Peranakan (Straits Chinese)
Total population
7,000,000 (estimates)[1]
Regions with significant populations
Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia

Chinese languages, Malay, Indonesian


Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Taoism

Related ethnic groups

Chinese people in Southeast Asia, Jawi Peranakan

Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 峇峇娘惹
Simplified Chinese 峇峇娘惹
Malay name
Malay Peranakan/Cina Benteng/Kiau-Seng

Peranakan Chinese and Baba-Nyonya are terms used for the descendants of late 15th and 16th-century Chinese immigrants to the Indonesian archipelago of Nusantara during the Colonial era.

Members of this community in Melaka address themselves as "Nyonya Baba" instead of "Baba-Nyonya". Nyonya is the term for the ladies and Baba for the gentlemen. It applies especially to the ethnic Chinese populations of the British Straits Settlements of Malaya and the Dutch-controlled island of Java and other locations, who have adopted partially or in full Nusantara customs to be somewhat assimilated into the local communities. They were the elites of Singapore, more loyal to the British than to China. Most have lived for generations along the straits of Malacca and not all intermarried with the local Native Indonesians and Malays. They were usually traders, the middleman of the British and the Chinese, or the Chinese and Malays, or vice versa because they were mostly English educated. Because of this, they almost always had the ability to speak two or more languages. In later generations, some lost the ability to speak Chinese as they became assimilated to the Malay Peninsula's culture and started to speak Malay fluently as a first or second language.

While the term Peranakan is most commonly used among the ethnic Chinese for those of Chinese descent also known as Straits Chinese (土生華人; named after the Straits Settlements), there are also other, comparatively small Peranakan communities, such as Indian Hindu Peranakans (Chitty), Indian Muslim Peranakans (Jawi Pekan) (Jawi being the Javanised Arabic script,[2] Pekan a colloquial contraction of Peranakan[2]) and Eurasian Peranakans (Kristang[2]) (Kristang = Christians).[2][3] The group has parallels to the Cambodian Hokkien, who are descendants of Hoklo Chinese. They maintained their culture partially despite their native language gradually disappearing a few generations after settlement.[4]



Both Malay and Indonesian use the word Peranakan to mean "descendant" - with no connotation of the ethnicity of descent unless followed by a subsequent qualifying noun, such as for example Cina (Chinese), Belanda (Dutch) or Jepang/Jepun (Japanese).[5] Peranakan has the implied connotation of referring to the ancestry of great-grandparents or more distant ancestors.[2]

Baba is a Persian loan-word borrowed by Malaysian as an honorific solely for grandparents; it was used to refer to the Straits-Chinese males. The term originated with Hindustani speakers, such as vendors and traders, and became part of common vernacular.[6] Female Straits-Chinese descendants were either called or styled themselves Nyonyas. The word nyonya (also commonly misspelled nonya) is a Javanese loan honorific word from Italian Nona (grandma) meaning: foreign married Madam. Or more likely from the word Dona, from the Portuguese word for lady. Because Javanese at the time had a tendency to address all foreign women (and perhaps those who appeared foreign) as nyonya, they used that term for Straits-Chinese women, too, and it was gradually associated more exclusively with them. Nona in Javanese means lady.[7]

Straits-Chinese were defined[by whom?] as those born or living in the Straits Settlements: a British colonial construct of Penang, Malacca and Singapore constituted in 1826. Straits-Chinese were not considered Baba Nyonya unless they displayed certain Sino-Malay syncretic physical attributes.[8]


Most Peranakans are of Hoklo (Hokkien) ancestry, although a sizable number are of Teochew or Cantonese descent. Originally, the Peranakan were mixed-race descendants, part Chinese, part Malay/Indonesian.

