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Babas And Nyonyas in Singapore
Babas And Nyonyas
German scholar JURGEN RUDOLPHhas produced the latest, and possibly most
comprehensive, social history of the Babas in Singapore. We publish an
extract here on his account of the two key turning-points of their recent
THE Japanese Occupation was a crucial turning-point for the Babas. This is
already obvious in an analysis of the terminology.
After World War II, the previously respectable designations such as "Baba"
and "Peranakan" became almost terms of abuse if used by the "non-Baba
The non-Baba Chinese gave the Babas condescending names, which implied that
they were not "complete Chinese" because of their (supposed) inability to
speak "Chinese", their alleged adoption of "foreign" (i.e. non-Chinese)
cultures and their British orientation.
The Japanese Occupation turned the Peranakan world upside-down by
triggering important changes in the political role of the Babas as well as
in their cultural identity.
Many Babas fell victim because they were among the groups targeted during
the Japanese sook ching operation. Hastily arranged "intermarriages"
between Nyonyas and non-Baba Chinese were to lead to radical changes in the
Baba way of life and to "sinicisation". The British patronage of the Babas
was interrupted in 1942 and was never again fully restored.
The decline of Baba culture is usually thought to begin with the Japanese
Occupation. The Babas lost fortunes and much of their "material culture"
during this time. Much of the previous Nyonya and Baba material culture
disappeared or deteriorated in the '40s and '50s.
In addition, many ceremonies which were too time-consuming and expensive in
the new "environment" had to be abandoned or at least simplified.
The Japanese Occupation also forced many Nyonyas into the labour force,
with the result that these true bearers of Baba culture became less
domestic-bound. Other factors in the decline included conversions to
Christianity (which usually conflict with ancestral rites), the dispersion
of demographic concentrations and the trend from extended family units to
In an interview, Tan Kong Wee told me that he and other Babas realised
their "Chineseness" during the Japanese Occupation:
"The Japanese did not discriminate between the Peranakan and the
China-Chinese. I remember my fellow Peranakans were shocked because they
suddenly realised that there was one thing missing. They did not know their
"They could not speak Chinese. They said: 'The Japanese called me a
Chinese. But all along, I would say I'm not a Chinese. I was 11 years
old... it dawned upon me that I am a Chinese. For this, I have to thank the
Although Tan's realisation may not have been shared by many Babas (the
Japanese, in fact, distinguished between the Straits Chinese and the
China-born Chinese, at least for the collection of the $50 million "gift"
extorted by the Japanese), it is a fact that the Chinese-speaking Chinese
were becoming more influential and insulted the Babas mainly because of
their inability to speak "Chinese". Consequently, many Babas made an effort
to learn "Chinese". Whereas many English-educated Babas re-emphasised their
allegiance to the British Empire and were afraid that full independence
might harm their still privileged position, the vast majority of
Chinese-educated Chinese were vehemently anti-colonial and
A HIGHER CLASS OF CHINESE
AS "sons of the soil", the Straits Chinese British Association's Straits
Chinese defended their citizenship (or subjecthood) rights against the
China-born Chinese and those first-generation Singapore-born Chinese who
had a dual loyalty.
The chasm between the Babas and the sinkehs (literally "guests", or recent
immigrants from China) may also be illustrated by the typical occupations
of the China-born Chinese which self-conscious Babas would have shunned.
As S.C. Wong wrote, in a letter to The Straits Times in 1948: "Our
China-born brethren are very useful in Singapore. Without them, we must
look to automatic machinery, for few Straits-born Chinese care to take up
the following trades: tailor, shoe-maker, launderer, barber, farmer,
butcher, fisherman, grocer, market stallholder, carpenter, bricklayer,
painter, machine-shop artisan, boiler-maker, blacksmith, lumberjack,
sawmill worker, stevedore, lighterman, lorry-driver, taxi-driver, omnibus
driver and conductor, mining coolie, tapper, and the indispensable
Despite some signs of "resinicisation", many Babas tended to reciprocate
the insults and teasing of the non-Baba Chinese by calling them "country
bumpkins" and low-class guests.
With the increased ambiguity of the status of the Babas, many of them
neither dared to admit they were Babas nor spoke Baba Malay in public. The
days of Baba Malay as an inter-group language of commercial value were also
gone, and Baba Malay stagnated and became confined to the domestic domain.
The once flourishing literary activities in Baba Malay came to a grinding
halt and wayang peranakan and dondang sayang were in crisis. Thus, the most
important "Malay" aspect of the previous Baba identity was indeed in
On a political level, the good relations between the Babas and the Malays
also deteriorated somewhat when, during the pre-independence struggle for
Merdeka, the Malays were infuriated by secessionist Babas. To the Malays,
those Babas were "puppets" or even "pariahs" of the British Queen.
In contrast, the British, using eulogistic terms for the Babas, referred to
their loyalty to Singapore and their pioneer status.
During the twilight years of British rule here, between 1945 and 1959, the
SCBA appeared to continue with its successful tradition of providing
leadership. In its midst were not only city councillors, executive and
legislative councillors, but also the presidents of the then leading
The British openly viewed the "King's" or "Queen's Chinese" of the SCBA as
the "natural leaders" of the Chinese of Singapore.
