Baba Beginnings

by Hugh M. Lewis


The Babas of Malaysia commonly referred to themselves as Peranakan, and even though among Malays this may have had derogative connotations of "mixed" or impure blood, the Baba's were proud of their heritage and of their name. John Clammer notes that Peranakan "is the Malay designation for 'local-born people.'"(1980:3) According to Tan Giok-San who wrote the first comprehensive ethnography of the Peranakans of Indonesia, the word "peranakan" is derived from the Malayo-Indonesian root "anak," meaning child, with the prefix "per" and suffix "an", rendering the meaning "born of." (1963:pg. 11). In modern medical terminology, "peranakan" is the part of the female anatomy closely describing the uterus. (Wazir Jahan Karim, "Prelude to Madness: The Language of Emotion in Courtship and Early Marriage" in Emotions of Culture: A Malay Perspective, edited by Wazir Jahan Karim, 1990:49) "Malay midwives describe it as the place in the abdomen where 'the foetus clings' and the baby begins to grow. Hence it is closely associated with blood, semen and fertilization, in the sense that a foetus is recognized to develop from a clot of blood after fertilization takes place." (Ibid. pg. 49-50) Peranakan Indonesia or Peranakan Malaysia refers to "born of Indonesia" or "born of Malaysia" respectively. It came to have the euphemistic connotation of "mixed-blood" and was applied to any native-born who were of mixed descent--Arab Peranakan, Chinese Peranakan, Dutch Peranakan, Jawi Peranakan, etc. It seems as though the Chinese Peranakan, always a significant if not a preponderant minority, appropriated the term as their own.

The terms Baba and Nonya, or Nyonya or Nona, are often applied to the Peranakans, particularly of the Straits Settlements. These terms mean "Man" or "Mister" and "Woman" or "Mrs." or "Miss," and carry the connotation of "Gentleman" and "Lady." Again, according to Tan, Indonesian kin-terms used by elderly women, referring to the child's spouse, were sexually marked--"Babah mantu" (Daughter's husband) and "Njonja mantu" ("Son's wife" Tan Giok-lan, 1963:pg. 125). One can only speculate whether the terms Baba and Nonya became marked for those of mixed marriage between Chinese and Malayo-Indonesians, and thus appropriated by the Peranakans to refer to the male and female spouses of such marriages.

J. D. Vaughn, in his early work The Manners and Customs of the Chinese of the Straits Settlements (1879) traced the etymology of the word Baba as the a term used by Bengali descendents to designate European children, "and it is probable that the word was applied by the Indian convicts at Pinang to Chinese children and so came into general use." (Reprint, 1971: 2) R. J. Wilkinson held that Baba was a descriptive name for "European, Eurasian and Chinese males to distinguish them from men born in Europe and China," and a "Descriptive name applied to male Straits-born Chinese." (R. J. Wilkinson, A Malay-English Dictionary, 1959: 50) Kobayashi Shinsaku has speculated that Baba may have been a corruption of the Malay word for father, Bapa, employed as an honorific for the Peranakans of Java. (Kobayashi Shinsaku, Shina Minzoku no Kaigai Hatten Kakyo no Kenkyo, 1931:93) John Clammer cites speculation that "Baba" should be rendered as "ba-ba," indicating ignorance of Chinese language and customs. "If this is at all true, it would account for many Straits Chinese disliking the term when it is applied to them!" (1980, footnote, pg. 5) On the other hand, Png Poh-Seng notes that "In the heyday of Straits Chinese prestige and influence, it was an advantage to be a Baba, and it is not far-fetched to assume that all Straits-born Chinese then liked to be known as Babas." ("The Straits Chinese In Singapore" in The Journal of Southeast Asian History, 1969:pg. 97) Png Poh-Seng concurs with the early definition provided by the Rev. Carstairs Douglas, "as it is fairly certain from accounts of Sino-Malay marriages in Malacca that the term was introduced to describe the progeny of such mixed parentage." (Ibid. pg. 96)

Png Poh-Seng noted that "It was also not uncommon for families, especially local-born Tiechius, to name their sons Tua-ba..., Ji-ba..., San-ba..., Si-ba..., and their daughters Tua-nya..., Ji-nya..., San-nya..., and Si-nya..., in order of age." (Ibid. pg. 98)

My wife, a direct descendent of the Nyonyas from Penang, sometimes sings to our baby girl "Noni, noni keng, Ah pek jeep pang keng, pang keng mui bey key so, Ah pek long toe" (translated, it reads "Noni, noni keng, old man goes into the bedroom, forgot bedroom door is not locked, the old man pushes it down") I ask her what the terms "Noni, noni keng" stand for, and where she first learned it, and she says she doesn't know, it just rhymes with the rest of the song, and it is something she had been singing since she was a child.