Baba Nyonya are a subgroup within Chinese communities, are the descendants of Sino-indigenous unions in Melaka, Penang, and Indonesia. It was not uncommon for early Chinese traders to take Malay/Indonesian women of Peninsular Malay/Sumatera/Javanese as wives or concubines[8] Consequently the Baba Nyonya possessed a mix of cultural traits.[8]

Written records from the 19th and early 20th centuries show that Peranakan men usually took brides from within the local Peranakan community. Peranakan families occasionally imported brides from China and sent their daughters to China to find husbands.

Some sources claim that the early Peranakan inter-married with the local Malay/Indonesian population; this might derive from the fact that some of the servants who settled in Bukit Cina who traveled to Malacca with the Admiral from Yunnan were Muslim Chinese. Other experts, however, see a general lack of physical resemblance, leading them to believe that the Peranakan Chinese ethnicity has hardly been diluted. One notable case to back the claim is of the Peranakan community in Tangerang, Indonesia, known as Cina Benteng. Their physical look is indigenous, yet they dutifully adhere to the Peranakan customs, and most of them are Buddhist. Some Peranakan distinguish between Peranakan-Baba (those Peranakan with part Malay ancestry) from Peranakan (those without any Malay ancestry).


The language of the Peranakans, Baba Malay (Bahasa Melayu Baba), is a creole dialect of the Malay language (Bahasa Melayu), which contains many Hokkien words. It is a dying language, and its contemporary use is mainly limited to members of the older generation. English has now replaced this as the main language spoken amongst the younger generation.

In Indonesia, young Peranakans can still speak this creole language, although its use is limited to informal occasions. Young Peranakans have lost many of their language, so there is normally a difference in vocabulary between the older and younger generations.


In the 15th century, some small city-states of the Malay Peninsula often paid tribute to various kingdoms such as those of China and Siam. Close relations with China were established in the early 15th century during the reign of Parameswara when Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho), a Muslim Chinese, visited Malacca and Java. According to a legend in 1459 CE, the Emperor of China sent a princess, Hang Li Po, to the Sultan of Malacca as a token of appreciation for his tribute. The nobles (500 sons of ministers) and servants who accompanied the princess initially settled in Bukit Cina and eventually grew into a class of Straits-born Chinese known as the Peranakans.

Due to economic hardships at mainland China, waves of immigrants from China settled in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Some of them embraced the local customs, while still retaining some degree of their ancestral culture; they are known as the Peranakans. Peranakans normally have a certain degree of indigenous blood, which can be attributed to the fact that during imperial China, most immigrants were men who married local women. Peranakans at Tangerang, Indonesia, held such a high degree of indigenous blood that they are almost physically indistinguishable from the local population. Peranakans at Indonesia can vary between very fair to copper tan in color.

Peranakans themselves later on migrated between Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, which resulted in a high degree of cultural similarity between Peranakans in those countries. Economic / educational reasons normally propel the migration between of Peranakans between the Nusantara region (Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore), their creole language is very close to the indigenous languages of those countries, which makes adaptations a lot easier.

For political reasons Peranakans and other Nusantara Chinese are grouped as a one racial group, Chinese, with Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia becoming more adoptive of mainland Chinese culture, and Chinese in Indonesia becoming more diluted in their Chinese culture. Such things can be attributed to the policies of Bumiputera (Malaysia), mother tongue policy (Singapore) and the ban of Chinese culture during the Soeharto era in Indonesia.



The Peranakan retained most of their ethnic and religious origins (such as ancestor worship), but assimilated the language and culture of the Malays. The Nyonya's clothing, Baju Panjang (Long Dress) was adapted from the native Malay's Baju Kurung. It is worn with a batik sarong (batik wrap-around skirt) and 3 kerosang (brooches). Beaded slippers called Kasot Manek were a hand-made made with much skill and patience: strung, beaded and sewn onto canvas with tiny faceted glass beads from Bohemia (present-day Czech Republic).

In modern times, glass beads from Japan are preferred. Traditional kasot manek design often have European floral subjects, with colors influenced by Peranakan porcelain and batik sarongs. They were made onto flats or bedroom slippers. But from the 1930s, modern shapes became popular and heels were added.

