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Culture in Malaysia: Baba & Nyonya Culture in MalaysiaBaba & NyonyaHistory• 500 to 600 years ago when Chinese traders arrived in parts of the Malay Peninsula• The Chinese men did not bring their women folk along, and many intermarried with the local women.• There are traces of Portuguese, Dutch, British, Malay and Indonesian influences in Baba cultureReligion• Baba Nyonya subscribed to Chinese beliefs: Taoism, Confucianism and Chinese Buddhism• A certain number of Baba Nyonya families were and still are, CatholicFestival• Chinese New Year: It is a day to renew family ties, get togethers with relatives, friends and family members, much eating and merriment and the joy of receiving angpaus for the young. The Peranakans of yesteryear would also sohjar or bow to their elders during Chinese New Year as a mark of respect. This shojar is usually performed with the person kneeling and greetings of : "Panjang Panjany umor dan banyak untong" or May you have a long life filled with much blessings is usually said. It is also not Peranakan custom to actually give oranges during Chinese New Year visitations.• Celebration of Ti Kongs Birthday (9th day of Chinese New Year) - Sugar cane was offered in memory of survivors of a massacre during the Sung dynasty, who had hidden in the sugarcane fields to escape their enemies notice.• Mooncake Festival - Mooncakes are eaten during the Mooncake Festival to commemorate ChangEr who swallowed a pill, which was the Elixir of Eternal Life and floated to the moon.• Dumpling Festival - The Peranakans also celebrated the Dragon Boat Festival with their own version of the Bak Chang (dumplings). The Nyonya Bak Chang or Nyonya kueh chang is made up of cubed pork, chestnuts and glutinous rice. The uniqueness of the dish is the fact that it is sweet rather than salty and the dumpling is wrapped using pandan leaves which gives its an aromatic flavour.• The Kichen God Festival - Prayers to the Kitchen God were said on stipulated days and offerings were given so that he would report to the God of Heaven in a favourable manner. Prayers and incense were offered to him on his return to thank him for his favourable report. The Kitchen God was also supposed to bless the food in the household and to ensure a plentiful and bountiful supply of food.• The Sembayang Hantu Festival (Hungry Ghost Festival) - Like all other Chinese communities this was the day when the Family ancestral altar was cleaned and where offerings of food, inscence and paper money were offered to the encestors. Visits to temples and mediums would also be done to ensure that the ancestor was well in the afterworld. As very devout Taoists, Peranakan households always had a large hallway dedicated for ancestor worship. 1
Culture in Malaysia: Baba & NyonyaTraditional food• Peranakan or Nyonya cuisine combines Chinese, Malay and other influences into a unique blend. Nyonya cooking is the result of blending Chinese ingredients and wok cooking techniques with spices used by the Malay/Indonesian community. The food is tangy, aromatic, spicy and herbal.• There are regional variations in Nyonya cooking. Dishes from the island of Penang in the northern part of Peninsular Malaysia show Thai influences, such as more liberal use of tamarind and other sour ingredients. Dishes from Singapore and Malacca show a greater Malay-Indonesian influence, such as the use of coconut milk.• Nyonya recipes are handed down from one generation to the next.Examples of Nyonya specialities :• Ayam Buah Keluak, a distinctive dish combining chicken pieces with nuts from the Pangium edule or kepayang tree to produce a rich sauce;• Itek Tim, a classic soup containing duck, tomatoes, green peppers, salted vegetables, and preserved sour plums simmered gently together.• Nyonya desserts include colourful cakes (kuih) and sweet, sticky delicacies.• Acar - various pickled meats and vegetables like acar keat lah (honey lime/calamansi), achar hu (fried fish), acar kiam hu (salt fish), acar timun (cucumber), acar awat (mixed vegetables).• Ayam pongteh, a chicken stew cooked with tauchu or salted soy beans and gula melaka. It is usually saltish-sweet and can be substituted as a soup dish in peranakan cuisine.