Showing posts with label Baba. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Baba. Show all posts

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

The Origin of Peranakan in Straits Settlements

Introduction

Peranakan is a conjugated word adopted from Indonesian or Malay. The Kamus Dewan, a standard Malay language dictionary defines Peranakan as 'keturunan anak negeri dengan orang asing' meaning the descendants of the intermarriage between indigenous people with foreigners. Few more perusals on the dictionary found the word Peranakan is associated with the words Baba and Nyonya. The dictionary explains Baba as male descendant of Peranakan and Nyonya is the female term. 

However, the word Peranakan as a household vocabulary did not appear as often as Baba and Nyonya in the colonial records during the imperialism. One of the earliest Malay dictionary published in 1896 provides the definition of Peranakan as "a native of." The word also surfaced in the publications run by the Straits Chinese such as a Malay-English bilingual newspaper, Surat Khabar Peranakan (Straits Chinese Herald) in February 1894, and the Straits Chinese Magazine running in between 1897 until 1907. After the First World War, a pro-colonial newspaper, Bintang Peranakan was established in 1930. 

The rise of the word Peranakan appeared in 1960s, when the then Straits Chinese British Association (SCBA) in Singapore changed its name to Singapore Chinese Peranakan Association and later to Peranakan Association Singapore on 23 February 1966. SCBA was inaugurated on 17 August 1900 with Tan Jiak Kim as its first president. On 25 September 1900, a Malacca branch was established, headed by Lee Keng Liat. The Penang wing was emerged in 1920 led by Quah Beng Kee. Their existence were very much respected by the colonial. In 1857, they were given seats in the Municipal Council and were known for their loyalty inclined to the colonial. By 1930s they were appointed into the Legislative Council (the highest governing body in the Straits Settlements).

Also see China and her Overseas People

The early members of SCBA in 1900
Source: Song, Ong Siang. (1923). One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore. London: John Murray
Tchan Chun Fook posting with the SCBA regalia
Source: Song, Ong Siang. (1923). One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore. London: John Murray

Towards the end of the British imperialism, this community is serious and committed in promoting its cultural identity. In 1987, the first Baba Convention was held in Penang, this convention was primarily to disseminate the body of knowledge on the Peranakan culture and history to the public at large. However, its presence came to zenith owing very much to Endoon Mahmood, wife of the former Malaysian Prime Minister. Endoon was publicly known for her admiration towards traditional fabric art, in which she vigorously promoted the Peranakan fashion at international platform through various fashion walkways including authoring the "The Nyonya Kebaya: Century of Straits Chinese Costume." The presence of the Peranakan community in Malaysia is further rectified and consolidated when Malacca and Penang were jointly recognized as World Heritage Site for Cultural Heritage in 2008. Thus, placing them as part of international community. 

In the past, the future of the Peranakan was often questioned will it be expanding or shrinking, the answer during that time was sobering. Many young Peranakan descendants are distancing from knowing their roots. They could not tell what defines their community in a convincing tone. This topic, "The Origin of Peranakan in Straits Settlements", intends to provide an explanation of the famous words Baba and Nyonya.

The Status of Peranakan

Peranakan were Straits-born Chinese recognized following with the enactment of Naturalization Act 1852. It is often confused and diffused by contemporary historians that Straits-born Chinese is equivalent to Peranakan. This is however, untrue. As discussed earlier, the Peranakan were descendants of the Chinese immigrants through their union with the indigenous people. Thus, it is appropriate to say that the Peranakan were Straits Chinese, but not all Straits Chinese were Peranakan. 

The confusion on this classification is merely because the word Peranakan was not commonly used in the Straits Settlements. Official colonial records often refer them as Straits Chinese due to their status of Straits-born. In Melaka and Singapore, this community is popularly known as Baba Nyonya.

Also see What constitute a Straits Chinese?

The Baba & Nyonya

Baba is a loan-word from Sanskrit meaning master. The word was later adopted into the Malay vocabulary for father (bapa). The word Baba also refer to a father (Ah Pa) in Fujianese dialect. The word Baba was recorded in one of the earliest Malay dictionary as shown in the figure below:
Definition of Baba
Source: Swettenham, Frank A. (1896). Vocabulary of the English and Malay Languages with Notes Volume 2. London: W.B. Whittingham. (p. 7)

In Indonesia, the word Bapa is still used to allude someone who is senior, or similarly to what is usually called Sir in English.

However, dismissing the meaning, this word was preferably used by the Peranakan as their pre-nominal title to distinguish their identity from the new immigrants. Wealthy mercantile community in Singapore with long family history in the colonies, such as Tan Kim Ching preferred to be referred as Baba Kim Cheng. However, the use of this title might be disputable, this is because, in Penang the word 'Che' or meaning Mister (a short form derived from the Malay word Inche/Enche/Encik) was widely used in the early colonial documents in referring to the old Chinese settlers in Kedah and Penang (such as Cheah Yeam = Che Yeam, Khoo Poh = Che Poh, Koh Lay Huan = Che Wan). 

Based on the discussion, it is appropriate to conclude that the word Baba is originated from the Malay. This is because, the use of Baba as pre-nominal title by the early Peranakan community in Malacca and Singapore has a similar usage as in Indonesia referring to the elders and respected community leaders. This argument is considered valid based on the study on locality. The location of Malacca and Singapore near to Indonesia has a role in developing the Peranakan patois, in which heavily Malay influenced (probably due to the business engagement). Unlike in Penang, the Peranakan patois retains many of its Chinese elements (Fujian) and distinctly differed to the Peranakan patois in Malacca and Singapore. The Penang Peranakan speaks Fujian-Malay creole, in which still evident until today.
  