In Indonesia, the Peranakans develop their own Kebaya, most notably 'kebaya encim', and developed their own batik patterns, which incorporate symbols from China.for the Baba they will wear baju lokchuan(which is the Chinese men full costume)but the younger generation they will wear just the top of it which is the long sleeved silk jacket with chinese collar or the batik shirt.


Baba Nyonya subscribed to Chinese beliefs: Taoism, Confucianism and Chinese Buddhism, celebrated the Lunar New Year and the Lantern Festival, while adopting the customs of the land they settled in, as well as those of their colonial rulers. There are traces of Portuguese, Dutch, British, Malay and Indonesian influences in Baba culture.[8] A certain number of Baba Nonya families were and still are, Catholic.


Ayam buah keluak, a traditional Peranakan dish

From the Malay influence a unique "Nyonya" cuisine has developed using typical Malay spices. Examples are Chicken Kapitan, a dry chicken curry, and Inchi Kabin, a Nyonya version of fried chicken. Pindang bandeng is a common fish soup served in Indonesia during the Chinese new year and so is a white round mooncake from Tangerang which is normally used during the Autumn Festival. Swikee Purwodadi is a peranakan dish from Purwodadi, it is a frog soup dish.

Nyonya Laksa is a very popular dish in Singapore, as is Kueh Lapis, a type of multi layered cake, most often eaten at Chinese New Year to symbolize a ladder of prosperity.

A small number of restaurants serving Nyonya food can be found in Singapore; Penang and Malacca in Malaysia; and Jakarta, Semarang, Surabaya in Indonesia.


It was not uncommon for early Chinese traders to take Malay women of Peninsular Malay or Sumatera as wives or concubines[8]

Consequently, the Baba Nyonya possessed a synergistic mix of Sino-Malay cultural traits.[8]

Multichrome enamel porcelain tea tray with a traditional Peranakan "fenghuang"

Written records from the 19th and early 20th centuries show that Peranakan men usually took brides from within the local Peranakan community. Peranakan families occasionally imported brides from China and sent their daughters to China to find husbands.

Marriages within the community and of similar stature were the norm. Wealthy men prefigured to marry a chin choay: or matrilocal marriage where husband moved in with wife's family.[8]

Proposals of marriage were made by a gift of a pinangan, a 2-tiered lacquered basket, to the intended bride's parents brought by a go-between who speaks on behalf of the suitor. Most Peranakans are not Muslim, and have retained the traditions of ancestor worship of the Chinese, though some converted to Christianity.

The wedding ceremony of the Peranakan is largely based on Chinese tradition, and is one of the most colorful wedding ceremonies in Malaysia and Singapore. At weddings, the Dondang Sayang, a form of extempore rhyming song in Malay sung and danced by guests at the wedding party, was a highlight. Someone would begin a romantic theme which was carried on by others, each taking the floor in turn, dancing in slow gyrations as they sang. It required quick wit and repartee and often gave rise to laughter and applause when a particularly clever phrase was sung. The melodic accents of the Baba-Nonya and their particular turns of phrase lend to the charm of this performance.


Pinang Peranakan Mansion, stately mansion built at the end of the 19th century, residence and office of Kapitan Cina Chung Keng Quee

Historical and cultural items from the Baba culture are displayed in cultural establishments on Heeren Street, Jonker Street and other streets in the same neighborhood in Malacca; the Pinang Peranakan Mansion in Penang, Malaysia; and at the Peranakan Museum in Singapore. Furniture, food, and even traditional clothes of the Baba and Nyonya are exhibited. Free weekly street shows featuring Baba performances, and traditional and pop Chinese cultural performances are found in Jonker Street in Malacca (Melaka). The shows are part of the night market (pasar malam) scene, and are usually crowded with shoppers, both local and foreign.

In Indonesia, a large population of Peranakans can be found in Tangerang, West Java.