• Cincalok, a Malay-inspired yet distinctly Nyonya condiment made of fermented shrimp• Itek Tim or Kiam Chye Ark Thng is a soup whose main ingredients are duck and preserved mustard leaf and cabbage flavoured with nutmeg seed, Chinese mushrooms, tomatoes and peppercorns.• Jiew Hu Char is a dish made up mainly of shredded vegetables like turnip, carrot, and cabbage and fried together with thinly shredded dried cuttlefish.• Kerabu Bee Hoon is a salad dish comprising rice vermicelli mixed with sambal belacan, honey lime (limau kesturi/calamansi) juice, and finely-chopped herbs and spices. Other famous salad dishes are kerabu bok née (black fungus/ telinga tikus), kerabu kay (chicken), kerabu kay khar (chicken feet), kerabu timun (cucumber), kerabu kobis (cabbage), kerabu kacang botol (four angled bean), kerabu bak poey (pork skin).• Masak Belanda is a dish made from sliced pork and salt fish simmered together with tamarind juice.• Masak Lemak is a style of cooking vegetable stew that makes liberal use of coconut milk. There are various versions of masak lemak. One example uses spinach as the main ingredient. In another version sweet potato is the main ingredient.• Masak Titik is a style of cooking vegetable soup that makes liberal use of peppercorns. One version uses watermelon rind as the main ingredient. Another makes use of green or semi ripe papaya.• Nasi Kunyit (Translated into English as "Turmeric Rice") is glutinous rice cooked with turmeric colouring and is usually served with coconut milk chicken curry, "Ang Koo" (Literally "Red Tortoise", a Nyonya Cake) and Pink-dyed hard-boiled egg(s) as a gift of appreciation in celebration of the 1st month of a newly-born child. 2
Culture in Malaysia: Baba & Nyonya• Nasi Ulam is a herbed rice comprising a variety of herbs (daun kaduk, daun cekur, daun kesum etc.) shredded thinly and mixed raw into hot rice with pounded dried shrimp (hae bee) and salt fish (kiam hu) and chopped shallots.• Ngoh Hiang (so called because of the use of Chinese five spice powder to flavour the mined meat), also known as Lor Bak (so called because of the lor or starch-based dipping sauce) is a fried, sausage like dish made from minced pork rolled up in soya bean curd sheets and deep fried.• Otak-otak is a Malay-inspired fish cake blending fish, coconut milk, chili paste, galangal, and herbs wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled. The town of Muar is famous for it. The Penang Nyonya otak-otak is steamed, not grilled and the distinct flavour and aroma or daun kaduk and coconut milk is clearly evident in this unique version.• Perut Ikan is a spicy stew (of the asam pedas variety similar to asam laksa) comprising mainly vegetables/herbs and getting its distinctive taste mainly from fish bellies preserved in brine and daun kaduk (The Wild Pepper leaf is from the Piper stylosum or the Piper sarmentosum). A classic Penang Nyonya dish.Performing ArtsRonggeng: a dance step similar in style to joget but it was more fast tempo than joget was.Usually ronggeng was danced to the music of the kronchong, another Indonesian inspiredmusical form that the Peranakans of old adored nad cherished.Joget: a form of dancing that uses dance steps similar to that of swaying your feet and hands upand down in a frontal and backwards direction. It is done however in a very slow but gracefulmanner. Joget takes some getting used to and the songs sung are mostly in Baba Malay.Popular melodies are Begawan Solo and other Pantun proses.Peranakan Dondang Sayang: consists of 2 persons singing of a prose of songs sangindividually until all 6 lines of the prose are completed.An example of Dondang Sayang is as follows: Tingi, tingi rumah Chek Long Long, Di bawahnyadibuat deday kaen, Alangkah bias ulair tedong, Boleh kah di tangkap buat maen? Tingi tingirumah Chek Long, Dibawahnya dijuair pokok, Goa tak takot ulair tedong, krana goa uliar sendokTranslated: Mr Long’s house is very high, under it is a cloth shop, maybe there is a sname, can Icatch it to play with? Mister Long’s home is very tall, under it is a tree, I am not scared of littlesname as I am an even bigger snake that it is!CustomeMale: Peranakans