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Author(s): TAN CHEE-BENG

Source: Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, Deel 144, 2/3de Afl. (1988), pp. 297314
Published by: Brill
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This paper deals with acculturation and the ethnic identity of the Baba

Chinese in Malaysia (see also Tan 1979, 1980, 1981, 1983b, and 1984a

& b). It intends to show that, in studying cultural change, one has to
pay attention to what may be called the underlying structure of a culture.

One does not merely describe the cultural form, but should examine
how a new or apparently new cultural feature may have been shaped
by the underlying structural principles of the changing culture in re
sponse to changing economic, political, social or even ecological condi
tions. This approach allows us to view culture in a dynamic way. Unless
a particular cultural component has been somehow totally discarded,
its evolution will have been shaped by the interaction of its underlying
principles with the changing environment through the cognitive process.

The idea of structure in relation to change is most relevant to the

study of the cultural continuity and transformation of Chinese com
munities in different parts of the world. The ancestors of th? 'overseas'
Chinese came from China, and so they originally shared certain similar
Chinese cultural traditions. The adaptation to different environments
has resulted in the differential transformation of traditions, which has
added to the diversity of 'overseas' Chinese cultures. The similarities
and differences between these various cultures thus are the result of a
differential interplay of Chinese structural principles with different social
1 This paper is based on a talk to the Department of Anthropology, Institute of Cultural

and Social Studies, University of Leiden, on 6 May 1986. Footnotes and references

have been added since. I wish to thank Prof. P. E. de Josselin de Jong for inviting me
to give this talk and for introducing me to structuralist studies in the Netherlands.

TAN CHEE-BENG, who obtained his Ph.D. from Cornell University, is a lecturer in
the Department of Chinese Studies at the University of Malaya. Specialized in ethnicity,
Chinese religion and Chinese anthropology, he has previously published The Development

and Distribution of Dejiao Associations in Malaysia: A Study on a Chinese Religious

Organization, Singapore: ISEAS, 1985, and The Baba of Melaka. Culture and Identity of
a Chinese Peranakan Community in Malaysia, Petaling Jay a: Pelanduk Publications, 1988.

Dr. Tan may be contacted at the Department of Chinese Studies, Universiti Malaya,
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

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Tan Chee-Beng

forces. In this way the 'overseas' Chinese may be regarded as constituting

an ethnological field of study2, in which one may investigate how tra

ditional Chinese cultural principles have structured the transformation
of cultural institutions, and how these principles are in turn being struc
tured by the transformation.
The material in this paper is based on a study of the Baba of Melaka,
Malaysia. The largest ethnic group in Malaysia is that of the Malays,
followed by the Chinese, the Indians, and many other smaller groups.
The Baba form a minority within the Chinese group. They are 'Peranak
an Chinese', which term refers to the various groups of Malay-speaking
Chinese in Indonesia and Malaysia (the Malay word peranakan literally

meaning 'locally born'). The Peranakan Chinese cultures, whether in

Malaysia or Indonesia, are products of the traditional Chinese culture
adjusting to regional indigenous cultural elements. In the case of the
Baba of Melaka, a Baba version of Malay is spoken as mother tongue.
These Baba have also adopted certain other features of Malay culture,
such as the wearing of sarong and kebaya by the nyonya (Baba women),
the Malay style of cooking, and so on.

The Baba in Melaka, today numbering around 5000 persons, style

themselves both 'Baba' and 'Peranakan'. The label 'Baba Melaka' is
used, too, namely to stress the Melaka origin of these people, in contrast
to, say, the Baba of Singapore. There is still a small group of Baba in
Singapore, but the younger generation of these Baba do not speak much
Malay, but are more used to speaking English. Furthermore, most Baba
in Singapore are Christians, whereas those in Melaka, with only a few
exceptions, still practise the traditional Chinese religion. There was once

also a group of 'Penang Baba', but these were actually locally born
Straits Chinese in Penang, the label 'Straits Chinese' referring to locally
born Chinese of the Straits Settlements, comprising Penang, Melaka
and Singapore. The 'Penang Baba', however, spoke Chinese (Hokkien)
rather than Malay among themselves. Thus they should be distinguished

2 The concept of 'field of ethnological study' was first proposed by J. P. B. de Josselin

de Jong (in 1935, see J. P. B. de Josselin de Jong 1983). By this he means, 'certain
areas of the earth's surface with a population whose culture appears to be sufficiently
homogeneous and unique to form a separate object of ethnological study, and which
at the same time apparently reveals sufficient local shades of difference to make internal

comparative research worthwhile' (pp. 167-168). This 'field' in the present article is
of course not defined in geographical terms, but by the fact that the societies in question
are all of them societies formed out of original Chinese immigrant communities. Aside

from the geographical factor, the rest of J. P. B. de Josselin de Jong's definition is

applicable to the Overseas' Chinese as a field of ethnological study. However, in

studying a particular Chinese community, one has to place it in its geographical context
and in that of the larger political entity of which it forms part. Thus the Chinese in
Malaysia must be studied in the context of the Malaysian state, but the data yielded
may be used for comparative study with Chinese communities in other countries.