Excessive ink spilt over the speculative etymology of such words as Baba and Nyonya and Peranakan is not mere equivocation, as it points up a fundamental dimension of ambiguity of such primary terms of reference. It has been an ambiguity that is carried over into the other apellations "Straits-Born" and "Straits Chinese" that are frequently used synonymously. The British Rev. Carstairs Douglas, in his dictionary of spoken Amoy Hokkien, notes that the term "Baba" carried over into the Hokkien language to refer to "a half-caste Chinese from the Straits." In the Straits, however, the term is applied to all Chinese born there, half-caste or not." (J. D. Vaughn, 1879:pg. 2) John Clammer again comments that "there was from a very early date a distinction between the Straits Chinese, who were culturally distinct, and the other immigrant Chinese in the Straits Settlements." (Ibid. pg. 4).

The fundamental ambiguity found in all three sets of terms, Peranakan, Baba and Nyonya, and Straits Chinese, is one of the implicit denotative/connotative significance of "local born/mixed-blood," respectively. Not all local born Chinese were "half-caste" or "half-breed" even though they may or may not have been called "peranakan", Baba, or Straits Chinese, and, at least for the Indonesian Peranakans, about three-quarters were of mixed parentage.

This ambiguity is essential to understanding the identity of the Peranakans and Babas, because they constituted an interstitial group situated somewhere between the Chinese and the Malayo-Indonesians, along two separate but convergent dimensions--racial and kinship identity, on the one hand, and, on the other, cultural identity. It was just this inbetweenness, so important in-group and individual reference, which became linguistically "marked" by such special appellatives and which could be used either euphemistically in a positive way to connote ethnic pride or dysphemistically in a derogative way to register cultural/racial inferiority. The connotation of "native" or local-born is more positively salient than the meaning of half-breed that carried a negative connotation.

Some of the earliest evidence for the Chinese in the Nanyang comes from archaeological sites in Java, Sumatra, and Borneo, including Chinese sepulchral pottery vessels, which date to the second and first centuries BC. "From these finds, De Flines inferred, no doubt correctly, that Chinese colonists or merchants must have lived in Indonesia as early as the Han period." (Victor Purcell, The Chinese in Southeast Asia, 1951: pg. 11)

There can be little doubt that the Chinese had been in Java for a long time. No doubt that in these long settled communities, Chinese took local wives and established families. There was in these Islamic societies a barrier to the local assimilation of the Chinese. It is apparent that the Chinese took wives from the lowest social classes, or slaves, from non-Islamic groups or the Balinese. The inferior status of these women precluded their capacity to culturally assimilate the offspring of these marriages "so decisively in favor of native culture as did Thai wives. Furthermore, if sons and daughters remained within the Chinese community, after a few generations, native-Chinese intermarriage would decline, as the Chinese community provided its own wives. We know that the first headmen or kapitans of the Chinese in seventeenth century Batavia had Balinese wives, but by the eighteenth century their successors were marrying daughters of other Chinese officers." (Mary F. Somers-Heidhues; Chinese Minorities in Southeast Asia, pg. 36-7)

Dutch policies legally prohibited intermarriage of the Chinese (1717) and their assimilation to native status. They were quartered off in their own colonies, required to wear typically Chinese dress and were not permitted freedom of movement outside of these except when in service of the Dutch interests. Later, in 1854, they were set into a separate, higher tax category. Later influx of Chinese Totoks, and especially Chinese women, even further discouraged assimilation and acculturation of this group, and even resulted in some degree of 'resinification' into the new Chinese communities.