Political affinity

Baba Nyonya were financially better off than China born Chinese. Their family wealth and connections enabled them to form a Straits-Chinese elite, whose loyalty was strictly to Britain or the Netherlands.[8] Due to their strict loyalty, they did not support Malaysian nor Indonesian Independence.[8]

By the middle of the twentieth century, most Peranakan were English or Dutch-educated, as a result of the Western colonization of Malaya and Indonesia, Peranakans readily embraced English culture and education as a means to advance economically thus administrative and civil service posts were often filled by prominent Straits Chinese. Many in the community chose to convert to Christianity due to its perceived prestige and proximity to the preferred company of British and Dutch.[8]

The Peranakan community thereby became very influential in Malacca and Singapore and were known also as the King's Chinese due to their loyalty to the British Crown. Because of their interaction with different cultures and languages, most Peranakans were (and still are) trilingual, being able to converse in Chinese, Malay, and English. Common vocations were as merchants, traders, and general intermediaries between China, Malaya and the West; the latter were especially valued by the British and Dutch.

Things started to change in the first half of the 20th century, with some Peranakans starting to support Malaysian and Indonesian independence. In Indonesia three Chinese communities started to merge and become active in the political scene.

They were also among the pioneers of Indonesian newspapers. In their fledgling publishing companies, they published their own political ideas along with contributions from other Indonesian writers. In November 1928, the Chinese weekly Sin Po (traditional Chinese: 新報; pinyin: xīn bào) was the first paper to openly publish the text of the national anthem Indonesia Raya. On occasion, those involved in such activities ran a concrete risk of imprisonment or even of their lives, as the Dutch colonial authorities banned nationalistic publications and activities.

Chinese Indonesians were active in supporting the independence movement during the 1940s Japanese occupation, when the all but the so-called "Overseas Chinese Association", or residents of Chinese ancestry (traditional Chinese: 華僑中會; pinyin: Huáqiáo Zhōnghuì) were banned by the Japanese military authorities. Some notable pro-independence activists were Siauw Giok Tjhan and Liem Koen Hian, and Yap Tjwan Bing, a member of Panitia Persiapan Kemerdekaan Indonesia, who in the 1960s became a citizen of the United States.

Current status

Peranakan culture has started to disappear in Malaysia and Singapore. Without colonial British support for their perceived racial neutrality, government policies in both countries following independence from the British have resulted in the assimilation of Peranakans back into mainstream Chinese culture. Singapore classifies the Peranakans as ethnically Chinese, so they receive formal instruction in Mandarin Chinese as a second language (in accordance with the "Mother Tongue Policy") instead of Malay. In Malaysia, the standardization of Malay as Bahasa Melayu — required for all ethnic groups — has led to a disappearance of the unique characteristics of Baba Malay.

In Indonesia, the Peranakan culture is losing popularity to modern Western culture, but to some degree Peranakans try to retain their language, cuisines and customs. Young Peranakans still speak their creole language, although many young women do not wear the kebaya. Marriages normally follow the western culture because the traditional Peranakan customs are losing popularity. Only three communities of Peranakan still uphold the traditional Peranakan wedding customs, Tangerang (by the Cina Benteng people), Makassar and Padang. Of the three communities the Cina Benteng people are the most adherent to the Peranakan culture, but their number are dwindling.[9] Cina Benteng people are normally poor people, and many of them sought opportunities in other areas.

The migration of some Peranakan families, particularly the well-to-do, has led to a small Peranakan diaspora to neighbouring countries, from Vietnam[10] to Australia.[11] However, these communities are very small, and with the increasing use of the various languages in their respective countries, the use of Peranakan Malay or Baba Malay has been diluted.