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Cultural Identity of the Baba of Melaka


from the Baba of Melaka and Singapore or the Peranakan Chinese of

In Malaysia and Singapore, Melaka was the original centre of Baba

culture. The earliest Chinese settlers were mostly Hokkien, so that until

today most Baba are likewise Hokkien. Those of other speech com

munities were mostly Kheh (Hakka), Konfu (Cantonese), Teochiu, and

Hailam. Before the twentieth century, the Baba were known for their
involvement in the commercial sector, but today there are few Baba

businessmen in Melaka. Occupationally the Baba are mostly engaged

in the legal and teaching professions as lawyers, teachers, clerks, etc.,
while in the rural areas they are mostly smallholders and tenant farmers.

The acculturated aspects of Baba culture have been widely noted by

non-Baba Malaysians, and are closely connected with the Baba identity.
Nevertheless, there is much Chinese cultural continuity, as is evident
from the way the Baba practise the Chinese religion. Indeed, it is the
contradiction between and synthesis of acculturation and Chinese cul
tural continuity which make the Baba identity distinct. On the one hand,

the Baba have lost the Chinese language, and Malay has become their
mother tongue, which has made them rather un-Chinese in the eyes of

other Chinese. On the other hand, they still follow the traditional
Chinese religion, with a few of them still observing the outdated tradi
tional Chinese wedding customs (kahwin dulu-kala), in which among
other things the bride and the groom wear the wedding costume of the
imperial era, which are no longer observed by the 'pure Chinese'.3 Thus,
linguistically the Baba are rather alienated from the 'pure' Chinese,
while ritually they are united with them, and are even outdoing them

in Chineseness.

This paper will examine the nature and dynamics of cultural change,
and in particular the relationship between cultural change and the Baba
ethnic identification. It is not clear when the specific Baba identity first
developed, although it is obvious that the acculturation of the early
Chinese immigrants preceded this.
Intermarriage between the early Chinese immigrants and local women
due to a lack of Chinese women accelerated the process of acculturation
of locally born Chinese, and especially their adoption of the Malay lan

guage. The increase in the number of Chinese immigrants in the

nineteenth century accentuated the difference between the locally born

Chinese (with their acculturated Malay version of the Chinese culture)
and immigrant Chinese - hence the prevalence of the label 'Baba'. In
termarriage between Baba and immigrant Chinese further increased the
3 In Indonesia, these 'pure' Chinese are referred to as Totok', in contrast to the
'Peranakan'. In Malaysia and Singapore there is no such special label for the 'pure'
Chinese for purposes of distinguishing them from the Baba.

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Tan Chee-Beng

Baba population. However, as we shall see, the overwhelming majority

of the 'pure' Chinese obliged the Baba to adjust to them socially. Today
the Malay-speaking Baba are losing many members of their group to
that of the 'pure' Chinese as these are 'intermarrying' with 'pure' Chinese

and learning to speak one of the Chinese languages (usually Hokkien).

The paper is concerned with only one important factor of cultural
change4 among the Melaka Baba, namely acculturation. In studies of
the acculturation of the Baba, there is a tendency to attribute all features
of their culture which are at all similar to Malay culture to its influence.

On closer examination, some of these apparently new cultural

phenomena may appear to be actually the result of internal cultural

dynamics, of the adjustment of certain 'traditional' cultural principles
to the changing social environment. As will be seen, even beneath the
Malay features of Baba culture, the continuity of Chinese culture is still
discernible, if not in form, then in the underlying principles.

Language and Culture

Language is a component of culture, and it is normally a crucial symbol
of ethnic identity. It is of course also a medium of communication, a
means of expressing a culture. The ethnically Chinese Baba speak 'Baba'
Malay - a distinct version of Malay.5 It not only contains many Hokkien
loanwords, but also displays some phonological differences with stan

dard Malay {Bahasa Malaysia) and Melaka Malay, that is, the Malay

dialect spoken by the Malays of Melaka. For example, pakai ('to wear')
in standard Malay is pake in Baba Malay, and keras ('hard') is ker? in
Baba Malay, while in Melaka Malay it is keghas. Besar ('big'), to give

another example, is bese in Baba Malay and besau in Melaka Malay.

