Immediately after leaving the highway at Simpang Ampat, on the drive south from Kuala Lumpur to Melaka, you can choose one of two directions.
One takes you towards the tomb of Dol Said, the leader of what was once the chiefdom of Naning, who led the 1812-3 war against the East India Company. The other eventually leads you to Bukit Rambai, where the ethnologist Tan Chee-Beng lived in 1977, conducting fieldwork for his dissertation. The sea was once close by, but now it lies far away. You can drive further down the coast, where Sepoy troops once awaited their deployment in the Java campaign of the Napoleonic Wars, until you reach the old town itself. Once the heart of the former Sultanate of Melaka, it is now surrounded by the debris of a growing city – faceless architecture, traffic congestion, and by night the gentrified Jonkerstraat is transformed into an enormous market for the tourists, now boasting an H&M and a Hard Rock Cafe. With post-lockdown measures in place, local paramilitary volunteers are on hand to keep count of the slightly smaller crowds. This area was what Roland Braddell once called “the fashionable and aristocratic resort of the Chinese”, where the nucleus of the Baba society developed – the oft-misunderstood Peranakan Chinese of Malaysia.
There is much confusion about the use of various terms to denote these Chinese descendants known as the Baba, and terms like “Straits Chinese” and “Peranakan” – the latter is actually a general term that refers to “local-born people”, of which the Chinese Peranakan were a subset.
There is much confusion about the use of various terms to denote these Chinese descendants known as the Baba, and terms like “Straits Chinese” and “Peranakan” – the latter is actually a general term that refers to “local-born people”, of which the Chinese Peranakan were a subset. While the Baba were not the only creole societies in the region – in Melaka there were also the Eurasians, descendants of the 16th-century Portuguese colonists, the Chitty or Indian Peranakans, and further afield there were the mixed Chinese societies on the far northeastern coast or those of Java – they have achieved a particular prominence that is interesting to look at in more detail.
Returning to the old town, on the quieter, adjacent Heeren Street, renamed after Sir Tun Tan Cheng Lock, the Baba political leader who once survived a grenade attack during the Emergency, the backyards of the grand longhouses once opened to the shore, but years of reclamation turned the beach into yet another street. Many of the old properties, with their distinct Chinese architectural motifs, engraved with characters that the old families could likely never read, have been sold out to the non-Babas, but some of the Baba still maintain their ancestral homes, or rumah abu. The character of the old town changed over the years, from a sleepy backwater to a vibrant tourist trap, and now the cliched signs of Baba culture have become some of Melaka’s enduring symbols – Nyonya cuisine, material culture like their kerongsang and kebaya, for instance. All this even though they constitute a tiny minority within a minority, out of place in the heated discussions of belonging and identity in everyday Malaysia. In a highly politicized environment where ideas of culture, ethnicity, and belonging are delineated sharply by the state, the Baba operate in a strange in-between place.
Tan incorporated these details and more into his dissertation, later published in book form as The Baba of Melaka, filled with details of festivals, kinship patterns, the names on gravestones, and the television programmes that the villagers watched. This research was a product of the postwar period, which did away with the colonial-scholars, when paranoia of international Communism and the war in Vietnam placed the United States at the heart of more critical, post-Orientalist scholarship on Asia. Until the end of the colonial period, scholarly interest in Malaysia was more concerned with deep antiquity, like the ancient civilizations of Old Kedah with its Hindu-Buddhist relics.
Tan’s alma mater, Cornell University, boasted a dynamic Southeast Asia programme. In Benedict Anderson’s memoir, A Life Beyond Boundaries, he describes the atmosphere of the Ithaca campus and the direction of its scholarship during this time: diverse, academically eclectic, where towering scholars such as Oliver Wolters, William Skinner and Clifford Geertz laid the foundations for further development of the field – some of the men whose work Tan referenced. Like him, other students from Asia would arrive and eventually return to regions where nationalism was marching in disturbing directions as the Cold War continued, the personal and the political increasingly blurred. And as such, works such as Tan’s book began to fill part of that niche, to tell a richer story of what being Chinese in Malaysia was.
The first recorded permanent Chinese settlers arrived in the 18th century, although the legend goes that they are descended from the retinue of a princess sent by the Emperor to marry the Sultan. With their roots in Chinese culture but with elements of Nusantara’s culture added on, the people who would eventually be called the Baba found themselves becoming the perfect intermediaries for the arriving colonial powers. The upper classes among the Baba adapted, taking to English education and customs, with the richer aristocrats proudly referring to themselves as “King’s Chinese”, founded upon the belief in their higher station and their tight grip on the colonial economy. In turn, the Baba community were a curiosity to the scholar-bureaucrats who went about “scientifically” classifying the societies and geographies of what they considered Greater India, with Crawford disdainfully remarking that the Baba were “a race inferior in energy and spirit to the original settlers”. The need to classify and study to fill the needs of the colonial state permeated every area of scholarship, filled with stereotypes and misunderstandings, to the detriment of uncovering a more thoughtful, more complete narrative.
The first recorded permanent Chinese settlers arrived in the 18th century, although the legend goes that they are descended from the retinue of a princess sent by the Emperor to marry the Sultan.
Thus tied to colonial interests, the Baba remained largely divorced from the struggles of Chinese modernization, even volunteering to send troops to quell the Boxer Rebellion and remaining largely aloof from the movements of Kang Youwei and Dr Sun Yat-sen even as both the reformer’s and the revolutionary’s supporters fought for influence in the South Sea, although the intellectual Lim Boon Keng did admit to the need for reform among the community to avoid degenerating and maintaining “old Chinese customs and notions even when China had been compelled to move on” – including the practice of keeping the women secluded at home. And with this began the slow process of change, later accelerated by the harsh policing of ethnic borders by the post-Independence Malaysian government, with its policies on citizenship and the closed doors to Communist China.