A Nyonya mistaken to be Malay woman during 19th century
Source: The Science & Society Picture Library
Courtesy: Royal Photographic Society, London

Nyonya or Nonia is a combination of the Chinese words Neo + Nya. Neo is an honorific title reserved for woman from a descent family, and Nya meaning lady or married woman. As time lapsed, these two words amalgamated to form the word Nyonya.

Unlike Baba, the use of Neo is very significant to a Peranakan woman. When a Nyonya died, the word Neo will be added at the end of her name in the tombstone as a mark of respect to her lineage and background. During the lifetime of a Nyonya they will be saluted either as Nyonya or abbreviated as Ah Nya, and if she is older, it will be called as Ah Nya Chi (meaning elder sister).

Although, Western accounts claim that the word Nyonya is taken from the Portuguese's dona meaning Miss or housewife. This claim is unacceptable. This is because, a Nyonya is without a doubt of Chinese origin, and there is already an explanation from the Chinese as mentioned earlier. On the other hand, it is illogical for a Chinese family to use a European title in their household, especially the Chinese custom and tradition during the early time were still reserved.  

Western Descriptions

The earliest descriptions on Nyonya was in 1865 by J.T. Thomson. They were referred as beautifully elegant with good social demeanor and very much respected in the community. However, Thomson provides a disgraced sketch that these early Nyonyas were engaged in prostitution, many were kept as mistress for the Europeans settlers in Penang.

In 1907, A. Wright provides an elaborate interiors of the Straits Chinese as depicted:
"Amongst the Chinese of Malaya the social conditions are, generally speaking, similar in broad outline to those obtaining in China; but in regard to domestic arrangements many of the Straits-born Chinese are assimilating as far as their means permit, European ideas. As in China, the family life is developed rather than the social life. These is no system of formal calls, and what interchange of courtesies there is takes place between ladies and ladies and between gentlemen and gentlemen. It is in the home circle that the Chinese delight, and they set the highest value upon modesty, morality, and character in its members." 
The sketch provided by Wright suggesting that the Straits Chinese were already reached the climax in exercising their own free-will. The instances whereby, the Straits Chinese men were crazed with European automobiles, wearing European attire, drinking wine and whisky, playing polo, travelling to Europe, some went further by cutting their tochang (queue). And their women were indulged with European furniture and accessories, some with open-minded family will receive home education. Not to mention is that many of the Straits Chinese were English educated at school and some received informal Chinese education at home. The utmost expression of their loyalty was publicly shown with the erection of Queen Victoria memorials throughout the Straits Settlements.  

Conclusion

Before the conquer of the Europeans in Southeast Asia, the early Chinese exodus already accepted cultural assimilation with the local inhabitants, in order to survive. When Western colonization arrived, these overseas Chinese once again adapted their life with European influence. 

The year 1963 witnesses the end of the British Empire in Southeast Asia, the Straits Settlements were amalgamated once again in the formation of Malaysia. The Peranakan realized they can no longer rely on the imperial. They were then socially and politically emancipated. Backed with their social experience and influence, wealth and education settings, many of them turned Malaysia as an opportunity to revive their former glory in which very much respected. 

Today, the fast-growing modern age Southeast Asia is associated with its eagerness to become the world economic giants. Its surging development has demarcated the social engagements, partly ignored the cultural heritage, particularly the Peranakan. 

Although the early Peranakan came from a different world to today's Peranakan, but they left the imprint just as clearly for the appreciation in early cultural identity. It is clear that without them, Singapore and Malaysia will never had begun a remarkable journey, enriched with affluent, vibrant and cosmopolitan society. It is vital for the younger generation, particularly the descendants of Peranakan to be able to embrace and define their own roots with pride and honour, just as how their forefathers did. 

I would like to end this article by quoting a passage by Lee Kuan Yew:
"Unless you know where you came from; unless you know what your ancestors had been through. You have no reference point. What makes us different from, say the Thais, or the Filipinos, or the Sri Lankans? The difference is, how we came here and how we developed, and that requires a sense of history."
REFERENCES
  1. Khor, Neil Jin Keong. (2003, 3 November). Networking Among the Straits Chinese. Penang: The Star Newspaper (pp. Heritage 12-13)
  2. Moore, Wendy Khadijah. Malaysia A Pictorial History: 1400 - 2004. Kuala Lumpur: Archipelago Press (p. 153)
  3. Noresah Baharom et al. (Eds.). (1996). Kamus Dewan (3rd Ed.). Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa & Pusaka. (p. 41)
  4. Song, Ong Siang. (1923). One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore. London: John Murray
  5. Swettenham, Frank, A. (1896). Vocabulary of the English and Malay Languages with Notes Volume 2. London: W.B. Whittingham. (pp. 7 & 84)
  6. Thomson, John Turnbull. (1865). Some Glimpses into Life in the Far East. London: Richardson & Co. (pp. 194-200)
  7. Whitlam, John et al. (2002). Oxford Portuguese Minidictionary (Revised Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (p. 87)
  8. Wright, Arnold. (1907). Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya: Its History, People, Commerce, Industries, and Resources. London: Lloyd’s Greater Britain Publishing Co., Ltd. (p. 202)
  9. Yong, C. F. (1992). Chinese Leadership and Power in Colonial Singapore. Singapore: Times Academic Press. (pp. 52-61)
Also see Calling for Research Collaborations 2013