Another feature of Baba Malay is the influence of certain Chinese syn

tactic structures. The construction 'possessor - puny a - possessed' is

4 There are a number of important factors of cultural change in the historical develop
ment of Baba culture and society. Aside from Chinese-Malay interaction, the British
colonial administration had a great influence on the development of the Baba culture
and identity. For example, the Baba were mostly loyal to the British government,
while English education resulted in the urban, and especially upper-class, Baba speak
ing English in addition to the Baba Malay dialect. Today, English remains an important
language among the Melaka Baba, especially the urban ones.

5 There are a number of works on Baba Malay. The earliest description is that by
Shellabear (1913), although Lim Hiong Seng had published a 'manual' of the Malay
colloquial spoken in the Straits Settlements already in 1887. My paper on the 'Baba
Malay Dialect' was published in 1980. It is based on anthropological fieldwork among
the Baba of Melaka in 1977. It indicates the salient features of the language and
demonstrates that it is a Malay dialect, with some consistent phonological and other
differences from other Malay dialects and Standard Malay. Since its publication a
number of theses by linguistics students have appeared, including a recent Ph.D. thesis.

The most comprehensive linguistic analysis to date is that of Pakir (1986), the bibli
ography of which lists other relevant works.

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Cultural Identity of the Baba ofMelaka

very prevalent in Baba Malay, with punya being used as equivalent of
the Hokkien possessive pronoun e. Thus seluar dia or seluarnya ('his

trousers') is expressed in Baba Malay as dia punya selue ('he punya


Baba Malay may be regarded as a creole, its formation and develop

ment being determined by various social, linguistic and cultural factors.
The intermarriage with local Malay and Indonesian women in the early
period of Chinese settlement and the dominantly Malay social environ
ment were crucial factors leading to the offspring of unions between
Chinese and natives speaking Malay. But this Malay was to be a creole
linguistic form, tailored to the needs of expressing the Chinese outlook.
Linguistically it was influenced somewhat by the Chinese speech pattern,
as we have seen. There was grammatical, syntactic and lexical simplifi
cation, as reflected in the minimal use of such Malay affixes as ber-,
ter-, -kan, etc. Mispronunciation, too, must have been one of the factors
which influenced the development of the language. For example, the
Baba word menyelah for 'window' is derived from the standard Malay
word jendela. Certain usages which are more common in Indonesia are
also discernible in Baba Malay, testifying to the interaction of Chinese
settlers in Melaka with people from the Indonesian islands. For instance,
the Baba use the word cangkil rather than the usual Malay word for

'cup' in Malaysia, cawan; and bibi rather than the local Malay usage
macik for 'auntie' vis-?-vis elder women whom one need not address
according to any specific kinship term.

The early Chinese settlers introduced Hokkien loanwords to make

the Malay language easier for themselves, and sufficient as a medium
of communication among themselves. The use of Chinese loanwords
served to simplify certain Malay syntactic structures and, above all, to
facilitate the expression of many Chinese abstract ideas. Furthermore,
when two languages are in continual direct mutual contact, there is a
tendency to borrow lexical items from one another. This was all the
more so in the case of the Peranakan Chinese who had adopted a Malay
language as their medium.6 We should bear in mind that the Peranakan

Chinese speaking Malay used the Malay language to express Chinese

values and the Chinese world view. It was natural, therefore, that many
Chinese words should be incorporated into the Malay language as spo
ken by them to make expression in the symbolic order possible. Thus,
most Chinese loanwords in Baba Malay are kinship terms and words

6 We should note that the Malays for their part also introduced certain Chinese words
into their language, although it is possible that some of these words were first used by
the Baba as part of the Malay language before their adoption by the Malays. In the
Malay dialect spoken by the Baba, however, there are many more words of Chinese

origin. This is understandable, since 'Baba Malay' was developed by the Chinese
immigrants and their locally born descendants who adopted the Malay language.

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Tan Chee-Beng

referring to the Chinese symbolic order. So the word ceong means 're
lationship which is ritually incompatible or in conflict' - an important
Chinese religious concept, which made the Chinese word for it a necess

ary loanword in Baba Malay.

What I am trying to say is that it is not just certain social developments

and linguistic factors which shape linguistic change and the development
of a creole. The development of Baba Malay has been very much influ
enced by cultural factors, that is, the Chinese cultural principles embed
ded in the minds of 'Baba' individuals. After all, the system of classifi
cation and way of thinking of a community in general determine the use
and development of its language, certainly no less than the language
facilitating the thought processes. While linguists now agree that cre?les

are not mere corruptions of standard languages (Decamp 1971: 15),

anthropologists and linguists, in their study of cre?les, should try not to

consider exclusively the social, linguistic and relevant historical factors,

but also the underlying structure of the culture (or cultures, in situations

of culture contact) contributing to the development of the language in

question. There is an important relationship between language and cul

ture, itself an important field of investigation. After the Chinese

Peranakan adopted Malay as their language, the further development

of this language as used by them followed certain logics defined by both
external factors and the subjective factors of the unconscious mind.
In fact, even when the Baba use Malay words rather than Chinese
loanwords to give expression to aspects of their conceptual system, the
Malay words so used may have different meanings from those as under
stood by the Malays. The Baba hot/cold {panasisejuk) category with
regard to food is defined by the Chinese system of conceptualization
(see Wu 1979 for the Chinese classification hot/cold in Singapore). When
the Baba say Tuhan Allah', they are not referring to the Muslim Abso
lute, but to the highest god of the Chinese pantheon, the God of Heaven.

