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The disappearing race

Millennium markers - Immigration

THE word "Peranakan" refers to a group of Chinese immigrants who are more acculturated than their later counterparts. However, not all acculturated Chinese people in Malaysia see themselves as Peranakan Cina or Baba Cina. Geographically, the Peranakans are scattered across what had been the Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca and Singapore, and the north-east states of Kelantan and Terengganu.

The unifying features among these Chinese communities are the adoption of local Malay dialects into their daily language, the wearing of the sarong and kebaya and the incorporation of local herbs and spices in their cuisine. The Peranakans are, therefore, linguistically and culturally different from other Chinese sub-groups in Malaysia and these differences, some would argue, sets them apart as a separate race.

The popular Sinologist Lynn Pan in her celebrated story of the Overseas Chinese, Sons of the Yellow Emperor, considers the Malaccan Babas as the earliest example of cultural and racial hybridity in Malaysia.

According to legend, Sultan Mansor Shah married Ming Chinese princess Hang Li Po and this union began the hybrid culture that is the Malacca Babas today. However, in all probability, as Lynn Pan explains, Chinese traders must have married local women and settled in Malacca, which in the 15th century was a very rich entrepot.

What is particularly interesting about the Malaccan Baba is that apart from his usage of hybridised Malay at home and the food he eats, he is still very much Chinese.

Up till the 19th century, the golden era of Peranakan economic dominance, the Baba still sent his eldest son back to China for cultural and academic education. The Babas also practised a mixture of Taoism, Buddhism and ancestor worship, and religious practices common to most overseas Chinese communities.

One explanation why they did not embrace Islam, Lynn Pan offers, is that the religion was either not as widely practised as speculated or that the local women who intermarried with the early Chinese traders were from neighbouring Sumatera Island. However, after the first generation of marriages, most new immigrants would marry the daughters of these mixed marriages, popularly named Nyonyas, thus ensuring the creation and perpetuation of a close-knit community.

The Penang "Babas" are even more peculiar when compared with their Malaccan counterparts. They resisted the label Peranakan or Baba and preferred the term Straits Chinese. This is understandable with the development of Penang as a British port after 1776 and with the arrival of the Chinese soon after.

The earliest Penang Chinese families were mostly from the Chinese province of Fujian and thus many spoke the Hokkien dialect. Unlike the acculturated Chinese in Malacca, the Penang Chinese clung to their language--though adopting the use of many Malay words and appropriating the linguistic pattern of the native language. One of the most popular corruptions is adding the suffix "lah" at the end of a sentence. Although this is derived from the Hokkien practice, it has become very much a part of the way Malaysians speak English and Malay today.

Peranakan houses

Other borrowings include the words "loteng" (upstairs), "teko" (kettle or teapot), "tauhu" (bean curd) and "nyolo" (censer), to name a few.

The Straits Chinese were also Anglophiles and would speak English at home apart from their hybridised Hokkien. The men would usually wear a European suit and a hat called a topi (Malay for hat) while the women wore the kebaya.

While the Straits Chinese in Penang exhibited the effects of Western influence and also aspects akin to their Hokkien origins, the "Cina kampung" of Kelantan and Terengganu were more Malay due to the isolation of the two states from British influence.

The clothes that the acculturated Chinese of these two states wore are examples of this unique development: the women were fond of wearing the sarong like their counterparts in Penang and Malacca and usually berkemban (wear a sarong tied above the bosom) in their kain batik lepas. Their men also adopted the Malay tanjak (a type of headdress) by wrapping their heads with what they refer to as the semutar. The architecture of their houses also closely resembles the village houses of the Malays. The Hokkien they spoke had linguistic links not only with the Kelantan dialect but also exhibited Siamese influences.

Peranakan women, or Nyonyas, are perhaps the best example of cultural hybridity in this community. The 19th century Victorian traveller Isabella Bird remarked that the Peranakan women had adopted the "disgusting habit of betel nut chewing."

To the Nyonya, it was far from disgusting. Every Peranakan woman had her own sireh (betel nut) set or was given one at her wedding. The fruit from the areca palm, the betel nut, was sliced and wrapped in a sireh leaf (the leaf of the betel pepper), and a smear of moistened lime accompanied the preparation. Chewing this oblong leaf is akin to chewing gum today though the betel nut acts as a mild stimulant not much different from nicotine.

The image of the Peranakan woman is, however, not complete without her traditional costume and her sanggol (a form of hair dressing). She wore the kebaya--or baju panjang, in the case of Malaccan Nyonyas--pinned together with the kerongsang and completed with a highly decorative metal belt that tied together the sarong to finish the sarong kebaya look.

The Peranakan woman's household, in the case of the rich families, was decorated with rose wood furniture inlaid with mother of pearl. And the dinner table was always set with the now-famous colourful Nyonyaware.

However, very few Nyonyas dress in traditional garb today and even fewer go around chewing betel nut. The modernisation of Malaysia and the dominance of later Chinese immigrants slowly began to displace the Peranakans.

