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Culture in Malaysia: Baba & Nyonya

Culture in Malaysia
Baba & Nyonya
500 to 600 years ago when Chinese traders arrived in parts of the Malay Peninsula
The Chinese men did not bring their women folk along, and many intermarried with the local
There are traces of Portuguese, Dutch, British, Malay and Indonesian influences in Baba

Baba Nyonya subscribed to Chinese beliefs: Taoism, Confucianism and Chinese Buddhism
A certain number of Baba Nyonya families were and still are, Catholic
Chinese New Year: It is a day to renew family ties, get togethers with relatives, friends and
family members, much eating and merriment and the joy of receiving angpaus for the young.
The Peranakans of yesteryear would also sohjar or bow to their elders during Chinese New
Year as a mark of respect. This shojar is usually performed with the person kneeling and
greetings of : "Panjang Panjany umor dan banyak untong" or May you have a long life filled
with much blessings is usually said. It is also not Peranakan custom to actually give oranges
during Chinese New Year visitations.

Celebration of Ti Kong's Birthday (9th day of Chinese New Year) - Sugar cane was
offered in memory of survivors of a massacre during the Sung dynasty, who had hidden in the
sugarcane fields to escape their enemies' notice.

Mooncake Festival - Mooncakes are eaten during the Mooncake Festival to commemorate
Chang'Er who swallowed a pill, which was the Elixir of Eternal Life and floated to the moon.

Dumpling Festival - The Peranakans also celebrated the Dragon Boat Festival with their
own version of the Bak Chang (dumplings). The Nyonya Bak Chang or Nyonya kueh chang is
made up of cubed pork, chestnuts and glutinous rice. The uniqueness of the dish is the fact
that it is sweet rather than salty and the dumpling is wrapped using pandan leaves which
gives its an aromatic flavour.

The Kichen God Festival - Prayers to the Kitchen God were said on stipulated days and
offerings were given so that he would report to the God of Heaven in a favourable manner.
Prayers and incense were offered to him on his return to thank him for his favourable report.
The Kitchen God was also supposed to bless the food in the household and to ensure a
plentiful and bountiful supply of food.

The Sembayang Hantu Festival (Hungry Ghost Festival) - Like all other Chinese
communities this was the day when the Family ancestral altar was cleaned and where
offerings of food, inscence and paper money were offered to the encestors. Visits to temples
and mediums would also be done to ensure that the ancestor was well in the afterworld. As
very devout Taoists, Peranakan households always had a large hallway dedicated for
ancestor worship.

Culture in Malaysia: Baba & Nyonya

Traditional food

Peranakan or Nyonya cuisine combines Chinese, Malay and other influences into a unique
blend. Nyonya cooking is the result of blending Chinese ingredients and wok cooking
techniques with spices used by the Malay/Indonesian community. The food is tangy, aromatic,
spicy and herbal.

There are regional variations in Nyonya cooking. Dishes from the island of Penang in the
northern part of Peninsular Malaysia show Thai influences, such as more liberal use of
tamarind and other sour ingredients. Dishes from Singapore and Malacca show a greater
Malay-Indonesian influence, such as the use of coconut milk.

Nyonya recipes are handed down from one generation to the next.

Examples of Nyonya specialities :

Ayam Buah Keluak, a distinctive dish combining chicken pieces with nuts from the Pangium
edule or kepayang tree to produce a rich sauce;

Itek Tim, a classic soup containing duck, tomatoes, green peppers, salted vegetables, and
preserved sour plums simmered gently together.

Nyonya desserts include colourful cakes (kuih) and sweet, sticky delicacies.