It appears that the Peranakans of Java, and perhaps Baba communities of Malacca, became effectively stabilized sometime between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, as effectively closed and self-perpetuating communities which had their own cultural orientation. Coincidental with this period were Imperial Edicts beginning in the early eighteenth century and in effect until the early nineteenth century which effectively prevented further emigration from Southeastern China and which strongly discouraged the repatriation of those Chinese abroad, under penalty of punishment. It was then, during this period that the Chinese communities could no longer look back to China with the hope of some day returning to be buried there. This must have provided a strong incentive for these Chinese to reorient themselves to their local context, to effectively break off their ties to the homeland, and to cultivate a sense of a local cultural orientation which involved some degree of indigenous acculturation and assimilation. Once formed, these separate and isolated Chinese communities, with their peranakan cultural practices and orientation, remained effectively segregated up until their eventual disintegration and demise under the modern policies of the new Indonesian and Malay nationalisms.

The earliest evidence for Chinese communities in the Straits must be taken to date from eunuch Cheng Ho's founding of Malacca in 1408. It can be safely assumed that from the time of its founding, Chinese must have had a regular, if not continuous, residence there. It is likely that the earliest Chinese settlement had more of the character of a transient camp or a small trading colony than of a settled, internally organized community. "From the available Chinese, Malay and Portuguese sources, it seems certain that there was a Chinese trading community in the port-city of Malacca before the fall of the Sultanate in 1511. But whether these Chinese represented a permanent or a fluid society, that kept coming and going with the monsoons, is still uncertain. The size of the Chinese trading community was probably small and insignificant. However, it laid the foundation for the development of a permanent Chinese community in Malacca."(Yeh Hua Fen, Historical Guide of Malacca, 1936)

There is no uniform agreement on this score of the early Chinese settlement of Malacca. Victor Purcell is somewhat skeptical, having stated that permanent Chinese communities were not established of any significant size until the coming of the Europeans. It is apparent that Chinese had formed settlements in some of the port cities of Java prior to the European contact, and these perhaps constituted some of the earliest Chinese settlements in the Straits. Mention in the early Portuguese references is only of Chinese junks whose crew and traders remained on board. A Campon China is given on the map in Eredias history of Malacca, 1613, but this settlement is only of a very small size. The paucity of reference to the Chinese in the early Portuguese texts on Malacca may not be an indication of the lack of Chinese inhabitants there so much as an indication of the lack of Portuguese attention or interest in such details.

There is a story of Sultan Mansur Shah, from 1462, to whom the Emperor of China's daughter, Hong Li-po, was sent for their hand in marriage. The Emperor sent a fleet of one hundred "pilus" bearing 500 daughters of his paramantris as handmaidens to the Princess.

The well mentioned in this reference has long been the source of drinking water famous for its taste, and perhaps its curative properties as well, so much so that its waters have been transported to neighboring countries, as far as Sumatra, during times of drought and pestilence. The location of the later Bukit China, of the Princess Hung Li-po's dwelling, on this hill, and the digging of a well at its base, may have been, from the standpoint of Chinese Geomancy, a propitious place.

It seems likely that, sometime between Cheng Ho's first visit, in 1403, Alfonso d' Albuquerque's conquest of Malacca in 1511, and the Dutch conquest in 1641, Chinese sojournership at some point crossed the thin line to colonial settlement. Evidence of grave inscriptions at the Chinese cemetery, Bukit China, the oldest of which date to the sixteenth century, and the next set which date to the beginning of the Ching Dynasty in the 1644, have some bearing on the early Malacca Chinese. "One of them is that of the husband and wife of a certain Ng by surname...The tombstone of the right one shows that the dead was a Kapitan, surnamed Tay, while that of the left, the Kapitan Nya, or Lady Kapitan or the Kapitan's wife, probably a native woman...." (Yeh Hua Fen, Historical Guide of Malacca, 1936:pg. 79) The oldest family lineages of Malacca Chinese, the Tans, Tays and Li traditions, do not go back further than the first half of the seventeenth century. (Victor Purcell, "Chinese Settlement in Malacca. Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. XX, Part I, pg. 122-3)