The term ikat kubur for the Baba refers to the building of a tomb for
the deceased, and with it the rules and symbols of the connected rite.
The adoption of Malay has given the Baba (and the Peranakan Chinese
in general) access to, and thereby enabled them to develop an interest
in, Malay songs, music, drama and literature (especially poetry). For
example, the art of dondang sayang (a Malay form of singing involving
the exchange of four-line poems called pantun) has long been part and
parcel of Baba culture. However, there has been little influence from
Malay cultural principles on the Baba symbolic order. The only signific
ant influence has been exercised by the haluslkasar ('refined/unrefined')
opposition that is so important in the Malay classification of the social
world. Nevertheless, the Baba use this category more in the context of
ethnic rhetoric between themselves and other Chinese. The Baba are

said to be halus, while the non-Baba Chinese are kase (i.e., kasar). For
example, Baba individuals may point out that in sembayang ('the wor

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Cultural Identity of the Baba ofMelaka


ship of deities or ancestors') non-Baba Chinese (especially the Can

tonese7) are kase, unlike the Baba, who lay out their offerings neatly
and for long enough for the ancestors to enjoy them. According to my
Baba informants, the non-Baba Chinese do not lay out their offerings
neatly and usually remove them too soon for the ancestors to enjoy
them. Worse still, some of them use the offerings for the deities again
for the ancestors. The Baba are halus, so they say, as they always use
fresh offerings for the ancestors.8
Thus, if we look at the underlying structure of Baba culture, rather
than merely at its outward forms, there appears to be in fact less Malay
acculturation than may seem at first sight. Hardly any Malay cultural
principle has become integrated into the Baba system of thought. This
must have some significance for the Baba perception of their identity.
It is at this unconscious level that we can understand why the Baba are
not less Chinese in their self-identification, despite the fact that other

Malaysian Chinese perceive them as Malay-like. That is why I object

to such statements as the 'resinification' of the Baba or the 'assimilation'

of the Baba by the Malays. Obviously those who use these terms as
descriptions are merely looking at the external manifestations of Baba
culture, not at its internal dynamics. Unlike the nineteenth century,
when Chinese immigrants were incorporated into Baba society through
marriage to nyonya (Baba ladies), today the process is more the other
way round. There are many factors - among them the fact that Chinese
society in Malaysia today is dominated by the 'pure' Chinese, who define
the model of Chinese culture and identity - which cause the Baba model
to be despised. Baba marrying non-Baba Chinese and living away from
the Baba social environment tend to lose their Baba identity, as they
and their children learn one of the Chinese languages and interact less
and less with the Baba. To describe this process of Baba incorporation
into the non-Baba Chinese group as 'resinification' is surely misleading,

as the Baba have always been Chinese and have formed part of the
broader Chinese Malaysian society. The shift from the Baba to the non
Baba Chinese identity is a shift at the level of sub-ethnic category, not
at that of the autonomous ethnic category.9 In fact, it is merely the
relinquishing of the distinctive Baba identity, whereby an individual
becomes just a Hokkien Chinese, for example, and not both a Hokkien

and a Baba.

7 'Cantonese' here refers to the non-Baba Cantonese, and not to the Baba Cantonese.
The reference to non-Baba Cantonese as most kase is in agreement with the Baba's
pride in their Hokkien identity - as was mentioned earlier, most Baba are of Hokkien


8 Deities are always worshipped first, as befits their status in the hierarchy, and only
then the ancestors.
9 Of course the 'non-Baba Chinese' category is a conceptual corollary of the presence
of the 'Baba' category.

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Tan Chee-Beng

The Symbolic Order

The symbolic order of the Baba is Chinese, as I have already mentioned,
despite the adoption of the Malay language and of certain Malay cultural
features such as food and women's attire. In fact, while the wearing of
a kain or sarong is a matter of Malay influence, the particular way in
which it is used is guided by certain Chinese cultural principles. The
choice of kain with certain colour combinations for specific occasions is

guided by the Chinese classification of black versus red = sadness

(mourning) versus happiness (weddings), or the more general opposition

of dark colours to bright colours. Full black is the colour of mourning
for the sons, daughters and daughters-in-law of a deceased. It is the
darkest of the dark colours, and symbolizes deep sorrow.10
Green and blue are considered by the Chinese to be on the dark side,
and so at funerals a combination of green, blue, and white is felt to be
suitable for those who are not close relatives of the deceased. Of course,

black may be part of this combination, too. To be sure, green and blue
are not special mourning colours, but are regarded as being suitable for
funerals because they are not perceived as being on the bright side. Red,
pink or other bright colours are considered unsuitable for funerals. In
fact, in the dark/bright classification, colours on the dark side, including

black, may be used for happy occasions as well, provided they are mixed
with red or other bright colours.11 Thus, red is the decisive colour in the

symbolic distinction between 'happiness' and 'unhappiness'.

