Singapore // The Colonial District //

The Baba-Nonyas

From the sixteenth century onwards, male Chinese immigrants came to settle in the Malay Peninsula, chiefly in Malacca, Penang (both in what is now Malaysia) and Singapore, and often married Malay women. The male offspring of such unions were termed Baba and the females Nonya (or Nyonya), though the community as a whole is also sometimes called Straits Chinese or simply Peranakan, an umbrella term denoting a culture born both of intermarriage and of communities living side by side over generations.

Baba-Nonya society adapted and fused elements from both its parent cultures, and had its own dialect of Malay and unique style. The Babas were often wealthy and were not afraid to flaunt this fact in their lavish townhouses featuring furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl and hand-painted tilework. The Nonyas wore Malay-style batik-printed clothes and were accomplished at crafts such as beadwork, with beaded slippers a particular speciality. However, it is their cuisine, marrying Chinese cooking with contrasting flavours from spices, tamarind and coconut milk, that is the culture’s most celebrated legacy.

During the colonial era, many Baba-Nonyas acquired an excellent command of English and so prospered. Subsequently, however, they came under pressure to assimilate into the mainstream Chinese community despite often not speaking much Chinese (the Baba-Nonyas were sometimes labelled “OCBC” after the name of a local bank, though in their case the acronym meant “orang Cina bukan Cina”, Malay for “Chinese [yet] not Chinese”). It is partly as a result of this assimilation that many of their traditions have gone into serious decline.

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