Acar - various pickled meats and vegetables like acar keat lah (honey lime/calamansi), achar
hu (fried fish), acar kiam hu (salt fish), acar timun (cucumber), acar awat (mixed vegetables).
Ayam pongteh, a chicken stew cooked with tauchu or salted soy beans and gula melaka. It
is usually saltish-sweet and can be substituted as a soup dish in peranakan cuisine.
Cincalok, a Malay-inspired yet distinctly Nyonya condiment made of fermented shrimp
Itek Tim or Kiam Chye Ark Th'ng is a soup whose main ingredients are duck and preserved
mustard leaf and cabbage flavoured with nutmeg seed, Chinese mushrooms, tomatoes and
Jiew Hu Char is a dish made up mainly of shredded vegetables like turnip, carrot, and
cabbage and fried together with thinly shredded dried cuttlefish.
Kerabu Bee Hoon is a salad dish comprising rice vermicelli mixed with sambal belacan,
honey lime (limau kesturi/calamansi) juice, and finely-chopped herbs and spices. Other
famous salad dishes are kerabu bok ne (black fungus/ telinga tikus), kerabu kay (chicken),
kerabu kay khar (chicken feet), kerabu timun (cucumber), kerabu kobis (cabbage), kerabu
kacang botol (four angled bean), kerabu bak poey (pork skin).
Masak Belanda is a dish made from sliced pork and salt fish simmered together with
tamarind juice.
Masak Lemak is a style of cooking vegetable stew that makes liberal use of coconut milk.
There are various versions of masak lemak. One example uses spinach as the main
ingredient. In another version sweet potato is the main ingredient.
Masak Titik is a style of cooking vegetable soup that makes liberal use of peppercorns. One
version uses watermelon rind as the main ingredient. Another makes use of green or semi
ripe papaya.
Nasi Kunyit (Translated into English as "Turmeric Rice") is glutinous rice cooked with
turmeric colouring and is usually served with coconut milk chicken curry, "Ang Koo" (Literally
"Red Tortoise", a Nyonya Cake) and Pink-dyed hard-boiled egg(s) as a gift of appreciation in
celebration of the 1st month of a newly-born child.
Nasi Ulam is a herbed rice comprising a variety of herbs (daun kaduk, daun cekur, daun
kesum etc.) shredded thinly and mixed raw into hot rice with pounded dried shrimp (hae bee)
and salt fish (kiam hu) and chopped shallots.

Culture in Malaysia: Baba & Nyonya

Ngoh Hiang (so called because of the use of Chinese five spice powder to flavour the mined
meat), also known as Lor Bak (so called because of the lor or starch-based dipping sauce) is
a fried, sausage like dish made from minced pork rolled up in soya bean curd sheets and
deep fried.
Otak-otak is a Malay-inspired fish cake blending fish, coconut milk, chili paste, galangal, and
herbs wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled. The town of Muar is famous for it. The Penang
Nyonya otak-otak is steamed, not grilled and the distinct flavour and aroma or daun kaduk
and coconut milk is clearly evident in this unique version.
Perut Ikan is a spicy stew (of the asam pedas variety similar to asam laksa) comprising
mainly vegetables/herbs and getting its distinctive taste mainly from fish bellies preserved in
brine and daun kaduk (The Wild Pepper leaf is from the Piper stylosum or the Piper
sarmentosum). A classic Penang Nyonya dish.