Although white is an important colour at funerals, it is not a mourning

colour as black is. It is neither a 'sad' nor a 'merry' colour, being some
where in between, as being neither on the dark nor on the bright side.
Its presence on occasions of mourning indicates the absence of happi
ness, and its presence on joyous occasions indicates the absence of sad
ness. Of course, on happy occasions white is always mixed with at least

10 A further distinction is made between clothes made of fine materials and those made

of coarse materials. The black clothes used for deep mourning are made of coarse
material. The wearing of a black suit for formal occasions hence is acceptable because
it is made of fine material and is of Western origin. Even then, a Chinese attending a
happy social function will always make sure that his tie or shirt has at least some bright


11 For normal daily wear, e.g. at the office, clothes of any colour on the dark side, without

any addition of bright colours, may be used because the occasion does not call for an
emphasis of the 'happiness' symbols. Nevertheless, most Chinese still prefer not to
wear all-black attire, especially when visiting Chinese friends and relatives. Nowadays
some Malaysian Chinese do not wear the mourning marker when they go to work
during the mourning period, but will usually avoid wearing clothes with 'bright' colours

like red or pink, and so prefer black, green, blue or white. There are also those who
at the end of their mourning period opt for a transitional period in which to wear
'darker' colours before they eventually wear clothes with 'brighter' colours again.

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Cultural Identity of the Baba ofMelaka


one bright colour, especially red.12 In any case, white is the next most
important colour after black for funerals. The candles used for normal
offerings are red, but for offerings at funerals white, to express the sad

mood of t)ie occasion.

Although white is used for mourning, it does not symbolize bad luck
in the same way as black does. Thus, at the occurrence of a death, one
of the two characters on the family sign that hangs permanently above
the main entrance of the house facing the front yard or the street is
crossed with a white strip of paper. If the left character is so crossed, it
means that the deceased is a man, if the right character is crossed, the
deceased is a woman.13 If both characters are crossed, it means that
both parents of the family have passed away. The white strip of paper
is removed at the end of the mourning period. Since the family sign is
a symbol of the family, and since death is a temporary phenomenon, it
would bring very bad luck to use a black paper strip to cross the characters

of the sign. Only white, which is neither on the dark nor on the bright
side, is suitable for this purpose.
In the context of the yin and yang classification, black is yin and red
is yang, while white can be in either category. While the nyonya (Baba
women) may not be aware of the theory of yin and yang, their choice
of colour for their kain is governed by the opposition of black to red in
the Chinese classificatory system.
Another opposition which is significant in the religious behaviour of
the Baba is the left/right one, which we have just discerned in the case
of the crossing of characters on the family sign. In the religious sphere,
left is associated with honour. Thus, an ancestral altar should always be
placed to the right of the main altar for the deities. To give another
example, the mourning marker for the death of a father is placed over
the mourner's left shoulder, and that for the death of a mother across

the right shoulder, emphasizing the ritually superior position of the

father on account of the patrilineal principle of descent. Thus, when
Baba use the Malay words kiri and kanan for 'left' and 'right', the clas
sification of these categories is still governed by the Chinese cultural


The religion of the Baba in Melaka is the traditional Chinese folk-re

ligion which I refer to as 'Chinese religion'. It is a polytheistic, rather
syncretic religious system, with a hierarchy of deities, ancestors, and
spirits (for a discussion of this religion as a religious system see Tan
12 While Chinese brides in Malaysia have adopted the Western custom of wearing white
gowns, their overall outfit will always include some red to emphasize the joyousness
of the occasion. For example, their bouquet will include red and other bright colours
- the choice of colour here is deliberate and in line with Chinese classification principles.
13 Left and right here are taken from the point of view of a person standing with his or
her back towards the main entrance and facing the front yard, in the same way as the


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Tan Chee-Beng

1983a). Religion is an important ethnic boundary marker between the

Baba and the Malays. As both the Baba and Malays often point out,
the Malays are Muslim but the Baba sembayang datuk (Baba for 'worship
deities'), while the Baba eat pork (makan bah) and the Malays do not.
There are certain acculturated features in the religious practices of the
Baba, but these are external features as a result of the adoption of the
Malay language or other cultural traits. For example, the lamenting of
the nyonya in Baba Malay rather than Hokkien or some other Chinese

'dialect' during funeral rites is a typically 'Baba' phenomenon.