THE SECOND TURNING-POINT
HOWEVER, there were early warning signs of the Babas' loss of influence.
Eventually, with the waning British influence, the failure of the
secessionists, the death of conservative "Baba politics" and the rapid rise
of the People's Action Party which led to self-rule in 1959, the Babas
reached the second crucial turning-point in their social history. This
usually ignored turning-point was marked by self-rule and the takeover by
the PAP. Although leading members of the PAP, such as Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Toh
Chin Chye and Dr Goh Keng Swee, were publicly described as English-educated
Babas, the Babas as a group were openly belittled as "deculturalised".
As a result, the Babas' influence as a group further declined in every
respect. Many Babas were in a state of shock and attempted to behave less
conspicuously in the immediate post-1959 period.
With the British no longer holding the reins of power, and the PAP's
victory, the SCBA and its successor organisations, the Singapore Chinese
Peranakan Association and the Peranakan Association, became politically
While the aims of the SCBA had been to serve Straits Chinese interests
politically in the context of British colonialism, the PA officially
emphasised values such as inter-racial and inter-cultural harmony,
religious tolerance and a common national identity.
Unofficially, though, the PA turned apolitical and revived its somewhat
dormant tendency to preserve the Babas' cultural heritage, a tendency which
became more marked with the so-called "revival of Baba culture".
The post-1959 period highlighted the relative unimportance of the Babas as
a politically, legally and economically defined group. The Babas, who were
formerly a rather heterogeneous group were affected by political interests
and an emphasis on a particular "Chineseness", and soon lost their
rationale for existence.
With the disappearance of this rationale and the heavy stress placed on the
political correctness of a "Chineseness" other than that of the Babas, we
not only observe radical changes in Baba culture but also an
ever-increasing number of intermarriages between Baba and non-Baba Chinese.
Marital unions between non-Baba Chinese and Babas had been facilitated
earlier by the Japanese Occupation and the anglicisation of Singapore
society. Baba cultural traditions or values no longer tended to be
transmitted to the children of these unions.
Other important factors which led to radical changes in Baba culture were
the erosion of demographic concentration and the subsequent disruption of
interactive networks, the advent of modern communications and the
simultaneous processes of "sinicisation" and "Singaporeanisation".
As a result, former courtship and marriage practices as well as other
customs and traditions such as ancestral and funeral rites were largely
abandoned. From the end of World War II, many Babas abandoned Chinese
religion and a syncretic system of beliefs, and embraced Christianity,
Moreover, Baba Malay and dondang sayang standards deteriorated, the sarong
kebaya was less seen in public and the art of Nyonya cuisine was at least
simplified, if not abandoned.
BEADED SLIPPERS MAKE A COMEBACK
THIS is not to deny the possibility of unexpected comebacks, such as the
current renewed interest in beaded -- and even beading! -- slippers in
Singapore or the recent revival of dondang sayang in Malacca, according to
William Gwee, an expert on Baba culture.
Baba Malay as a lingua franca had been on the decline from the '20s
onwards, and after Merdeka, English became the most important lingua
In addition, a gradual and incomplete switch in mother tongue from Baba
Malay to English occurred among the Singapore Babas.
Although the level of Baba Malay tended to be still high among the older
generation, it was deteriorating among, and not transmitted to, the younger
generation. The younger Babas, in particular, showed little interest in
Baba culture and were often reluctant to conceive of, or at least to openly
identify, themselves as Babas or Nyonyas. Occasionally, there was an
outright rejection of one's "Babaness", as in this view of one Baba who
declined to be named:
"My brother thinks the Baba culture is chaotic... it is completely out of
touch. You are a Chinese living in a community of Chinese, so how to
"My grandmother, grand-aunties, according to my brother, are such misfits.
My brother hates it with a passion. When he makes fun of the Peranakans, he
will always speak in a fake Malay accent saying, 'I not Malay, I Chinese.'
He finds that most humiliating, hard to break away from a 'non-culture'."
The same informant told me about a middle-aged Nyonya and the perceived
impracticality of the way of life of the older generation:
"One of my aunts purposely denies her 'Peranakanness'. To the Peranakans,
[it is] 'just enjoy', happy-go-lucky, almost ostentatious, leaving things
in the hands of God. To this auntie, materialism is more virtuous,
frugality, more to take charge of the future and welfare of your family,
investments. This is conceived of as more 'Chinese'.
"Auntie said, 'I'm glad that I married a Chinese. Mother is impractically
meticulous. [She] wants to go to church every day.' She curses her mother
right in front of her. 'My mother is good for nothing. She doesn't seem
able to cope, and she considers work a burden.' "
Generally, the younger generation became less and less distinguishable from
In 1984, the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew remarked: "In the generation
that is under 40 years, the differences between the Chinese-educated and
the English-educated have been blended and blurred by interaction in
integrated schools, the schools that first started to teach Chinese-stream
and English-stream students in the same school.
"Then there were many integrated families where some children went to
English-stream and others went to Chinese-stream schools. So the cultural
differences have almost disappeared."