Performing Arts
Ronggeng: a dance step similar in style to joget but it was more fast tempo than joget was.
Usually ronggeng was danced to the music of the kronchong, another Indonesian inspired
musical form that the Peranakans of old adored nad cherished.
Joget: a form of dancing that uses dance steps similar to that of swaying your feet and hands up
and down in a frontal and backwards direction. It is done however in a very slow but graceful
manner. Joget takes some getting used to and the songs sung are mostly in Baba Malay.
Popular melodies are Begawan Solo and other Pantun proses.
Peranakan Dondang Sayang: consists of 2 persons singing of a prose of songs sang
individually until all 6 lines of the prose are completed.
An example of Dondang Sayang is as follows: Tingi, tingi rumah Chek Long Long, Di bawahnya
dibuat deday kaen, Alangkah bias ulair tedong, Boleh kah di tangkap buat maen? Tingi tingi
rumah Chek Long, Dibawahnya dijuair pokok, Goa tak takot ulair tedong, krana goa uliar sendok
Translated: Mr Longs house is very high, under it is a cloth shop, maybe there is a sname, can I
catch it to play with? Mister Longs home is very tall, under it is a tree, I am not scared of little
sname as I am an even bigger snake that it is!
Male: Peranakans in the past wore the Kain pelekat as casual attire, which is a type of Indian
cloth made of cotton about 2m long and 1.2m wide.
Women: Nyonyas wore sarongs with various styled blouses as a 2-piece ensemble known in
Malay as the baju panjang which consists of a long tunic worn over a sarong. Fastened with
kerongsang (brooches), the tunics are worn with colourful sarongs. . However, these ladies wore
only an inner blouse with sarongs at home. This fashionable blouse is hip-length and called a
"short dress" in Hokkien. The Vshaped neckline of the baju panjang would reveal the inner
blouse and its high collar and complete with a large square hankerchief (saputangan/setangan).

Peranakan beaded slippers: are made of Peranakan cut beads (manek potong) where the
popular motifs used for the patterns were flowers, birds, butterflies, and fruits. The beaded

Culture in Malaysia: Baba & Nyonya

slippers were worn by both the Peranakan males (baba) and females (nyonya) and were popular
in the 1930s. Nowadays, the beaded slippers are more commonly worn by women only.

Past Time
Makan sireh or tobacco chewing: Sireh became part and parcel of Peranakan culture when
intermarriages between the Chinese and Malays increased and it soon became incorporated into
the Peranakan way of life. Peranakan households always had one or two tempat sireh sets at
home. Sireh sets would be used to store the sireh leaves, tobacco and chalk needed to
complement this pastime. It was actually the chewing gum of today.
Cherki, the game of the Nyonyas of yore: The game itself is played using a deck of 60 cards,
each measuring about 60mm x 24mm, with three suits and nine numerals for each suit. . Playing
cherki is not easy as it had many hokkien and malay words that were used in the game. It is
difficult for Peranakans are not conversant in hokkien or in malay to be well versed in the game.
The symbols and characters used in Cherki cards denote such names that are used while
playing. Nyonyas of old would gather around the cherki table to gossip, chew sireh, or chit chat
while playing the game.
CHONGKAK: Chongkak is a game whereby small crowlie shells are put into different
compartments that look like holes. Chongkak boards can be either plain or ornate and can consist
of up to 14 or 16 holes in total. What is done is that the holes are filled with 7 shells in total. Only
two persons can play the game at a time and each person has his base or house in the cavity at
the outmost cavity of the board. The object of the game is to fill ones house with as much shells
as possible. The winner is the one with the most shells at the time when there are no more shells
in the 14 or 18 holes.

Prenuptial Procedures: Although the traditional wedding runs for twelve days as mentioned
earlier, pre-nuptial procedures are to be observed four days before the actual wedding day. They
begin with the presentation of the birth certificates Sang Jee & preparation of the bridal chamber
Ann Ching, On this day at the chosen time, bananas, yams & citronella plants (serai) are placed
under the bridal bed by a young boy Koo Yah who is privileged to roll thrice on the bridal bed for
the first time.
On the next two days relatives come to give a helping hand for the preparation of wedding
decorations & food. These days are therefore referred to as Peeling of Onions & Pounding
of Flour respectively. The bride-to-be is made to sit in the bridal chamber like a bride but with a
slight difference in that she is dressed up in a costume Hock Chiew which is not so heavily
embroidered as the Wedding Costume Koon Hoe & she is also not allowed to put on the front
piece of the Head-dress known as Pak Sian. This gives her the opportunity to get used to the
heavy Head-dress & costumes with all the finery & also to practice the ceremonial movements &
gestures under the guidance of expert mistress of ceremonies Sangkeh mm.
On the eve of the Wedding besides mid-day luncheon or dinner being given Chia Lang Khek
the gifts for the bride & groom-to-be are exchanged. The elaborately decorated gifts displayed on
brass trays are carried in procession between the two homes. They consist of twelve different
gifts such as two pairs of candles with symbols of dragon & phoenix, nnggit (silver coins painted
with red dots in the center), pigs legs, cockerel & chicken, a pair of shoes for each with materials

