The Baba Nyonya or ‘Peranakan’ are terms used for the descendents of the early Chinese immigrants of Melaka on the Malay Peninsula. The word Peranakan is also used to describe Indonesian Chinese. In both Malay and Bahasa Indonesia Peranakan means ‘descendants’. Babas refer to the male descendants and the Nyonyas the female. Most Peranakan are of Hokkien ancestry, with a few of Teochew or Cantonese descent.
Whether there was ever any intermarriage with the indigenous Malay people is a matter for debate. Written records from the 19th and early 20th centuries show that Peranakan men usually took brides from within the local Peranakan community. Peranakan families also commonly imported brides from China and sent their daughters to China to find husbands. If a Chinese man took a Malay bride, he usually became assimilated into the Malay community and converted to Islam, rather than his bride remaining within the Peranakan community.
By the middle of the 20th century, most Peranakan were English educated, as a result of the British colonisation of Malaya, and the natural propensity of these people to embrace new cultures. Because the Peranakans readily embraced English culture and education, administrative and civil service posts were often filled by prominent Straits Chinese. The Peranakan community thereby became very influential in Melaka and Singapore and were known also as the King’s Chinese. Common vocations were as merchants, traders, and general intermediaries between China and the West.
The women (Nyonyas) have taken to wearing the baju kebaya (a Malay dress, seen most notably as the uniform of Malaysia Airlines’ female flight attendants). However, most of the Peranakans eschewed Islam, preferring the ancestral worship of the Chinese, although some have now converted to Christianity. The wedding ceremony of the Peranakan is mostly Chinese, and is one of the most fascinating wedding ceremonies in Malaysia.Their language, Baba Malay, is a dialect of the Malay language, which contains many Hokkien words. It is a dying language and tends to be used only by members of the older generation still use it in daily life.