Being Baba means self-identifying as a member of a community that is at once adaptable and conservative. While on the surface the Baba have adopted many aspects from Malay culture, with a love for bangsawan theatre and the poetry of pantun in their adopted language, they remain steadfastly Chinese, with the maintenance of astonishingly ancient ancestral customs in weddings and funerals and the dedication to ancestors and folk religions, and even sending their sons back to China to be educated – although they are notably not fond of Chinese tea. But such adaptations were in accordance with their place as a tiny community of relative outsiders. Intermarriage over the years with Malay, Javanese, Balinese and women from the region – with a significant number of the wives and concubines being initially slaves, although as women, their histories were forgotten with time – produced a creole culture, eventually forming the nucleus of the distinct Baba identity.
But with the start of British colonization of Malaya, imperial exploitation led to an increase in migrant labour. Much development was based on the exploitation of Indian labour, and to lesser extent workers from the outlying islands, but a large bulk of the workforce consisted of Chinese labour from the weakening Qing empire, largely from Fujian and Guangdong province. Some labourers would have gone to the “New World”, but the large majority found themselves in the South Sea, wherein time they would outcompete the Baba in the economic sphere. Even the languages changed – illiterate in Chinese, the Baba put their faith in English, the language of power, and Baba Malay as a written language never made its way into the mainstream, hampered by low readership and quietly vanishing despite being used in short-lived newspapers and translations of Chinese classics. When Tan first arrived in the Bukit Rambai, his reliance on Standard Malay terms of address caused much amusement, with the family of his interviewee telling each other about the “Chinese student from a university” who had shown up to begin his fieldwork. Meanwhile, the villagers’ heirlooms, such as the antique porcelain and Shanghai vases, stayed hidden from the pestering eyes of travelling collectors.
With independence, the Baba would never again hold the same status or position of power. Gone were their notions of being “sons of the soil” or the privilege they once held, and some of their privileged leaders continued to agitate for a return to being colonial subjects, British citizens, even as the eve of independence in 1957 approached. In the end, they were still regarded as immigrants, newcomers, as the national economic and cultural restructuring in the wake of the May 13th riots in 1969 grew more deeply entrenched.
If you venture further down the coast, past the Portuguese Settlement, there is a jetty where you can catch a ferry to Pulau Besar, once dotted with keramat, the shrines of Muslim saints. In the old days the Baba, in addition to practicing elements of traditional folk religion, would make their pilgrimages to the island, a relic of a more syncretic world, where “Malay sacred symbols [were] manipulated to fit into the Chinese concept of spirits”. The lines of religions and ethnicity are drawn much more sharply now, and the traditional use of the old terms, “Datuk” (for gods in general) and “Tuhan Allah” (the highest god of heaven), or their visits to churches and Hindu temples, seems incredible.
My great-grandmother’s family lived near the sea as well, but on the northern part of the coast. The family was Peranakan and the old family home was located in George Town, where there are still trappings of the world in which the family lived, with the classic ancestral photographs of ancestors in Western and Malay-style dress on the walls. Despite being only a few hours away from Melaka, Peranakan society here is very different, from its customs to the language: primarily Hokkien interspersed with the odd Malay words, betraying the accents of the north.
Interest in Baba culture received a welcome boost in the wake of Tan’s research, after which he was consulted by museums and cultural associations alike, keen on preserving and better understanding their own heritage. Perhaps in its own way, this has led to what seems like a permanent saturation of Straits Chinese imagery not just in the tourist quarters, but in broader popular culture; as seen in film and television, such as in The Ghost Bride, The Little Nyonya, and (in the film adaptation at least) Crazy Rich Asians. This was quite a different outcome from the initial pessimism of Tan’s informants about the “persistence of Baba identity … [and] the decline of the Baba population”. Yet the popular image is superficial, lacking an understanding of their history and the different divisions within Baba society: the rich and the poor, the urban and the rural, and not to mention between speech groups: Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese…
Perhaps in its own way, this has led to what seems like a permanent saturation of Straits Chinese imagery not just in the tourist quarters, but in broader popular culture; as seen in film and television, such as in The Ghost Bride, The Little Nyonya, and (in the film adaptation at least) Crazy Rich Asians.
I had once liked the idea of bringing up this distant Peranakan heritage as a way of asserting belonging and heritage, laying claim to the right of belonging. But I never looked too closely into the history of the family itself, nor did I know the language and the customs, and separated by distant kinship and generations, the Peranakans seemed to belong to a vanished world. The idea of claiming a richer heritage than what I already had was a powerful draw. The past, it seemed, was always richer than the lacklustre present. But laying a claim to heritage is always more complicated than it seems.
All information on the Baba is taken from the new edition of Tan Chee-Beng’s seminal book on the community. See Tan Chee-Beng. 2021 . The Baba of Melaka: Culture and Identity in a Chinese Peranakan Community in Malaysia. SIRD: Petaling Jaya. Most of the research material was generously made available by the Gerakbudaya / SIRD publishing house in Malaysia. Other useful readings include Michael Stenson’s analysis of immigrant labour in Class, Race and Colonialism in Peninsular Malaysia: A Political History of Malaysian Indians.
William Tham Wai Liang was formerly Senior Editor at Ricepaper. His newest book, “The Last Days,” is set in 1981 and covers the continuing legacy of the Emergency. His first book, “Kings of Petaling Street,” was shortlisted for the Penang Monthly Book Prize in 2017 and will be republished shortly. He edited “Paper & Text,” a collection of essays on Malaysian literature and the book trade.