Culture in Malaysia: Baba & Nyonya

or dresses, rings, ang-pow, 8 betel nuts (painted in gold) wine, rock sugar, dried Mata kuching
fruits, a pair of oranges and pomegranates and half a dozen tins of Chinese delicacies.
The Cheo Thau ceremony is one of the most important ceremonies and marks the first occasion
when the bride and bridegroom will wear their authentic wedding robes. The actual wedding
ceremony will only take place before noon that day, after the Cheo Thau ceremony. This
ceremony is one of great fanfare where the groom heads a procession of seronnee (a musical
instrument), musicians, men carrying umbrellas, and lanterns. The whole troop will then proceed
to the brides residence after a series of rituals at his home.
The father then prays at the High Altar and offers wine to God, the Creator, by pouring wine four
times on the floor. Following this he offers a sip of wine from the same cup to his beloved
daughter who is now a woman (no longer a child under his care ). The bride is then veiled by both
her parents, a ceremony which often brings tears to the eyes of all concerned and thereafter she
awaits the coming of the groom. The Malay "Sembah Mak Bapak" or the honoring one of one's
parents in the old malay style would be performed.
Chin Pang Ceremony: Next, follows the Chin Pang Ceremony which marks the first meeting
between the couple where the bride would lead the groom into the bridal chamber where he
would unveil her. Together they would be served tea and a bowl of kueh ee small white and red
dumplings in a sweet broth. The arrival of the groom is announced by the sound of crackers
Seroni music and the sound of gongs. He is accompanied by a couple of gong beaters Pak
Kim and a couple of Best Men Puah Kiahas well as a Master of Ceremonies. Having been
greeted by the members of the brides family with a shower of saffron rice and perfume, the
bridegroom is met at the entrance of the house by a page-boy Koo Yah who offers him an
orange and he in return offers a red packet as a toll. The bridegroom and his retinue are ushered
by the brides father into the house where they are offered tea and noodles Mee Swa. The
Master of Ceremonies then leads the bridegroom to the entrance of the inner hall and summons
the bride by reciting a proverb and she advances to the door but does not pass through it. The
two Best Men are then driven out.
Nowadays, the principal ceremonies mentioned above, which were formerly performed on 12
different days , are carried out in 1 day. Even so they still retain their significance and add
grandeur to a marriage.
A Pak Chindek, and a Sang Kek Um (the wedding masters and mistresses respectively) are most
often required because traditions become so complex that weddings need to be orchestrated by
wedding specialists. The third ceremony takes place in the bridal chamber. This is called chianh
sia. This ceremony is amusing and unique because friends and guests of the bridegroom would
gather in the room and tease the bride with the hope of inducing laughter from the bride. And if
the bride does indeed break out into uncontrollable fits of laughter, the unfortunate groom would
have to treat all the guests to dinner.
The finale of the wedding ceremony, would be the dua belas hari or Twelfth Day ceremony, where
the marriage would be conformed and approved by proof of the brides virginity. Firstly, the brides
parents would invite the bridegrooms mother to inspect the bloodstain cloth. She would be invited
to perform a test by squeezing lime juice on the blood stain cloth in hope of ascertaining the
authencity of the stain. However, she would normally refrain from performing the test as it would
also demean the bride.
Among the array of wedding foods is the quintessential Nasi Lemak. This rice dish cooked in rich
coconut milk is served during the wedding feast. Duabelas Hari is traditionally held on the 12th

