Origins and Definitions by Lee Su Kim

1 January 2018

The evolution of this unique ethnic group dates as far back as 500 to 600 years ago when Chinese traders arrived in parts of the Malay Peninsula, the nucleus of which was Malacca, the center of the Malacca Sultanate. The Chinese men did not bring their women folk along, and many intermarried with the local women. The acute shortage of Chinese women accounted for the frequent intermarriages between the early Chinese and the local women. Intermarriage between the Babas and the Malays eventually ceased, and for hundreds of years past, the Babas have married exclusively amongst their own peoples becoming an endogamous and elite group. Today, it is found distributed throughout Malaysia and Singapore with its strongholds in Malacca, Singapore and Penang. There exists some confusion of terminology. Three terms are commonly used interchangeably to describe this community – the Peranakan, the Straits Chinese, and the Babas and Nyonyas. The word Peranakan is derived from the Malay word ‘anak’ which means ‘child’. The term refers to local-borns as well as the offspring of foreigner-native union. Frank Swettenham explains that the term Baba is used for Straits born males, whether the children of English, Chinese or Eurasian parents and is of Hindustani origin (Tan, 1988). Baba is the term for the male and Nyonya for the female. The word Baba may be derived from the word bapa which means father in Malay. Some historians think that it is an honorific and the equivalent for a tuan or a towkay. The word Nyonya is said to have originated from Java.

The Straits Chinese regarded the Straits Settlements as their homeland and while maintaining a basically Chinese identity, gradually abandoned the close links of kinship, sentiment, political allegiance and financial remittances to China so characteristic of the non-Baba Chinese ( Clammer, 1980).A clear distinction must be made between the Straits Chinese and the Straits-born Chinese. To be defined as a Straits Chinese, he or she would have to adopt the exterior markers of a Baba or Nyonya, in language, customs, kinship, dress, food and even occupation.

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