Monday, June 14, 2010

Baba Nyonya facing culture blood extinction


At first I wasn't sure what exactly is Baba Nyonya. Like what most of the people will asked "are Baba Nyonya muslims?" or "do they eat pork?" or "are they malay?". Well, actually Baba Nyonyas or Peranakan are Straits Chinese people that are born and live in the Strait Settlements of Malacca, Penang and also Singapure during the 15th and 16th centuries. They had been practicing or have partically or fully adopted Malay culture into their lifestlye, in an effort to be assimilated into the local communities.

In Malay and Indonesian, the word "Peranakan" means "descendants". Baba refers to the male descendants and Nyonyas refers to the female. The word "Nyonya" (also commonly spelled as nonya)
is a Javanese loan honorific word from Dutch Nona(grandma) meaning: foreign married Madam. As for the word "Baba" is a Persian loan-word borrowed by Malaysian as an honorific solely for grandparents; it was used to refer to the Straits-Chinese males. The term originated from Hindustani speakers such as vendors and traders and become part of common vernacular.

What is interesting about Baba Nyonya is their intermarriage. It is between the early Chinese settlers and local Malay has created a unique culture which is not commonly seen. Local Malay? Aren't they muslims? again most of the people asked when come to talking about the intermarriage. Well, they aren't muslims at all. They actually involve pork in their lifestyle. And they still preserve their traditional Chinese ceremony very well until today. This is because, during the 15 and 16 centuries, the local Malays are mostly from Indonesia. Besides that Straits Chinese no longer speak the dialect of their ancestors but a language of their own known as Baba Malay a Malay patois consists of many Hokkien words.

In the dressing side, the women will normally wear traditional Malay costumes like the "Baju Kebaya". It is a form of blouse woven with silk. Foot-binding, a practice carried over from China. Their clothing also include baju panjang(long dress), batik sarung(batik wrap-around skirt) and kerongsang(borooch). Kasut Manek are beaded slippers that are hand-made with tiny faceted glass beads from Bohemia. Its design often have European floral subjects, with colors influenced by Peranakan porcelain and batik sarongs. They were made onto flats or bedroom slippers. But heels were added as it became modern and popular during the 1930s.

So what I want to find out here is, why?how?because of what? Baba Nyonya culture is disappearing?
After going through some diggings for the answer of these questions. These is what I dug out.



Without colonial British support
Financially, Baba Nyonya were better than Chinese born Chinese. Their family wealth and connections enabled them to form a Straits-Chinese elite, whose loyalty was strictly to Britain or the Netherlands. Due to their strict loyalty they did not support Malaysian nor Indonesian Independence, at first.

By the middle of the twentieth century, most Peranakan were English or Dutch-educated, during the Western colonization of Malaya and Indonesia, Peranakans readily embraced English culture and education as a means to advance economically thus administrative and civil service posts were often filled by prominent Straits Chinese. Many in the community chose to convert to Christianity due to its perceived prestige and proximity to the preferred company of British and Dutch. The Peranakan community thereby became very influential in Malacca and Singapure and were known also as the Kings Chinese due to their loyalty to the British Crown. Because of their interaction with different cultures and languages, most Peranakans were (and still are) trilingual, being able to converse in Chinese, Malay, and English. Common vocations were as merchants, traders, and general intermediaries between China, Malaya and the West; the latter were especially valued by the British and Dutch.

But things started to change later on. In the first half of 20th century, some Peranakans started to support Malaysian and Indonesian Independence. It is good to see that the Peranakans finally started to support to their own country. But sadly, without colonial British support for their perceived racial neutrality, government policies in both Indonesia and Malaysia following independence from the British have resulted in the assimilation of Peranakans back into mainstream Chinese culture. In Singapore, Peranakans are classified as Chinese, so they receive formal instruction in Mandarin Chinese as their second language instead of Malay. But for Malaysia, the main language, Bahasa Melayu had been standardize and required for all ethnic groups. This led to the disappearance of the Baba Malay.