in the past wore the Kain pelekat as casual attire, which is a type of Indiancloth made of cotton about 2m long and 1.2m wide.Women: Nyonyas wore sarongs with various styled blouses as a 2-piece ensemble known inMalay as the baju panjang which consists of a long tunic worn over a sarong. Fastened withkerongsang (brooches), the tunics are worn with colourful sarongs. . However, these ladies woreonly an inner blouse with sarongs at home. This fashionable blouse is hip-length and called a"short dress" in Hokkien. The V–shaped neckline of the baju panjang would reveal the innerblouse and its high collar and complete with a large square hankerchief (saputangan/setangan). 3
Culture in Malaysia: Baba & NyonyaHandicraftPeranakan beaded slippers: are made of Peranakan cut beads (manek potong) where thepopular motifs used for the patterns were flowers, birds, butterflies, and fruits. The beadedslippers were worn by both the Peranakan males (baba) and females (nyonya) and were popularin the 1930s. Nowadays, the beaded slippers are more commonly worn by women only.Past TimeMakan sireh or tobacco chewing: Sireh became part and parcel of Peranakan culture whenintermarriages between the Chinese and Malays increased and it soon became incorporated intothe Peranakan way of life. Peranakan households always had one or two tempat sireh sets athome. Sireh sets would be used to store the sireh leaves, tobacco and chalk needed tocomplement this pastime. It was actually the chewing gum of today.Cherki, the game of the Nyonyas of yore: The game itself is played using a deck of 60 cards,each measuring about 60mm x 24mm, with three suits and nine numerals for each suit. . Playingcherki is not easy as it had many hokkien and malay words that were used in the game. It isdifficult for Peranakans are not conversant in hokkien or in malay to be well versed in the game.The symbols and characters used in Cherki cards denote such names that are used whileplaying. Nyonyas of old would gather around the cherki table to gossip, chew sireh, or chit chatwhile playing the game.CHONGKAK: Chongkak is a game whereby small crowlie shells are put into differentcompartments that look like holes. Chongkak boards can be either plain or ornate and can consistof up to 14 or 16 holes in total. What is done is that the holes are filled with 7 shells in total. Onlytwo persons can play the game at a time and each person has his base or house in the cavity atthe outmost cavity of the board. The object of the game is to fill one’s house with as much shellsas possible. The winner is the one with the most shells at the time when there are no more shellsin the 14 or 18 holes.WeddingPrenuptial Procedures: Although the traditional wedding runs for twelve days as mentionedearlier, pre-nuptial procedures are to be observed four days before the actual wedding day. Theybegin with the presentation of the birth certificates “Sang Jee” & preparation of the bridal chamber“Ann Ching”, On this day at the chosen time, bananas, yams & citronella plants (serai) are placedunder the bridal bed by a young boy “Koo Yah” who is privileged to roll thrice on the bridal bed forthe first time.On the next two days relatives come to give a helping hand for the preparation of weddingdecorations & food. These days are therefore referred to as “Peeling of Onions” & “Poundingof Flour” respectively. The bride-to-be is made to sit in the bridal chamber like a bride but with aslight difference — in that she is dressed up in a costume “Hock Chiew” which is not so heavilyembroidered as the Wedding Costume “Koon Hoe” & she is also not allowed to put on the frontpiece of the Head-dress known as “Pak Sian’. This gives her the opportunity to get used to theheavy Head-dress & costumes with all the finery & also to practice the ceremonial movements &gestures under the guidance of expert mistress of ceremonies “Sangkeh mm”. 4
