A Straits-born people and language

by on September 1, 2015

Just the other day at the local wet market, also known as the pasar or pasair to the Peranakans (the latter if you were trying to sound particularly refined), a curious vegetable seller asked if I was Chinese, and what dialect group I belonged to. I am conscious that I am not about to win a pageant for Miss Chinatown any day.

“I am Peranakan, aunty. Nyonya. Baba. Straits-born Chinese. We speak Baba Malay.”

Aunty nodded her head, but not quite convincingly. It is interesting, sad, and possibly a sign of the times that even the local Singaporeans do not seem to know very much about the Peranakans, much less the language that we speak.

To understand the Peranakan people and language, it is necessary to travel 600 years back in time. The Chinese began settling parts of South East Asia as early as the 15th century. This estimated period of settlement is closely associated with the travels of the well-known Chinese admiral Zheng He undefined, who led trading exchanges in the South China Sea, Java Sea, and Malacca Strait between 1405 to 1433 (Wade 1994; Wang 1964). After Zheng He’s death in 1433, Fei Hsin, a scholar who had been on the admiral’s ship, wrote in Hsing-ch’a sheng-lan ‘The Overseas Survey of the Star Raft’ that besides darker-skinned people, he had also seen fairer-looking people of Chinese descent in Malacca (Fei 1436). A century later, in 1537, a Chinese traveller by the name Hwang Chung, wrote in his travel journal, Hai yu ‘News from the Ocean’, that the Chinese in Malacca ate pork, lived in hotels, and had female slaves who served them food and drink (Groeneveldt 1880).

These narratives complement historical accounts that most Chinese men who had come to trade in Malacca did not return to China. As it would have been rare for women to make similar voyages out of China (Skinner 1996), many of these Hokkien-speaking men, who mostly originated from the Zhangzhou and Quanzhou regions in Fujian province married indigenous Malay-speaking women. Some were also said to have possibly married slaves of Batak, Balinese, and Javanese origin (Purcell 1980). While the identities of these females remain a contentious topic, a new community was formed undoubtedly. Descendants of this community are referred to as “Straits-born Chinese” or Peranakan undefined. Males are called Baba, and females are Nyonya. The home language is also referred to as Peranakan, although researchers (including myself) use the term Baba Malay undefined.

My mamah angkat ‘god-grandmother’ tells me that Baba Malay is a misnomer. “Chilaka! undefined Bukan orang jantan undefined sahja mia!” she says. Literally translated, it means that the language does not only belong to the men. Putting aside mamah’s indignation at being told she’s speaking the men’s language, it is true that the term Peranakan may be more befitting of the language. Peranakan appears to be composed of a person prefix, per- (or a possessive prefix ber-), the word for child, anak, and a nominaliser, –an. As a single word, Peranakan denotes ‘descendants’ and also ‘a mother’s womb’—the emphasis on the notion of being locally-born in the Straits is unmistakable. The term Peranakan is apt then, not just for the community, but also for a language rooted so much in Straits history and culture. At this juncture, it is important to note that Peranakan was also used in the region to indicate a person born of a Malay mother and a foreign father, as with the Peranakan Yahudi (locally-born Jews) and the Peranakan Jawi (locally-born Malay-speaking Muslims of Malay and non-Malay ancestry, such as Arab and South Asian); the term is also contested by other communities, such as the Indonesian Peranakans, the Thai Peranakans, and the Chitty Peranakans (who originated from South India). In actuality, the term Peranakan evokes a much larger, more complex tale, but for now, we focus our attention on the narrative of the Singapore Peranakan.

So, if Malacca was the locus of origin, how did the Peranakans get into the whole Singapore story? There are two commonly-touted accounts of how Peranakans like my gong-cho ‘ancestors’ ended up in Singapore, and there is most probably some semblance of truth in both. One account points to the fact that while Malacca flourished as a trading port under the Portuguese rule between 1511 and 1641, it was not as successful under the Dutch rule between 1641 and 1825. The Dutch preferred to use Batavia (present day Jakarta) as their primary centre of economic activities, and were said to have occupied Malacca only because it would prevent other European powers from occupying it (De Witt 2008).