The Dutch give reference to a Chinese community--"The 300 or 400 Chinese shopkeepers, craftsmen and farmers could be allowed to settle down at their own convenience, provided they cultivate the gardens within their territory. They can hire or occupy those empty houses that can be saved from collapse or destruction. The ruined gardens between the river Boekit Tjina and the southern suburbs should be lent to Netherlanders, Portuguese, Malaccans, and Chinese to be cultivated.... For these some 800 to 1,000 Chinese settlers would be very useful."(Justus Schouten, "Report of 1641 to the Dutch East India Company") The Dutch appointed "Kapitans China" to manage the Chinese community of Malacca, much as they did in Java and Batavia. "The Chinese living at Basar on the north of the city have their own Captain Notchin who lives on small merchandise." Thus we get the beginning of a succession of "at least" eleven Kapitans China. These were Hokkiens, and their descendants, who had fled the Manchus and who maintained strong loyalty to the old Ming Dynasty.

By 1678, Governor Balthasar Bort gave a census figure of 892 Chinese in Malacca out of a total of 4, 884 people. "The Chinese had 81 brick and 51 atap houses with 127 men, 140 women, 159 children, 93 male slaves, 137 female slaves, and 60 children of slaves inside the city limit."(Victor Purcell, 1947:pg. 124)

By 1750 the Chinese population was 2,161, dropping to 1,390 in 1760, which remained stable until the British occupation in 1795.

Most of the Hokkiens of this early period were merchants, but this community became joined by a large Hakka contingent of farmers who pioneered into the hinterlands and played an important role in the opening of the interior states. "The famous pioneer of Kuala Lumpur, Yap Ah Loi, a Fui-Chiu Hakka, was one of them..." (ibid. pg. 83)

With the onset of British rule in the Straits Settlements, the Chinese population increased greatly there. The British found the Chinese useful, and did not discourage the Chinese from developing the coolie system, or the "credit-ticket;" or "Kheh-tau" system, of immigrating indentured Chinese laborers in massive numbers. Within seven years of the British acquisition of Penang in 1786 and the founding of its fort there in their effort against the French, the Chinese population had increased to over three thousand. Sir Francis Light, the British Founder of Penang, encouraged the Chinese to immigrate there, "whom he held to be 'the only people of the East from whom a revenue may be raised without expense or extraordinary efforts of government.'" (T. Braddel, 'Notices of Penang", Journal of the Indian Archipelago, 1850:641)

The first Chinese to establish themselves in Penang came from a Chinese community in Kedah, and the first Kapitan China was a baba from there named Koh Lay Huan. He settled there as a merchant, planter and tax farmer, and maintained one family in Kedah and another in Penang. His son by his Penang wife accompanied Sir Stanford Raffles to Singapore in its opening in 1819.

The other most influential Chinese families were the Khoos and the Kohs, who were interrelated by marriage. The Khoo Kong Si is an old historical monument to be found in Penang today. My wife's father's family may have been descended from this lineage. "In the former days long-settled Chinese families in Kedah and Penang had intermarried with Malays, but with increased immigration from China from the middle of the nineteenth century, this mixed Chinese-Malay or Baba stock tried to marry pure-blooded Chinese." ("An Immigrant Society," pg. 10-11)

It seems apparent that some of the first Chinese there were also the Baba businessmen from Malacca, who rapidly took advantage of the opportunities that were the result of British colonization.

A similar pattern began in Singapore with its founding in 1819, at which time there were no Chinese present, but the Chinese population of which grew to several thousand within a year. "Many of the principal Chinese families of Malacca took part in the opening up and growth of Singapore and Penang, but continued to keep their families and the family houses in Malacca..." (Yeh Hua Fen, Historical Guide of Malacca, 1936: pg. 16) Thereafter, the Chinese population in the Straits Settlements grew steadily. "In 1840, 5,063 of them arrived, and by 1865, twenty-five years later, the number had increased threefold to 17,439." However, the formation of large and more permanent Chinese communities in Malaya did not take place until the 1880's when large-scale Chinese immigration began.