Culture in Malaysia: Baba & NyonyaOn the eve of the Wedding besides mid-day luncheon or dinner being given “Chia Lang Khek”the gifts for the bride & groom-to-be are exchanged. The elaborately decorated gifts” displayed onbrass trays are carried in procession between the two homes. They consist of twelve differentgifts such as two pairs of candles with symbols of dragon & phoenix, nnggit (silver coins paintedwith red dots in the center), pig’s legs, cockerel & chicken, a pair of shoes for each with materialsor dresses, rings, ang-pow, 8 betel nuts (painted in gold) wine, rock sugar, dried “Mata kuching”fruits, a pair of oranges and pomegranates and half a dozen tins of Chinese delicacies.The Cheo Thau ceremony is one of the most important ceremonies and marks the first occasionwhen the bride and bridegroom will wear their authentic wedding robes. The actual weddingceremony will only take place before noon that day, after the Cheo Thau ceremony. Thisceremony is one of great fanfare where the groom heads a procession of seronnee (a musicalinstrument), musicians, men carrying umbrellas, and lanterns. The whole troop will then proceedto the bride’s residence after a series of rituals at his home.The father then prays at the High Altar and offers wine to God, the Creator, by pouring wine fourtimes on the floor. Following this he offers a sip of wine from the same cup to his beloveddaughter who is now a woman (no longer a child under his care ). The bride is then veiled by bothher parents, a ceremony which often brings tears to the eyes of all concerned and thereafter sheawaits the coming of the groom. The Malay "Sembah Mak Bapak" or the honoring one of onesparents in the old malay style would be performed.Chin Pang Ceremony: Next, follows the Chin Pang Ceremony which marks the first meetingbetween the couple where the bride would lead the groom into the bridal chamber where hewould unveil her. Together they would be served tea and a bowl of kueh ee – small white and reddumplings in a sweet broth. The arrival of the groom is announced by the sound of crackers“Seroni” music and the sound of gongs. He is accompanied by a couple of gong beaters “PakKim” and a couple of Best Men “Puah Kiah”as well as a Master of Ceremonies. Having beengreeted by the members of the bride’s family with a shower of saffron rice and perfume, thebridegroom is met at the entrance of the house by a page-boy “Koo Yah” who offers him anorange and he in return offers a red packet as a toll. The bridegroom and his retinue are usheredby the bride’s father into the house where they are offered tea and noodles “Mee Swa”. TheMaster of Ceremonies then leads the bridegroom to the entrance of the inner hall and summonsthe bride by reciting a proverb and she advances to the door but does not pass through it. Thetwo Best Men are then driven out.Nowadays, the principal ceremonies mentioned above, which were formerly performed on 12different days , are carried out in 1 day. Even so they still retain their significance and addgrandeur to a marriage.A Pak Chindek, and a Sang Kek Um (the wedding masters and mistresses respectively) are mostoften required because traditions become so complex that weddings need to be orchestrated bywedding specialists. The third ceremony takes place in the bridal chamber. This is called chianhsia. This ceremony is amusing and unique because friends and guests of the bridegroom wouldgather in the room and tease the bride with the hope of inducing laughter from the bride. And ifthe bride does indeed break out into uncontrollable fits of laughter, the unfortunate groom wouldhave to treat all the guests to dinner.The finale of the wedding ceremony, would be the dua belas hari or Twelfth Day ceremony,where the marriage would be conformed and approved by proof of the bride’s virginity. Firstly, thebride’s parents would invite the bridegroom’s mother to inspect the bloodstain cloth. She wouldbe invited to perform a test by squeezing lime juice on the blood stain cloth in hope ofascertaining the authencity of the stain. However, she would normally refrain from performing thetest as it would also demean the bride. 5