Moreover, the offerings prepared for the ancestors may include Malay
style dishes and kuih (cakes etc.), due to Baba cuisine combining Malay
and Chinese traditions.
A sacrificial item which I should like to mention in particular is pisang
raja, a kind of banana. This kind of bananas is ritually significant among

the Baba because of the word raja, Malay for 'king', for which the
Hokkien word is ong, which closely resembles another Hokkien word,
?ng, meaning 'prosperous'. Hence as a sacrificial item, it is a symbol of
prosperity, and a concrete expression of the wish to be prosperous.
What we should note in this connection is that the use of the pisang raja
here is governed by an important Chinese classificatory principle, that
is, symbolism through homonymy. The Malay word for these particular,

symbolically significant bananas is only relevant because of the way it

can be translated into Hokkien.

Much more could be said about cultural principles and the develop
ment of specifically Baba Chinese religious forms. I should like here
only to briefly discuss Baba ancestor worship to illustrate another mani
festation of Chinese cultural principles and the dynamics of change. The
casual visitor will notice that many Baba families do not have any ances
tral altar at their homes and may conclude that ancestor worship is not
important among the Baba of Melaka. In actual fact, however, it is very
Malaysian Chinese observe two forms of ancestor worship, the 'keep
ing the ancestral altar' system and the 'invitation' system, which the
Baba refer to as piara abu and ccian abu respectively.14 Piara is the Baba
Malay equivalent of the Hokkien word hok-sai, meaning 'to keep the
altars of deities or ancestors at home', and abu is the Baba Malay term
for 'ancestors'. Thus piara abu denotes 'keeping the ancestral altar',
which entails regular worship of the ancestors. Ccian (i.e., chhian) is the
Hokkien word for 'to invite', which is also used to refer to inviting deities

or ancestors to attend a particular occasion. In the ccian or 'invitation'

system, the ancestors are only worshipped on certain occasions, such as
the Chinese New Year, the anniversary of a death, and other major
14 In my transcription of Baba Malay words, c is equivalent to English ch, while cc is
aspirated. In the case of the Hokkien transcription, ch is not aspirated while chh is.

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Cultural Identity of the Baba of Melaka


Chinese festivals, when a temporary altar is set up, and the ancestors
are invited 'to come' to be worshipped and offered food, which is usually


The 'invitation' system is very popular among the Baba of Melaka.

There are various reasons for this, while the Baba themselves generally
offer two explanations. They say firstly that it is inconvenient to piara
abu because it involves daily worship (burning joss sticks, etc.). Older
people, moreover, express concern that the younger generation may
not take care of their altars after their death, and so think it better to
have ancestral tablets installed at a Chinese temple.15 This is an apt
example of cultural change. The Chinese form of ancestor worship has
been undergoing transformation all the time, from the distant past to

the present. In the case of the Malaysian Chinese, the most drastic

change has been from the form as observed in the nineteenth century
to the modern form. To understand the nature of this change in religious

form, one needs to examine the transformation of economic relations

which has affected the family and kinship relations of the Chinese. For

instance, the economic independence of the younger generation of

Malaysian Chinese has freed them from the former total domination of

younger people by parents and other seniors. Members of the older

generation are now finding it difficult to impose their cultural percep
tions and practices on the younger generation. The younger generation
of Chinese have their own views on, say, ancestor worship. The tendency
among them is to be more 'modern' in outlook and to reduce the elabo
rateness of rituals. This is an important source of change.
The underlying principle of ancestor worship is still the same: ances
tors should be worshipped. The development of the 'invitation' system

has been shaped by the interaction of this very principle with the

changing environment, which has given rise to religious rationalization.

There is, nevertheless, continuity in change. Failure to take note of this
aspect of cultural change may lead one to conclude wrongly that ancestor

worship is declining among the Baba of Melaka. In actual fact, the

Melaka Baba still view ancestor worship as a crucial part of their way
of life. They do not say explicitly that there are two distinct systems of
ancestor worship. They merely recognize that if one piara abu, one has
to ensure that the ancestors are worshipped regularly to avoid their
being offended. If one is not able or inclined to piara abu, for one reason
or another, then one should worship the ancestors at least on the occasion
of major festivals.

15 Those observing the 'invitation' system may or may not have tablets for their ancestors

at a temple. The most popular temple for the Chinese (including the Baba) of Melaka
is Cheng Hoon Teng, the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia.