Modernization and socialization with other groups
Some factors that led to the decline of Baba culture were the gradual geographical dispersion of the Babas, modernization and socialization with other groups. Dispersion from the traditional bastions of Peranakan culture led to diffusion of its cultural characteristics. It was in Malacca that Baba society had its deepest roots. The culture was then exported to Penang and Singapore from the main roots of Melaka. The Babas gradually became more scattered throughout Malaya and the Southeast Asia region, and with socialization with other groups taking place, they soon lost much of their distinctiveness and exclusiveness.
Khoo Kay Kim believes
that the large-scale immigration of Chinese into Malaya in the late 19th century contributed to the disintegration of the Baba culture (Lee Su Kim 1978). Intermarriage took place between Straits Chinese and non-Straits Chinese, leading to a dilution of Nyonya culture.



Customs, rituals and language
Because of the modernization and the introduction of Western ideas, the clannishness of the Babas gradually eroded and family ties became weak. During the zenith of Peranakan culture, it was common to find three generations living as a huge extended family under the same roof. Customs and ritual were less practiced and language is transmitted less from one generations to another, because it is under preassure from languages like English and with the independence, Malay. Now a days, some Peranakan families send their children to Mandarin schools. In the past, Straits Chinese actually tend to look down on Chinese
(collectively referred to as Tjina or Tiong hua). From Vaughan's observation between the Strait Chinese and the Sinkhek, which are Chinese that come in the late 19 century, he found out that, Strait Chinese claim themselves as British subject or "orang putih", a white man when they are being asked if they were Chinamen.


The changing role of the Nyonyas
In the past, the Nyonya was brought up solely to be a good daughter, wife and mother. Most of the marriage of Baba Nyonyas in those days were arranged. Nyonyas received little educations, because it was feared that too much education would make them "bebas", too free and wild. A good Nyonya has excellent culinary skills, able to sew and manage household well and as a good wife and mother. And also expected to be virtuous, senonoh (gentle and ladylike in behaviour), respectful of her elders and come from a good family.
During the British colonial, more Nyonyas received education in English-medium schools. Their lifestyle eventually became more liberated from their former constained lifestyle. Because of this, it led to the situation that Nyonyas does not know how to observe their cultural heritage. Most of the modern Nyonyas do not know how to cook traditional Peranakan dishes, couldn't pass on the language to their children, do not observe the demanding rituals and customs and prefer to wear modern cloths instead of the traditional costume, except on special occasions.



World War 2
During the depression of the 1930s and the Japanese Occupation, another blow to Peranakan culture was formed. At their cultural apex, the Babas and Nyonyas were a very wealthy, powerful and elitist group, many wielded tremendous influence in commerce, economics and politics. But alot of the material wealth and prestige of Babas was lost during the World War 2. The culture and lifestyle of the Babas went into serious and irreversible decline after the Japanese invasion during the 1942. The Babas and Nyonyas are sociological phenomenon that occured because of British colonization and cannot be understood outside of the context of the essentially urban and colonial society of Straits Settlements.
The political framework of the Straits Settlements enabled this remarkable culture
to emerge, although of course they existed before colonization (Clammer 1980). Likewise, with the disappearance of this same supportive framework after the Second World War, the culture began to wither.




The passing of the colonial regime
The feeling of isolated, unable to represent themselves as fully Chinese for numerous cultural
and linguistic reasons and yet, not able to be assimilated into Malay culture, since religion was a barrier. In the past, Chinese marry to Malays was possible and without any conversion to Islam. But in the present day of Malaysia, it is a hard decision to decide. Besides that, Islam is so linked to Malay ethincity that the Baba Chinese, whether they are Baba or non-Baba, regard it as being not Chinese to embrace Islam.
Thus, as Clammer states, the Straits Chinese have been caught on the horns of their own cultural dilemma (1980). Since they feel more aligned to the Chinese ethnically, and in many respects socially and religiously, it is to the Chinese community of Malaysian society that the Babas and Nyonyas have had to look to for some sense of political and social shelter and belonging. In other words, some sort of “resinification” has taken place where the Babas have had to increasingly identify themselves with the larger Malaysian Chinese community.

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