Culture in Malaysia: Baba & NyonyaWEDDING BANQUETS & FOODAmong the array of wedding foods is the quintessential Nasi Lemak. This rice dish cooked in richcoconut milk is served during the wedding feast. Duabelas Hari is traditionally held on the 12th(last day) of the entire wedding celebration. It is a special feast marking the important occasion ofverifying the brides virginity / purity on the night of consumation. The nasi lemak is prepared bythe grooms family and is presented to the brides family only when all are in happy agreement.This signifies that all is well. Duabelas Hari is held at the grooms house, consumed in TokPanjang style of the Babas, meaning guests take turns to eat at the dinner table.Nasi Lemak is served commonly with 24 dishes including the must-have sambal serving. Thissymbolizes the harmony of a successful match between the newlyweds. Other wedding foodsalso include Apom Bok Kwa and Nasi Ulam. If there is too much food, leftovers are packed incolorful and gaudy tengkas (tiffin carriers) for family members and guests to take home.Nowadays, the Duabelas Hari is almost a thing of the past as the younger generation thinks it is awaste of money and time. Most prefer the short cut of quicker wedding celebrations.Belief• Old Bibiks of yesteryear would also visit malay keramats or burial grounds to pray and ask for favours.• They would also consult fortune tellers, magicians and bomohs or even visit hindu temples for advice.Birth• At the full lunar month muar-guay ceremony, that is, thirty days after the birth of the child Nyonyas would hold a ceremony whereby nasi kunyit (steamed glutinous tumeric rice), chicken curry and red bean cakes in the shape of tortoises ( ang-koo) together with either ang-toe or ang-ee and two red hard-boiled chicken eggs would be offered to the ancestors and the rest distributed to relatives and close friends.• The muar-guay ceremony also marks the end of the pantang (taboo or abstinence period for the babys mother) as was also practised by the Malay women after child delivery.• The Malays refered to nasi kunyit as pulot kuning or nasi kuning and they used it lavishly at thanksgiving ceremonies (kenduris ).• Muar guay cakes for this occasion would be : Nasi kunyit , two hard boiled eggs, two tortoises ang koo , two peaches ang toe (the last signifying that the baby is a girl).Death• A Taoist priest or priestess is invited to help clean and dress the deceased before placing the body in the coffin.• The deceased would be dressed in the white pyjamas worn on his wedding eve. Some of the deceaseds favourite clothes are also placed in the coffin.• The whole body will be covered with silver paper which is replicas of bank notes.• White candles are used for the main rituals, but if the deceased was an octogenarian or died at a ripe old age, red candles are burnt instead.• Why are these rituals observed? The reason being, the fear of corpses talking and rising from the dead.• The Peranakans believed that death is a continuation of living. Therefore, the deceased needed to have everything he had possessed in this world to be taken with him to the nether world as well. Thus, goods such as money, televisions or motor cars, represented in paper crafts and made in miniature, are burnt as offerings. 6
Culture in Malaysia: Baba & Nyonya• The family of the deceased is to mourn for a total of one-and-a half-years. They are to wear twelve months of black, the next three months in black and blue or white, and for the last three months they wear green.• Members of the deceased cannot visit friends or relatives during the Chinese New Year for fear that they may bring bad luck and death to the house visited. Friends and relatives too do not visit these homes. Architecture Straits Chinese house Many of the Chinese Peranakan residential terrace shophouses in Melaka and Penang that were built in the early 20th century have been declared heritage buildings and retain many of their original features as follows: 1. Air-wells that function as open courtyards 2. European style columns and pilasters 3. Malay-inspired timber panels and carvings 4. Tall, panelled Chinese wooden doors 5. Louvred windows, borrowed from Portuguese colonial architecture • In Penang, examples of the Straits Eclectic style can be see along a number of major roads including Magazine Road, Sultan Ahmad Shah Road (Northam Road), Burmah Road, Prangin Creek and Muntri Street. • In Malacca, the buildings can be seen along Tun Tan Cheng Lock (Heeren Street) and Hang Jebat Road (Jonkers Street), some of which date back in the Dutch period. 7