Current associations

Associations of Chinese Peranakan include the Peranakan Association of Singapore and the Gunung Sayang Association, a performing arts group. The Peranakan Association has about 1,700 members, and the Gunung Sayang has about 200 members. Although the Peranakan Association consists of a mix of young and old, the Gunung Sayang Association has primarily elderly or retired members. In Malacca, there is an Indian Peranakan Association known as the Chitty Melaka. This is a tightly knit community of Saivite Hindus.[12] Chitty Peranakans display considerable similarity to Chinese Peranakans in terms of dressing, songs and folk dances.Eg.pantuns

Notable Peranakans



  • Tun Dato Sri Tan Cheng Lock - Founder and first President of Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA)
  • Tun Tan Siew Sin - Third President of Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA)
  • Andrew Hwang - Malaysian Secretary of the Malayan Volunteers Group
  • Nyonya Tan Abdullah - Celebrity Chef
  • Khoo Salma Nasution - Heritage conservationist
  • QuaChee - Entrepreneur, model, actor, publisher & producer
  • Kenny Chan - Actress
  • Nyonya Chuah Guat Eng - Novelist


The Peranakan Association, Singapore

Current Committee Members
  • Peter Wee - President
  • Alan Koh - First Vice-President
  • Lim Geok Huay - Honorary Secretary
  • Gavin Ooi - Assistant Honorary Secretary
  • Ee Sin Soo - Honorary Treasurer & Editorial Committee
  • Peter Lee - Editorial Advisor
  • Lee Kip Lee - Editorial Advisor
  • John Lee - Art Editor
  • Ian Yap - Art Editor
  • Michelle Yap - Magazine Designer
  • Alvin Yap - Advertising Manager & Editorial Committee
  • Emeric Lau - Assistant Editor
  • Edmond Wong - New-media Webmaster & Editorial Committee
  • Low Hwee Hoon - Administrative Manager
  • Lim Geok Huay - Circulation Manager
  • Colin Chee - Editorial Committee
  • Jason Ong - Editorial Committee
  • Claire Seet - Editorial Committee
  • Monica Alsagoff - Committee Member
  • Chan Eng Thai - Committee Member
  • Bebe Seet - Committee Member

See also


  1. ^ [1], thejakartapost
  2. ^ a b c d e Sadaoh Nasution, Kamus Umum Lengkap: Inggris-Indonesia Indonesia-Inggris, University of California: 1989: 562 pages
  3. ^
  4. ^ The Chinese in Cambodia By William E. Willmott
  5. ^ Harimurti Kridalaksana, Kamus Sinonim Bahasa Indonesia, Nusa Indah: 1974: 213 pages
  6. ^ Joo Ee Khoo, The Straits Chinese: a cultural history, Pepin Press: 1996 ISBN 9054960086: 288 pages
  7. ^ Soeseno Kartomihardjo, Ethnography of Communicative Codes in East Java Dept. of Linguistics, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University: 1981: ISBN 0858832550: 212 pages: 96
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Keat Gin Ooi, Southeast Asia: a historical encyclopedia, from Angkor Wat to East Timor ABC-CLIO: 2004: ISBN 1576077705: 1791 pages
  9. ^ "Error: no |title= specified when using {{Cite web}}". 
  10. ^ "Chinese/Native intermarriage in Austronesian Asia". Color Q World. Retrieved 2008-11-16. 
  11. ^ "babas_and_nonya.html". 
  12. ^

Further reading

  • Lee Chin Koon: Mrs. Lee's Cookbook. Nonya Recipes and other favourite recipes.
  • Mahmood, Datin Sari Endon: The Nyonya Kebaya: A Century of Straits Chinese Costume, ISBN 0-7946-0273-8
  • Rudolph, Jürgen (1998). Reconstructing Identities: A Social History of the Babas in Singapore. Singapore: Ashgate. costumes
  • Khoo, Joo Ee (1998). The Straits Chinese: A Cultural History. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: The Pepin Press.  ISBN 9054960086
  • Chang, Queeny (1981). Memories of a Nonya. Singapore and Selangor, Malaysia: Eastern Universities Press Sdn Bhd. 

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

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