An Updated Classic to Remind Us of Malaysia's Cultural Splendour

By Marc de Faoite

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THE BABA OF Melaka: Culture and Identity of a Chinese Peranakan Community in Malaysia is an updated edition of a book originally published in 1988, written by Malaysian anthropologist and ethnologist Tan Chee-Beng. The research carried out for this book dates back yet another decade to the late 1970s. Without the original for reference, it is impossible to compare and fully measure the impact of any subsequent revisions, beyond the addition of a new foreword. But far from being a downside, the fact that the majority of the material here is more than 40 years old, is in this case one of the pluses of this erudite work.

Culture doesn't live in a bubble, especially one as relatively marginal as Melaka's Baba culture. To say that the world has changed in the intervening decades is something of an understatement. The informants who were grandparents in the original edition have gone, taking a slice of history with them, while many of those who were just children when Tan carried out his initial fieldwork are now grandparents themselves. As he points out in his introduction, even the physical landscape has changed.

We can see through this re-edition that when the work of the ethnologist is recontextualised through the simple passage of years, the writer's role in documenting the world overlaps that of a historian. Again, the extent of any revisions to the original is unclear, but certainly the author having witnessed his chosen topic evolve and change over time, while still being in touch with the roots and historical context, has access to a broader perspective than a younger writer might have, were they to choose to approach the same subject anew today.

But what is a Baba? Where did they come from? What makes them unique? Most Malaysian readers, or readers familiar with Malaysia, may have their own preconceptions and assumptions about the Baba people. Some of these assumptions may be well-founded, but Tan paints a nuanced picture, though there are the familiar broad strokes that can be used to characterise the Baba, such as a syncretic culinary tradition that embraces local ingredients, or the way the women – known as Nyonya – dress, or dressed, in a style more typically Malay than Chinese, even if today that comparison is no longer quite as relevant, given the changing fashions and religious influences of the years since Tan did his fieldwork.

For some people, the label "Baba" is simply a synonym for "Peranakan", while for others it is the equivalent of "Straits Chinese". In some contexts, all three terms are even used interchangeably. Tan explains that these equivocations are not always entirely accurate, but nor are they entirely false. What it means to be Baba has shifted over time, and even the Baba themselves have historically been known to use the designation inconsistently.

Fitting In

Long settled in Peninsular Malaya – or indeed perhaps the greater Nusantara, which is another avenue the author briefly explores – the Baba became useful interlocutors for British traders. This led to many Baba learning English, even in some cases adopting it as their language of choice, while others spoke, and still speak, a variety of Malay that can sound dated to ears more used to modern standardised Malay. Even during the time Tan did his original research, his local Baba informants gently made fun of his school-learned Malay, though over time he learned enough of the intricacies and vernacular colloquialisms of this unique version of Malay to leave listeners unsure as to whether he himself was actually a Baba.

Writing about the origins of Melaka's Baba, Tan distinguishes between acculturation and assimilation, pointing out that while the early Baba were strongly influenced by the local Malay customs, and even adopted many of them, they continued to maintain a separate Chinese identity. Though Chinese who arrived later in the region initially saw these Malay-speaking, sarong-wearing Baba as assimilated and almost indistinguishable from the Malay, neither the Baba nor the Malay perceived the Baba in this way.

One of the themes running through this book is the repeated waves of immigration into the region, not just from China, but elsewhere, though more emphasis is placed on those who could trace their origins, at least partially, back to China. While some Baba adopted English, when an increasing number of Chinese immigrants poured into the region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, others felt the pressure to adapt by learning Chinese dialects (though Tan favours the term "Chinese speech groups"), sometimes for the first time in generations.

Hokkien was the dialect seen as most useful, since it was spoken by many of the newly arrived Chinese, but the dialects of other Chinese speech groups were sometimes adopted as well. Of the English-speaking Baba, a number found it advantageous to move to Singapore with the British as that Island started to become economically important. This had the effect of reducing and further diluting the number of Baba in Melaka, who eventually found themselves outnumbered and in turn, influenced by the new arrivals from mainland China's southern provinces.

It also altered and even split the broader Baba identity. Today, Singapore's Baba population is predominately Christian, while those in Melaka largely favour traditional Chinese beliefs and practices. There are Christian Baba in Melaka too, some descended from those returned from Singapore, with whom they had always maintained close ties, both familial and for trading.

Fast-forward to the present day, the number of Baba families and businesses in Melaka's Heeren Street area is a fraction of what it was in the past, and economically many Baba families have lost the upper hand that they once historically held.

Settling Down

Originally, intermarriage with the Malay was a given, since few if any Chinese women made the trip from China, or indeed were allowed to make the trip, even if they wanted to. While this pattern of Chinese men marrying Malay women is at the origin of the Baba identity, today a marriage of this nature would imply that the Chinese man would convert to Islam, whereas almost the opposite was true for the early Baba. Instead, the Malay woman would keep her mode of dress, and cook using local ingredients, while adopting Chinese customs in other aspects of her life. The children would be brought up as Chinese, immersed in Chinese practices, mingled with the Malay mother's language and other cultural attributes. But rarely would these progeniture, particularly the girls, further intermarry with Malays. As generations went on, Nyonya women either married Baba men or newly arrived Chinese immigrants.

When women were finally allowed to immigrate from China, they in turn became favoured brides of Baba men, in addition to the Nyonya women, with whom they were culturally closer. But sometimes, given the nature of small communities and generations of intermarriage between a relatively small number of families, some potential partners may have been too closely related to make a Nyonya woman the first choice of bride.

In this way, over time, a culture that started as a mix of Chinese and Malay became increasingly Chinese through intermarriage. This in turn was further bolstered by changes in Malaysian society, particularly in recent decades with the administrative and religious obligations that come with certain inter-faith marriages.

The book delves into many subjects, including the geographic distribution of the Baba community, the traditional layout of houses, the traditional dress, and other varied topics. There are many maps and illustrations that break up the copious text and give this volume an added dimension. It is one thing to read about a people and their customs, but seeing actual photographs of people, places and artefacts gives the written material another layer of immediacy and vibrancy.

This deep-dive into one of a multitude of Malaysian identities is a reminder that being Malaysian is not to have a monolithic identity, but one that embraces and includes countless diverse facets, aspects, nuances and influences. In sum, this book is a fascinating and meticulously researched and referenced exploration of a unique aspect of cultural wealth and heritage, underlining how important it is to cherish and preserve this unique patrimony.

Marc de Faoite

is a freelance writer and editor based in Penang. Originally from Dublin, he has lived in Malaysia since 2007. @marcdefaoite