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Why the Baba-Nonya community is a distinctively Singaporean one

Ms Alvona Loh recently wrote a column titled “Gen Y Speaks: Am I Peranakan or Not?”

Why the Baba-Nonya community is a distinctively Singaporean one

A Baba/Nonya wedding in 1930.

Ms Alvona Loh recently wrote a column titled “Gen Y Speaks: Am I Peranakan or Not?” 

This was prompted by the publicity for Mediacorp’s drama “This Land is Mine” (a loose adaptation of my book "The Devil's Circle", the fourth novel in "The Advocate's Devil" quartet), the first part of which was telecast on National Day, as well as Ms Loh’s recent discovery that she has an ancestor who was a Nonya. 

My family has been part of the Baba/Nonya community for seven generations and our experience suggests that many young Singaporeans are only vaguely aware of this community.

The Baba/Nonya culture is unique among the cultures of Singaporeans. It is distinctly different from the source cultures of China and Indonesia.  

It is found nowhere else in the world, save in the former Straits Settlements of Malacca and Penang — even then, they have grown apart after more than 75 years of separate development.  

If we are looking for a candidate for inclusion in the Unesco Cultural Heritage list, Singaporean Baba/Nonya culture would be a natural choice. 

The Baba/Nonya community has existed in Singapore from the time of Stamford Raffles and even before.  

For example, Cheang Hong Lim (my grandmother’s grandfather after whom Hong Lim Green is named) was born in Singapore in the first half of the 19th century.

Many old Baba families trace their lineage even further back, as there were Chinese communities in Penang and Malacca — and even Singapore, since a significant port existed here before the advent of Raffles in 1819, despite common misconceptions and British propaganda.  

Historically, a Mongol-led Chinese army invaded Java in the 13th century. They failed in this military endeavour and it is likely that many of the survivors would have remained in the region rather than return to distant China.

There are Indonesian genes among the old Baba families. This should not be surprising, as the original Babas inter-married with women from what is now Indonesia.  

This also would explain why Bahasa Baba is closer to Bahasa Indonesia than to Bahasa Melayu. The Nonyas in particular dressed in the Indonesian style, with the baju panjang and later the kebaya. 

However, the Babas retained their ancestral religion, which was essentially Chinese and centred around ancestor worship. Customs were freely borrowed from both cultures — for example the eating of sireh (betel nut) and the design of jewellery from Indonesia, and marriage rites from China, though even then some Indonesian elements were incorporated.

Some time in the 1970s or 1980s (it is hard to pin-point exactly when) the term "Peranakan" was inflicted on the community. 

This neologism is Indonesian and means ‘locally-born’. 

The Babas were the King’s Chinese. Under the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1914 anyone born in a British colony was a British subject.  

The Babas of the Straits Settlements (Singapore, Malacca and Penang) clearly were British subjects and generally proud of their status, as contrasted to the Chinese who owed their allegiance and kept their cultural links to China.  

However, it should be noted that there were Chinese people born in the Straits Settlements who were not part of the Baba/Nonya community, especially after the Qing Dynasty was overthrown.  

The locally-born children of more-recent Chinese immigrants did not assimilate into the old-established Baba/Nonya community.  

This is why the label “Peranakan” is a misnomer when used as a synonym for “Baba” or “Nonya”. Being Baba or Nonya is a matter of cultural identification, not race.

It is perhaps hard for Singaporeans today to imagine a society in which most of the inhabitants did not identify with Singapore.  

At the top of the colonial social pyramid were the Europeans who thought of Britain as their home.  

They sent their children back to England for education. Few thought of settling here.  

The majority of the Chinese also didn’t consider Singapore their home.  

When the victory parade marking the Japanese surrender in Singapore was held in September 1945 the Chinese waved the flags of Nationalist China.  

There was no “Indian” community as such, just a group of different communities which hailed from the Indian sub-continent.  

It suited the colonial authorities to keep the communities apart, to stop them uniting to press for independence as Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress Party did in India.

At the end of World War II, when the first stirrings were felt of the winds of change which would blow away the Empire, the British tried to unify Malaya in a Malayan Union.  

Singapore was detached as a separate Crown Colony. There was no Malayan identity, since the colonialists felt safer when the different races were kept apart and in a state of mutual suspicion.  

The Malayan Union died unmourned and was replaced by the Federation of Malaya in 1948. But the effect on the Baba community was significant.  

The Singapore Babas were sundered from their kin in Malacca and Penang. The British of course did nothing to create a separate Singaporean identity. It did not suit their purposes to do so.

The author's wife (in white) with guests at a Nonya tea at the Singapore Ambassador's Residence in Brussels, where the author was serving as Singapore's envoy. Photo courtesy of Walter Woon.

After Singapore’s separation from the rest of the Straits Settlements in 1946, three factors contributed to the decline of the Baba community.  

Firstly, emancipation of the womenfolk.  

Baba culture was passed down from mother to daughter. A young Nonya was brought up to be a good wife and home-maker, ready to be married off to a suitable boy.  

When the Nonyas became educated, they had neither the time nor the inclination to sit passively looking after the home.  

Nonya cuisine, when done properly, is very labour intensive and time-consuming. Easier to buy food back or eat out.

Secondly, the increasing use of English and later Mandarin.  

The Baba/Nonya community spoke their own dialect. This is often referred to as “Baba Malay”. Again, this is inaccurate.  

Bahasa Baba is a creole of Hokkien and Indonesian. It is closer to Bahasa Indonesia than to Bahasa Melayu. Listen to the way Babas speak — the pronunciation is Indonesian.  

The vocabulary is also Indonesian. Once English and Mandarin became the norm, only the older folks spoke Bahasa Baba.  

This has been the fate of many dialects around the world.  

Bahasa Baba has only been kept alive by the efforts of groups like the Gunong Sayang Association (GSA), which put on an annual play until the pandemic put paid to that.  

This year the GSA has uploaded to YouTube a performance from 2013, “Tanda Mata Mak” (Heirloom).

The third factor is cultural dilution. It is very hard nowadays to find a pure Baba or Nonya.  

Most people who identify as such usually have one parent from outside the community. Even within a family, some siblings may retain their Baba/Nonya heritage while others have given it up.  

This underlines the fact that being Baba/Nonya is a matter of cultural choice and not of genetics.

Politics also played an important part.  

It was impossible to get elected without appealing to the wider Chinese community and not just the Babas.  

Many leading Babas like Lee Kuan Yew played down their Baba heritage. 

But of late there appears to be a resurgence of interest in Baba/Nonya culture. 

When I was Singapore’s ambassador based in Bonn, Berlin and Brussels we used to entertain at the Singapore Residence.  

My wife made it a point to serve Nonya cuisine and highlight Baba culture, precisely because it was distinctively Singaporean. Our guests appreciated this.

There are pragmatic reasons for encouraging the preservation of Baba culture.  

To the British, the Babas and Nonyas were lumped together with the Chinese.  

They were assigned dialect affiliations which were alien to them. 

The fact is that the Babas were more comfortable both culturally and linguistically with Malays and Indonesians. They were a bridge between the races.  

Singapore is surrounded by Malaysia and Indonesia. We need people who can communicate with our neighbours and understand their cultures.

Singaporeans are generally unaware of all this, except superficially through the cuisine. It would be good if schools could educate the young about this distinctively Singaporean culture.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Professor Walter Woon is David Marshall Professor of Law at the National University of Singapore and Patron of the Gunong Sayang Association. He was formerly Singapore’s Attorney-General, ambassador to Germany and the European Union as well as a Nominated Member of Parliament.

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Peranakan Baba Nonya Singapore culture

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