"The influx of Chinese immigrants by the thousands was mainly the result of the establishment of British political control over the Malay states after 1874. The economic development and the law and order brought about by the British served as a great stimulus to immigration, and hence the Chinese population in Singapore and Malaya increased substantially." (Yen Ching-Hwang; The Overseas Chinese and the 1911 Revolution, pg. 4)

A census figure for the Chinese of Singapore in 1848 lists 1,000 "Malacca Chinese" versus 9,000 Hokkiens, 19,000 Tiuchius, 6,000 Cantonese, 4,000 Hakkas and 700 Hainanese. (Siah U Chin; "The Chinese in Singapore", Journal of the Indian Archipelago, Vol. 11, 1848: pg. 290) An 1881 census recorded in Singapore 4,513 "Straits-born" men out of a total Chinese male population of 72,571, and 5,014 "Straits-born" women of a total of 14,195 Chinese females.

It is apparent that during this early era of British colonization, the Baba Chinese held an exclusive advantage over the new "singkeh" Chinese. Maurice Freedman wrote, "When Singapore was founded as a British settlement in 1819. Babas were among its first inhabitants, and they occupied throughout the nineteenth century a prominent position in local Chinese society, maintaining leadership within it by virtue of their commercial success and by absorbing ambitious immigrants from China into their ranks." ("Chinese Kinship and Marriage in Singapore" in The Journal of Southeast Asian History)

It is apparent that these Baba's also held a kind of monopoly over the institution of marriage among the Chinese of the Straits. "The Chinese who congregate here are a mixed mass from all parts: the unmarried ones among them are very numerous and the married ones very few.... upon a general calculation I should suppose there were about 2000 married Chinese."(Siah U Chin; "The Chinese In Singapore", ibid. pg. 284) The same author notes that the greatest number of married Chinese men are "found among the Malacca born Chinese next to them among the Hok-kien shop keepers, then the Tio-Chin.... As for common laborers and coolies and those who have no fixed employment very few among them get married." (Pg. 284)

It was apparent that the local orientation and settled state of the Baba communities in the Straits resulted in the need to establish and maintain a local system of marriage and kinship. With increasing immigration of Chinese into the Straits Settlements, this community soon became a minority of about 10 percent of the Chinese population in Singapore. Most of the Chinese born in the Straits Settlements during this era were Baba by birth.

Before the turn of the Twentieth century, very few Chinese women immigrated into the Straits, and the ratio of men to women in these communities was very unbalanced. "Originally the inhabitants of Malacca, the Babas later spread to the Malay States and other British settlements. With increased immigration, half-caste Sino-Malay; girls married immigrants from China as their fathers were reluctant to marry them to Malays, and their progeny would have less Malay and more Chinese blood. In time mixed parentage almost disappeared, but the descendants of the Sino-Malays continued to be known as Babas. Then by the time the Straits Settlements; came into being in 1826 there were few Babas who were actually Sino-Malays." (Png Poh-Seng, pg. 96-7)

With the turning of the 20th Century, the Straits Settlements are well established within a Nanyang network that extended across the Straits to include the Peranakan communities of Java, as well as hinterland communities in the interior states of Malaya. Penang, Malacca and Singapore had all developed into Baba communities along divergent lines--those of Penang being more Chinese, the Malacca more traditionally Sino-Malay, and the Singaporeans, more strongly oriented towards the English due to the role of English in education, modernization, urbanization and development.

The Twentieth century brought with it a basic change in the status and position of the Baba and Peranakan communities of the Straits. Modernization, the importation of Western-styled nationalisms in the form of new political parties and movements, both in China, in many Southeast Asian nations, as well as in the Nanyang, tended to increasingly exclude the participation of the traditionally and colonial Babas. The Babas lacked the socio-political organization of their Chinese cousins, and came into increasing competition with these organizations. This lack of internal organization had its advantages for entrepreneurship and acculturation to the British colonial system, but it had critical disadvantages in the lack of mutual support, political-economic mobilization and organization, etc.

The Baba's tended to lack the political conscience which begun to spring up among both the indigenous Malays and the singkeh and "Totok" communities, having defined their identity primarily in relation to the British administrative authority. Indeed, in many occasions, their self-professed loyalty to the Queen was more British than the British.

Thus the beginning of the Twentieth century marked the beginning of the end of the traditional Baba way of life. Baba culture continued to sustain itself as a community, but with increasing adversity and difficulty. It is likely that socially and culturally it became increasingly atomized and disintegrated, becoming a kind of home-bound family orientation which had less and less to do with the changing outside world. They persisted with what became increasingly ethnocentric, snobbish airs of cultural superiority based upon their predecessorial claims, but this was in the face of decreasing relevance and credibility within a modernizing world.

