Ho) by the Chinese Govt.

The ever so famous Chinese Muslim explorer, diplomat, imperial eunuch and fleet commander, Admiral Zheng He escorted Princess Li Po to Malacca. Malacca or known to Malaysians as Melaka is now a state in Malaysia. Admiral Zheng He brought a fleet of 500 sons of ministers and entourage of imperial ladies to Malacca for the wedding.

Princess Li Po was commanded to convert her religion to Islam by Sultan Mansur Shah before marriage. Sultan Mansur Shah married Princess Li Po after her conversion. The Sultan has bestowed the title Hang to Princess Li Po for her diligent ways of being a Muslim wife.

So, what happened to the 500 people who came along with the Princess and Admiral?

It was rumoured that these 500 sons of ministers and imperial ladies were released from their duties. The sons of ministers married local Malay women while the imperial ladies married local Malay men. They were given a hill to live on by the Sultan. It is still known as Bukit Cina which means Chinese Hill until today in Malacca.

Malacca was one the world’s most important entrepot back in the 15th century due to its strategic location. Malacca was the port to trade Indian spices and herbs, Chinese silks and pottery; and, Arabian arts and culture.  These Chinese immigrants took the chance to earn their living through trading. These Chinese traders were later on known as the Nanyang businessmen. Their success attracted more Southern Chinese traders to move to the Malay Archipelago.

replica boat, zheng he, cheng ho, china, nanjing
This is the replica of Zheng He’s main fleet which can be found in Nanjing. Image from WSJ.

Really? Is this the truth? Well…

China has denied that they sent a real princess to Malacca for marriage. Based on Ming-Shi Lu (Imperial history of the Ming Dynasty), there is no record of any Chinese princess being sent to Malacca.

Rumour has it that China may have sent a people’s princess which means an adopted daughter of the Emperor. She shall be of a commoner’s background. These adopted daughters are usually imperial maids. They are usually sent to faraway kingdoms that are not significant to the emperor. This “send away a fake princess” practice was common throughout China’s history for political reasons. These princesses are not recorded in the Imperial history of Ming Dynasty.

The Malaysian government has yet, to confirm this information. Plus, there seems to be confusion and contemplative information between Suma and Sejarah Melayu. Suma is the Portuguese documentary produced in Malacca, the year 1512-1515. While Sejarah Melayu refers to the Malay Annals produced in Johor in 1612.

Unfortunately, all of Zheng He’s documents were destroyed. Consequently, there is no confirmation of the incident. There are also hypotheses that mentioned it was forbidden for China royalties to convert their religion. It was also said that any royalties who convert are considered non-existent. Hence, there are chances that all records of Princess Li Po were removed once she converted to Islam.

What are other explanations from history for the existence of Peranakan people?

Historians from Europe reports that Peranakan people are simple Chinese immigrants and traders who are born mainly in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. They linked it back to the Malacca being an entrepot that attracted people from different countries to move over. These traders decide to settle down in Malacca for its prosperity prospects and marry the local women.

Strait of Malacca, Malacca, Peranakan, Nyonya Baba, Trade Route
Strait of Malacca. Image from Wikipedia.

So, what do you (I) believe in?

Both of all worlds. I believe that it all started from Admiral Zheng he visiting Malacca till this mythical princess’s arrival that results to more traders visiting the Straits of Malacca. I believe all of these stories would have contributed to the existence of the Peranakan people.

Interested to know more about Peranakan people? Visit Malacca, the historical city of Malaysia to experience the Nyonya Baba culture first hand. Try out the local delicacies to emerge in the colourful and enticing culture!

Or, click here to read the precise Journal of Arts Discourse written by Baba Eddy titled: Iconological Analysis of the Peranakan Intimate Lifestyle: A Case Study of Sylvia Lee Goh’s Woman, Oh! Woman Painting Series.

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