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Tan Chee-Beng


The Baba kinship system is Chinese, and is based on a transformation

of the Hokkiem system. Even most of the kin terms are Hokkien loan
words. This retention of Chinese terms is necessary in order to be able
to name the full range of kinship relations. The Chinese terminology
reflects a number of kinship principles. So the patrilineal principle re
quires the distinction of the father's from the mother's relatives. There
are also distinctions according to generation, sex and relative seniority.
The Malay system is bilateral (with the exception of the Minangkabau
one, which is matrilineal) and makes no distinction between the father's
and the mother's side. For example, the Malay term bapa saudara refers
to both FB and MB. The Baba, on the other hand, call MB ng-ku, but
father's elder brother (FeB) m-peh and father's younger brother (FyB)
encek16, hence also making a seniority distinction. Obviously the Baba
cannot express all the Chinese kin relations in Malay, hence the large
number of Hokkien loanwords in the Baba Malay kin terminology.
The influence of Chinese cultural principles on the development of
Baba Malay is also obvious from the fact that the Baba kinship terminol
ogy generally only has Malay terms where there is no essential structural

distinction, or where such a distinction can be adequately expressed by

the Malay terms. Thus, the few Malay terms used here are those for
ego and for members of the younger generation, such as adik for younger

brother or sister, menantu for son-in-law or daughter-in-law, cucu for

grandchildren, and so on, with the sex distinction being indicated by
the addition of special words, viz. : Malay adik lelaki - Baba adik jantan,
'younger brother', and Malay adik perempuan - Baba adikprompuan,
'younger sister'. For 'bridegroom' and 'son-in-law', the Baba also use
the Hokkien term kiansai.
The evolution of the Baba kinship system serves as a good illustration
of the relationship between cultural principles, social environment, and
cultural forms. As the Baba kinship system seems to display some fea
tures of the bilateral principle, there is a tendency for specialists on
acculturation to assume that the Baba kinship system has been influ
enced by the Malay system. This conclusion denies the dynamism of the
Chinese system inherited by the Baba, however.
The Baba adhere to the patrilineal descent principle. Surnames are
passed down patrilineally, and surname exogamy is observed. Patrilineal
kin are referred to as saudara tulang ('relatives of the bone') and mat
rilineal kin as saudara kulit ('relatives of the skin'). But there seem to
be two contradictions. Firstly, the Baba have a wide kinship network
on the female side (i.e., relatives through the mother, wife, father's
16 This should be distinguished from the Malay term encik, 'mister'. The Baba term is a
Hokkien loanword, and it is interesting to speculate if the Malay word derives from
it. The Hokkien address their FyB as a-chek.

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Cultural Identity of the Baba of Melaka


sisters, and siblings' spouses). Secondly, matrilocal residence was a norm

among the Baba. In actual fact, these two interesting deviations are the
result of certain historical developments.
The wide kinship network on the female side can be explained by the
fact that the Baba of Melaka have had relatively greater opportunity
for close interaction. Their group has always been small, while living in
a small state, with a concentration in the Central District, has allowed
them to interact closely not only with patrilateral but also with matrilat

eral kin. This interaction has led to the development of a wide network
of saudara kulit, with the use of already existing Chinese kinship terms
for them reinforcing the relationship so established.17 Furthermore, the
small size of the Chinese group has led to frequent intermarriage among
the Baba, many marriages being contracted with relatives who do not
share the same surname, that is, relatives on the female side. Marriages

between cousins (i.e., cross-cousins such as FZD, FZS, MBD, MBS,

and parallel cousins such as MZD, MZS, but not FBD and FBS) were

and still are common. This reinforces the link with the Temale side'.

This link has been further reinforced by some degree of matrilocal

residence. To be sure, the rule of residence has always been patrilocal.
However, matrilocal residence has come to be accepted alongside pat
rilocal residence as a result of certain historical developments. This ac
ceptance of matrilocal residence took place not only among the Melaka
Baba, but is found among the Straits Chinese in general. To my mind
this is not simply the result of early intermarriage between Chinese and
Malays. For, even such mixed marriages might involve the Chinese hus
band having to live with the bride's family during the wedding period,
it was essential for him to bring his native wife to his own family in order

to perpetuate the Chinese line of descent.18 Furthermore, early Chinese

settlers also married slave women brought to Malaya from the Indone

sian islands (cf. Abdullah 1970:184).

In China, the matrilocal form of marriage used to be practised through

a poor son-in-law marrying into his bride's family. A man without any
sons might also arrange to have a son-in-law move in, so that the family
name (surname) would be perpetuated by at least one of his daughters'
offspring. Such marriages were not common in Southeast China, as they
were rather degrading to the male (cf. Freedman 1966:62; Hsu 1949:99;

for a report on matrilocal marriage in northern Taiwan, see Wolf

1974:138-140). In the Straits Settlements (i.e. Melaka, Singapore and

Penang), however, matrilocal marriage was commonly practised in the

17 In the case of the 'pure' Chinese, the relatives on the female side are recognized in
theory, but the actual network is rather small, being confined to the immediate relatives
of the female link, whom one is more likely to meet.
18 There were, of course, also Chinese who married into Malay families and eventually
(and certainly their children) assimilated to Malay society (cf. Gosling 1964).