Invasion by the Japanese marked the end of Baba supremacy in the Straits Settlements. Many Baba leaders were executed by the Japanese. After the war, the Baba community retained much of its wealth, but lost most of its privilege. In Singapore, they were effectively absorbed by the larger Chinese component, and "The result of these processes was to make the Singapore Babas less easily distinguishable--especially from the English-educated Chinese who not only abound but are on the increase." (Clammer, ibid. pg. 8) In Malaysia, the Straits Chinese developed their own political associations, later known as the "Peranakan Association," from about 1900. In Indonesia, the Peranakans were relatively late in forming their own political organizations, remaining politically disinterested and neutral as long as possible, until increasing discrimination encouraged the formation of "Baperki" in the late 1950's.

In Penang, Straits Chinese leaders began the Penang Secession movement which lasted from 1948-1951, and which was defeated by the joint efforts of the British and Malay parties. The failure of this movement sealed the fate of the Penang Straits Chinese to determine their own political, economic and social future in relation to the newly emerging nation of Malaysia.

Since the independence period of Malaysia and Indonesia, the Babas and Peranakans have been considered a dying breed and a cultural anachronism of a bygone colonial era. Peranakan status in Indonesia, subsequent to the riots and political upheavals and anti-communist reaction of 1963 and 1965-6, has declined as a segregated community, and the Peranakans seem to have undergone systematic 'ethnocide.'

In post-independence Singapore, the Peranakan community was resinified and became increasingly modernized and westernized. Singapore national culture effectively absorbed its Baba basis, using its western orientation as a basic cultural model for its modernization. In the process Baba culture in Singapore has become a thing of the past without much relevance to a nation preoccupied with modern development.

Old Chinese sections of the city, a nostalgic reminder of the Chinese colonial past, have been nearly completely razed to make room for modern business buildings, malls and tenement flats. In modernizing Malaysia, the Chinese community in general, including the Babas, has been on one hand effectively segregated through structural and social discrimination, and has endured under policies designed to enforce cultural assimilation to the Malay national culture that remains traditionally Muslim in orientation.

The Babas of Malacca have been more or less symbolically appropriated as an anachronistic model of Sino-Malay cultural assimilation. The Babas of Penang and elsewhere have seen their community basically split apart. Some were reabsorbed by Hokkien and Tieu Chiu Chinese communities, others more inclined to the English language and British culture, being left furthest out on the limb, with many who could afford the cost migrating to the Common Wealth countries.

Ethnic revitalization can only happen in a dominant society that honors its cultural heritage and traditions, and yet this can prove to be almost as ethno-historically revisionist as a society that seeks to hide or erase its past. Past cultural forms and models can be adopted by an emerging middle and upper-middle class that were defined by its standardized national cultural orientation as almost a kind of national mythology and as a form of elaborate play that mediates the new and old in the transformations of the past into the present. As an intermediate, somewhat transitional cultural model, Sino-Malay Baba culture can and has been appropriated by both Singaporean and Malay societies to legitimate a larger range of national cultural interests--different elements of the original culture have been highlighted and emphasized, and other, contradictory aspects, conveniently ignored or even forgotten.

"The Baba is thus faced with a terribly difficult identity problem--he has a culture, but one for which the sustaining conditions have vanished; yet he is encouraged to think of his culture as an important contribution to the Singapore ethnographic scene. Indeed, I have even heard it said that the Baba culture is the only 'true' Singaporean culture. Mutiracialism as a policy may well therefore have the (presumably unintended) consequence of artificially supporting minority cultures which in the normal course of events would probably pass naturally away." (John Clammer, 1980:139) Yet the contradiction was not a part of the original culture, but a part of the current conflict of competing identities, interests and trajectories.


Peranakan Ethnoculture: An Introduction to the Straits Chinese


Hugh M. Lewis

Blanket Copyright, Hugh M. Lewis, 2005. Use of this text governed by fair use policy--permission to make copies of this text is granted for purposes of research and non-profit instruction only.

Last Updated: 03/17/05