The most important move towards a single Chinese identity among the Chinese
Singaporeans was the Government's equation of Mandarin with the Chinese
language. In 1981, a new educational policy for ethnically Chinese pupils
was put into effect, which makes the learning of Mandarin as their "mother
ADOPTING AN ALIEN 'MOTHER TONGUE'
FOR the Babas, the significance of the new policy was that they no longer
had the option to elect Malay as a second school language, but were obliged
to study Mandarin, a language which many of them regarded as rather alien.
A good number of Babas were in disagreement with the notion of Mandarin
being the "mother tongue" of the Babas and other Chinese Singaporeans, and
the equation of Chinese ethnicity with the ability to speak Mandarin was
They also felt strongly that their culture was no less Chinese than that of
other Chinese Singaporeans. However, by force of circumstances, the Babas
have accepted the heavy emphasis placed on Mandarin and have done what the
Babas have always been particularly good at: They have adapted to the
With the younger Babas becoming less and less distinguishable from non-Baba
Chinese, the former's need to separate themselves from the Malays was no
longer a problem.
Significantly, it was in Malaysia rather than in Singapore that the Babas
were seen as in a "unique position" to bridge the gap between the Malays
In Singapore, only the traditional Baba wedding was perceived by observers
such as Seow Peck Leng of the Young Women's Christian Association in 1968
as a "concrete proof that the spirit of co-operation, tolerance and
compromise did exist between the early Chinese immigrants and the early
Malay residents of Singapore".
Although the British as colonial masters were history, a leaning towards
British traits could be observed among some younger Babas.
For instance, Dick Lee (an internationally acclaimed Singaporean pop star),
in a newspaper interview in 1993, said he had suffered an identity crisis
for all of his life. "My [Nyonya] grandmother was very British. She drank
tea at four and read Jane Austen. I thought I was a character in an Enid
He only realised he was not English when he visited England at age 14.
In my description of the social and cultural history of the Babas, I have
refused to apply a modern, culturally-based definition of the Babas.
While the public focus until the electoral victory of the PAP was clearly
on Baba politics, there began -- after a decade of silence and the
Peranakan Association's intermittent attempts to restore some political
weight -- a public emphasis on Baba culture.
Ironically, this switch of emphasis occurred at a time when aspects of Baba
cultures not only began to disappear or be diluted, but they were also
commercialised and used to promote tourism.
The new cultural definition, which necessitated a deviation from the
equation of "Baba" with "Straits Chinese", is thus, in historical terms,
This assessment is not contradicted by the justifiable assumption that the
synonymous usage of the terms Straits Chinese, Peranakan and Baba in
written records was trailing behind the rapidly changing social reality of
Singapore and was becoming increasingly ambiguous.
In my interpretation, the Babas' newly-published distinctions between
"Straits Chinese" and "Babas" along cultural lines have to be taken
seriously when accounting for the time of their appearance and the more
recent past, but not further back (namely, the period preceding the
According to the new cultural definition, a Baba should also be a Hokkien.
According to some purist Hokkien Babas, who regard themselves as true-blue
Baba jati, non-Hokkien Babas are only Baba chelup.
The expression suggests that the Baba chelup are only superficially dipped
in the paint of Babaness and are at best "nominal" Babas. Apart from the
conceptual history until the late '50s which contradicts such a narrow
conception of a Baba, we have a few examples of prominent non-Hokkien
First and foremost, there is Hakka Baba Lee Kuan Yew (who regards himself
as a Baba only technically). Others are the Melaka dondang sayang singer
and serunee player Yeo Kim Swee, who is a Hainanese Baba, and Ambassador to
Germany Walter Woon, who is a Cantonese Baba.
With the new public focus on Baba culture between the late '60s and '70s
onwards, many Babas conceived of their culture as dying.
Unlike these prophets of doom, less fatalistic Babas acknowledged the
decline, but were more optimistic, contending that Babas should become more
conscious about, and more action-orientated towards, their cultural
Signs of a so-called revival of Baba culture were many: mock traditional
Baba wedding ceremonies, television documentaries, Nyonya fashion contests,
the commercialisation of so-called Nyonya food, Peranakan festivals, the
Baba "material cultures" turning antiques and museum exhibits, the
preservation of the so-called Peranakan architecture, books, popular
magazine and newspaper articles, the revival of plays in Baba Malay, annual
Baba Conventions and so on.
In addition, efforts were made to promote cultural tourism via the "exotic"
and glorious aspects of the "unique" Baba culture.
However, it soon became clear that the "revival of Baba culture" was
nothing more than just a nostalgic curiosity item, an exotic tourist
attraction and a museum showpiece. These developments notwithstanding,
there is a minority of Babas who still follow what they perceive as the
"essence" of Baba culture and who attempt to transmit this "essence" to the
The writer, a German, is a senior researcher with the Friedrich Naumann
Foundation here. Reconstructing Identities: A Social History Of The Babas
In Singapore (Ashgate/507 pages/$108) is based on his thesis for his PhD
from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany. Field work was done
here between May 1992 and October 1994.
- extracted from Sunday Times (3/1/1999)