Culture in Malaysia: Baba & Nyonya

(last day) of the entire wedding celebration. It is a special feast marking the important occasion of
verifying the bride's virginity / purity on the night of consumation. The nasi lemak is prepared by
the groom's family and is presented to the bride's family only when all are in happy agreement.
This signifies that all is well. Duabelas Hari is held at the groom's house, consumed in Tok
Panjang style of the Babas, meaning guests take turns to eat at the dinner table.
Nasi Lemak is served commonly with 24 dishes including the must-have sambal serving. This
symbolizes the harmony of a successful match between the newlyweds. Other wedding foods
also include Apom Bok Kwa and Nasi Ulam. If there is too much food, leftovers are packed in
colorful and gaudy tengkas (tiffin carriers) for family members and guests to take home.
Nowadays, the Duabelas Hari is almost a thing of the past as the younger generation thinks it is a
waste of money and time. Most prefer the short cut of quicker wedding celebrations.


Old Bibiks of yesteryear would also visit malay keramats or burial grounds to pray and ask for
They would also consult fortune tellers, magicians and bomohs or even visit hindu temples for

At the full lunar month muar-guay ceremony, that is, thirty days after the birth of the child
Nyonyas would hold a ceremony whereby nasi kunyit (steamed glutinous tumeric rice),
chicken curry and red bean cakes in the shape of tortoises ( ang-koo) together with either
ang-t'oe or ang-ee and two red hard-boiled chicken eggs would be offered to the ancestors
and the rest distributed to relatives and close friends.
The muar-guay ceremony also marks the end of the pantang (taboo or abstinence period for
the baby's mother) as was also practised by the Malay women after child delivery.
The Malays refered to nasi kunyit as pulot kuning or nasi kuning and they used it lavishly at
thanksgiving ceremonies (kenduris ).

Muar guay cakes for this occasion would be : Nasi kunyit , two hard boiled eggs, two
tortoises ang koo , two peaches ang t'oe (the last signifying that the baby is a girl).
A Taoist priest or priestess is invited to help clean and dress the deceased before placing the
body in the coffin.
The deceased would be dressed in the white pyjamas worn on his wedding eve. Some of the
deceased's favourite clothes are also placed in the coffin.
The whole body will be covered with silver paper which is replicas of bank notes.

White candles are used for the main rituals, but if the deceased was an octogenarian or died
at a ripe old age, red candles are burnt instead.
Why are these rituals observed? The reason being, the fear of corpses talking and rising from
the dead.
The Peranakans believed that death is a continuation of living. Therefore, the deceased
needed to have everything he had possessed in this world to be taken with him to the nether
world as well. Thus, goods such as money, televisions or motor cars, represented in paper
crafts and made in miniature, are burnt as offerings.
The family of the deceased is to mourn for a total of one-and-a half-years. They are to wear
twelve months of black, the next three months in black and blue or white, and for the last
three months they wear green.

Culture in Malaysia: Baba & Nyonya

Members of the deceased cannot visit friends or relatives during the Chinese New Year for
fear that they may bring bad luck and death to the house visited. Friends and relatives too do
not visit these homes.

Straits Chinese house
Many of the Chinese Peranakan residential terrace shophouses in Melaka and Penang that
were built in the early 20th century have been declared heritage buildings and retain many of
their original features as follows:
1. Air-wells that function as open courtyards
2. European style columns and pilasters
3. Malay-inspired timber panels and carvings
4. Tall, panelled Chinese wooden doors
5. Louvred windows, borrowed from Portuguese colonial architecture

In Penang, examples of the Straits Eclectic style can be see along a number of major
roads including Magazine Road, Sultan Ahmad Shah Road (Northam Road), Burmah
Road, Prangin Creek and Muntri Street.

In Malacca, the buildings can be seen along Tun Tan Cheng Lock (Heeren Street) and
Hang Jebat Road (Jonkers Street), some of which date back in the Dutch period.