With that, a number of Peranakans moved to Penang undefined and Singapore, then upcoming and leading ports of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. My em-po ‘grandaunt’ gives me a different version of things—while the Peranakans conventionally practised ancestral worship, some were influenced by the colonisers and had converted to Catholicism. Many of these Peranakans then came to Singapore as a means of avoiding the demands of their traditional elders to upkeep their ancestral altars and halls. Whichever way the story did indeed go, we got to Singapore.

There was a period of time that could be considered the ‘golden age’ for the Peranakans. They did well as plantation owners and businessmen. Their culture and language prospered. The Peranakans were among the first to embrace the English language (Lim 2010). Peranakan men were employed as middlemen who mediated between the migrants and the English colonial administrators. Proud of their involvement with the British, they called themselves “the King’s Chinese” (Hardwick 2008) and eventually set up the Straits Chinese British Association in the 1900, which is today the Peranakan Association of Singapore. While the Peranakans did indeed gravitate towards a Western way-of-life, it is important to note that they never fully assimilated culturally. Instead, the Peranakan way was and is a curious amalgam of Chinese, local and Western customs.

Baba Peter Wee, proprietor of the Katong Antique House and current president of the Peranakan Association Singapore, provides my favorite analogy: We Peranakans love our iték tim ‘double boiled duck soup’. To understand what makes the dish tick for us, we have to think about what goes into the soup. The iték tim’s chief ingredient is the duck, but its unique flavor is attributed to its condiments, which comprises kiamchai, Chinese preserved vegetables, asam gugol, the Southeast Asian dried tamarind skin, and Western brandy, among other ingredients. A condiment from a single source does not a good Peranakan lauk ‘dish’ make. Peranakan culture is indeed a fusion of cultures. Much can be said about the unique nyonya kebaya, a short jacket made of European material such as voile and often exquisitely embroidered around the edges by hand with Chinese motifs such as phoenixes, crabs, and dragons.

Baba Malay, or as some Peranakans say, Peranakan, is very much the product of a fusion of cultures. Most linguists who work on Baba Malay treat it as a creole language that has adopted most of its words from Malay, and much of its grammatical structure from Hokkien (Ansaldo & Matthews 1999; Lee 2014). Malay words dominate the language, but it does not take a discerning ear to tell that we don’t quite say many things the same way. For example, I would panggay ‘call’ you panday ‘clever’ for having read sampay ‘until’ here, while Malay speakers would say panggil, pandai (rhymes with “eye”), and sampai respectively. As a not-entirely-fluent speaker of Baba Malay carrying out fieldwork on the language, I have had my fair share of gaffes. The following conversation did actually happen:

Patient Consultant: Dia halo anjing.

Hapless Fieldworker: Why would he say ‘hello’ to the dog?

Patient Consultant: No. Halo! Halo!

Hapless Fieldworker: Huh.

(Patient Consultant makes the motion of shooing an imaginary dog away)

Hapless Fieldworker: Oh… Halau! (meaning ‘to chase’ in Malay)

This is but the tip of the ice-berg. The case-in-point is that there are Malay components in Baba Malay, but not in the entirely same guises you would imagine. Malay aside, it is important to also consider the role of Hokkien. While some may differ on the extent of Hokkien influence on Baba Malay (Pakir 1986), everyone is in general agreement that Baba Malay has undeniably Hokkien elements. This is evident from the fact that I have at least four different ways of saying “uncle”. I call my father’s elder brothers pék, my father’s younger brother chék, my mother’s brother ku, and my father’s sister’s husband and my mother’s sister’s husband tio. Trust me, this Hokkien-derived kinship system gets even more complicated when you assign your relatives numbers to go with their seniority.

But wait—it gets even better: to fully understand Baba Malay, you have to appreciate all the other elements in it, such as the fact that mentéga ‘butter’, menjéla ‘window’ and aloji ‘clock’ were derived from Portuguese words manteiga, janela and relógio respectively. Much like the iték tim, Baba Malay is a happy hodgepodge of different languages and cultures.

Regrettably, the current state-of-affairs is less than happy for Baba Malay. Since the 1980s, researchers on Baba Malay began noting that the language’s vitality was being threatened, and it was observed that monolingual speakers of the language were at least in their seventies (Pakir 1986). Almost 30 years on, the situation is direr than ever. Baba Malay is an endangered language, with less than a thousand speakers in Singapore and Malaysia (Lee 2014). In general, most speakers of Baba Malay are elderly, and the language is not being passed down to younger adults, much less children. The usual threats to language vitality apply.