Today, many identify the Peranakan Chinese through their cuisine. The various Nyonya cakes, like "love-letters" or Kuih Kapit or the famous Kuih Lapis, are still present among the offerings of these families during Chinese New Year when guests visit.

What is most striking about Nyonya cooking is the generous use of local herbs and spices. The Ayam Ponteh, Babi Buah Keluak, Perut Ikan and Asam Laksa are a few examples of local influences in Peranakan cooking. Other delicacies like the Kuih Bakul, Kuih Koci and the Malay Kuih Dodol were also incorporated into the Peranakan dessert menu. Food and the preparation of it now act as markers of a disappearing race.

Today it is considered chic to wear the kebaya or collect Peranakan antiques. The recent successful staging of Stella Kon's Emily of Emerald Hill, a play about a Straits Chinese matriarch, testifies to the "commercial" appeal of all things Peranakan.

Although the play informs us of how the Nyonya was circumscribed to her home, Peranakan men were active participants in their adopted country. The Straits Chinese, unlike their more recently settled brethren, always considered Malaysia their permanent home.

Peranakan businessmen made their mark in the 19th century as investors in the booming tin industry and as merchants in the Straits Settlements. The rich Baba families, like the Tans of Singapore and the Khaws of Penang, invested in tin-mining, merchant shipping, revenue farming and rubber-palnting.

One of the more famous names of Peranakan economic dominance is Tun Sir Tan Cheng Lock (left), founder member of the Ho Hong Bank (later United Malayan Banking Corporation) in Malacca. He was the father of former Finance Minister Tun Tan Siew Sin. Another is Dr Lim Boon Keng, famous for his anti-opium campaigns. Yeap Chor Ee, the Penang multi-millionaire and founder of Ban Hin Lee Bank, is also an oft-quoted personality with regards to Peranakan entrepreneurial skills.

Ironically, their business acumen in the migrant trade eventually opened the floodgates of Chinese immigration to Malaya thus ending their "cultural" hegemony.

The new immigrants found the Straits Chinese--whether in Penang, Malacca or Singapore--alien.

The Peranakans were among the earliest to publish English dailies in this country. The Straits Chinese Magazine, which was edited by Dr Lim Boon Keng and noted Singaporean figure Song Ong Siang, ran from 1897 to 1907. The Babas in Malacca published the Malacca Guardian in 1928 and continued publishing it till 1940. This made them decidedly different from the more recent Chinese immigrants who were closer to China linguistically.

Thus, in 1900, the Straits Chinese British Association (SCBA) was formed to safeguard the elite position of the Straits Chinese in the face of the growing number of immigrants from China. However, it was a futile attempt as immigration from China increased dramatically due to immigration laws being relaxed to supply labour demanded by the tin, and later rubber, boom.

The rise of the new rich displaced the Baba in the sphere of economic importance. The new arrivals outnumbered the older settlers and eventually displaced the Peranakan politically as well. Due to the reduced role of its members in business, the Straits Chinese turned to education, particularly English education, as a means of survival and later they formed what Lynn Pan terms the "comprador class, working for European firms as brokers, clerks and cashiers."

Shortly before Independence, the Penang branch of the SCBA called for the secession of Penang from the Federation of Malaya. This apparent lack of confidence in Malaya is due to the Straits Chinese's traditional links with the British. It is perhaps impossible to deny that these businessmen were products of colonialism who found themselves left behind by the rising tide of history.

Attempts to rejuvenate the SCBA as a Peranakan association was further complicated by the separation of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965.

Many Peranakan leaders also saw the need for integration with other Chinese people in Malaysia and Tan Cheng Lock, for example, although a Baba, did not campaign as one. Instead, he saw himself as Chinese Malaysian first and eventually led the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA).

Today, the Peranakans are indistinguishable from their Chinese counterparts. This once apparent diversity among the Chinese is quickly disappearing with many today identifying the Chinese merely as either English or Chinese educated.

However, with the rise of a national policy and as Malaysia and her citizens become more mature, the Chinese now see themselves more as Malaysians rather than Chinese or Peranakan.

While the Straits Chinese have lost their raison d'etre for existing as a separate race, the new generation of Malaysian Chinese are perhaps beginning to realise that they are in the midst of integrating with this land.

Millennium Markers is a weekly series that looks at events and happenings that shaped Malaysia and the surrounding region over the last 1,000 years.

Next week: The Malaccan element in China's Taiping rebellion.

Pix: A Singaporean Baba wedding in the 1950s. The Nyonyas wore traditional dresses while the men were dressed in Western-style clothes. Photograph taken from `Raffles: The Story of Singapore.'

Notes: STF-Especially affected by the rapid changes of the 20th century were the Peranakans--or Straits Chinese or Babas, depending on which state they are from. As a testament to the disappearance of the Peranakans, NEIL KHOR JIN KEONG explores the origins and the influences of this hybrid race in modern Malaysia.

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