Once a home language, Baba Malay’s domain is being taken over by other dominant languages such as English. There is little extrinsic value assigned to the language. In addition to not having an official status, Baba Malay is neither used in education, nor in mainstream media in Singapore. Amusingly, and to the distress of some bibiks ‘elder Peranakan women’, the one time that a popular Peranakan-themed soap drama was broadcast on state television, the nyonyas ‘Peranakan women’ cladded in kasot manek ‘beaded shoes’ spouted lines in Mandarin. Granted that the drama heralded a surge in public interest in the Peranakan material culture, including its cuisine, dress and furniture, but it did little for Baba Malay. Similarly, while the Peranakan Museum was established in Singapore in 2008 by the National Heritage Board, the focus of the museum has been the Peranakan material culture, and not its non-material culture, which includes the language.

Whether or not Peranakans can be Peranakans without Baba Malay is a question too mammoth for me to undertake at this point. I am also entirely conscious that my desire to conserve the language may stem from my position as a linguist. But what is clear to me is that the language is not going to go down without a good fight. Community efforts have been commendable. A Baba Malay-English dictionary and a compendium of Baba Malay sayings have been published by Baba William Gwee (1998; 2006). Every year, the Gunong Sayang Association undefined, a cultural association established in 1910 puts on wayang Peranakan , a theatre show that is entirely scripted in Baba Malay. Individuals also continue in their own ways to uphold the usage of the language. Baba Victor Goh, the cultural advisor or Gunong Sayang Association, perseveres in performing dondang sayang, the art of singing poetry. My bapak angkat ‘godfather’, Baba Albert Ku continues to write pantun ‘poetry’ in Baba Malay. If these say anything, it is that Baba Malay endures in the hearts of people, at least for now.


Ansaldo, Umberto & Stephen Matthews. 1999. The Minnan substrate and creolization in Baba Malay. Journal of Chinese Linguistics 27.38-68.

De Witt, Dennis. 2008. History of the Dutch in Malaysia Kuala Lumpur: Nutmeg Publishing.

Fei, Hsin. 1436. Hsing-ch’a sheng-lan: the overall survey of the Star Raft. (Republished in South China and Maritime Asia. 4. Translated by John Vivian Gottlieb Mills. Edited and annotated by Roderich Ptak.) Wiedsbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag.

Groeneveldt, W.P. 1880. Notes on the Malay Archipelago and Malacca: Compiled from Chinese Sources. Verhandelingen van het Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen. 39: i-x. 1-144.

Gwee, William Thian Hock. 1998. Mas sepuloh: Baba conversational gems Singapore: Armour Publishing.

—. 2006. A Baba Malay Dctionary: The First Comprehensive Compendium of Straits Chinese Terms and Expressions Singapore: Tuttle Publishing.

Hardwick, Patricia Ann. 2008. “Neither fish nor fowl”: constructing Peranakan identity in colonial and post-colonial Singapore. Folklore of East Asia 31.36-55.

Lee, Nala Huiying. 2014. A grammar of Baba Malay with sociophonetic considerations. Manoa: University of Hawai’i PhD dissertation.

Lim, Lisa. 2010. Peranakan English in Singapore. The lesser-known varieties of English: an introduction, ed. by D. Schreier, P. Trudgill & E.W. Schneider, 327-47. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pakir, Anne. 1986. A linguistic investigation of Baba Malay. Manoa: University of Hawai’i PhD dissertation.

Purcell, Victor. 1980. The Chinese in Southeast Asia: Issued under the auspices of the Royal Institute of International Affairs [by] Oxford University Press.

Skinner, G William. 1996. Creolized Chinese Societies in Southeast Asia. Sojourners and settlers: Histories of Southeast Asia and the Chinese, ed. by A. Reid & K. Aililunas-Rodgers, 51-93. Hawai’i: University of Hawai’i Press.

Wade, Geoffrey Philip. 1994. The Ming-Shi-lu (veritable records of the Ming dynasty). Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong PhD dissertation.

Wang, Gungwu. 1964. The opening of relations between China and Malacca, 1403-5. Malayan and Indonesian Studies: essays presented to Sir Richard Windstedt on his 85th birthday, ed. by J. Bastin & R. Roolvink, 87-104. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

11 Responses to “Baba Malay”

  1. ONG, Jin Teong

    In Penang the Babas and Nonyas speak Hokkien with a lot of Malay words.

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