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Tan Chee-Beng

nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and certainly became accepted

by the Melaka Baba (for a description of types of matrilocal marriage
in Singapore, see Freedman 1957:122-123).
We can say that the acceptance of matrilocal residence by the Baba
was due to the situation prevailing in nineteenth-century Malaya, where
Chinese immigrants were prepared to be married into more established
Baba families. As we have seen, the traditional Chinese marriage system
did allow for matrilocal marriages in exceptional cases; the social situa
tion among the Baba in nineteenth-century Malaya then encouraged an
increase in such matrilocal marriages. Indeed, it was customary for the
bride's wealthy Baba family to insist on matrilocal marriage. Even if
the groom's relatives wanted him to bring his wife home, it was necessary
for him to sleep at his wife's house for at least the first twelve days after

the marriage, and it was considered polite for the husband only to take
the wife to his relatives' residence after one month. Today matrilocal
residence is still acceptable among the Baba, but at marriage the couple
should reside with the groom's relatives. Residence may become mat
rilocal after marriage if the couple so decides.
In the old-fashioned cuaccin19 system of marriage, the contradiction
between matrilocal and patrilocal residence may be resolved in an in
teresting way. The rule today, as was mentioned earlier, is that at mar
riage the couple should reside with the groom's relatives, in conformity
with the normal Chinese pattern. Under the cuaccin system, which is
still occasionally practised today, the bride-to-be is brought (not dressed
as a bride, of course) to the groom's residence during the night before

the wedding, or before dawn on the wedding day. Meanwhile, the

groom-to-be leaves his own house to stay at a friend's or relative's house

nearby. At a fixed time during the night or before dawn, thegroom-to-be
returns to the living-room of his house to perform the pre-wedding hair

dressing rite called ciu-thau. At the end of this rite of passage, he is

dressed in the 'traditional' Chinese costume of long gown and jacket
(tng-sa" be-koah). After worshipping the deities and ancestors, he re
turns to his temporary 'residence'. After that it is the bride-to-be's turn

to undergo the hairdressing rite. In the morning, after the bride has
performed her part of the kahwin ('wedding') rite, and returns to the
bridal room, the groom comes into the living-room to perform his part
of this rite. After that the bride comes out to greet the man she has just

been married to, and leads him to the bridal room, where he eventually

unveils her.

According to my informants, the reason why the groom-to-be leaves

his own house just before the bride-to-be is brought here is that 'in the
19 Cuaccin (i.e., chhoa-chhin) is a Hokkien word referring to bringing a bride into the
groom's family. What is unique about the Baba system here is that the lady is brought
into the husband's family not as a bride but as a bride-to-be.

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Cultural Identity of the Baba of Melaka


past', bachelors and spinsters were not supposed to meet each other
before marriage. The old-fashioned wedding at present is performed as
much as possible in accordance with the rules of the past, even though
now the couple already know each other before deciding to get married.
However, by bringing the bride-to-be into her intended husband's resi
dence, and having the latter leave his own house and await his return
there to be married and be led into the bridal room by the bride, the
Baba cuaccin system permits the acting-out of the matrilocal residence
rule in the paternal residence.
Our survey of the Baba kinship system illustrates how the original
principle of patrilocal residence has adapted to the new social environ

ment in such a way that matrilocal residence has become accepted

alongside patrilocal residence, without negating the patrilineal prin
ciple.20 Until the early part of the twentieth century, there were always

Chinese immigrants willing to marry into more established Baba

families. This tendency since then has changed to the opposite. It is now
generally Baba inviduals who are being incorporated into the non-Baba
Chinese group, and the Baba in general who have to adjust to the domi
nant culture of the other Chinese Malaysians. One consequence of this
has been that the Baba now de-emphasize the principle of matrilocal
residence, so that the rule is again for marriage to be patrilocal, while
matrilocal residence, if practised, is done so only for a period after
marriage rather than from the time of the marriage.
We may say that the traditional Baba cuaccin marriage system today
symbolically incorporates matrilocal residence at marriage into what is
actually patrilocal marriage. This illustrates how the structural rule of
patrilocal residence shapes its formation. Traditional weddings are ex
pensive, since one has to rent the - now antique - wedding costumes
and hire various specialists. In the modern wedding ceremony, the rites
are performed at both residences, culminating in the groom's going to
the bride's house to take her to his residence. In the case of traditional
marriage, however, it would be rather costly to hire specialists to perform
the appropriate wedding rites at both residences and then have the groom

fetch the bride to take her to his house. Thus, according to my infor
mants, it is better (i.e., less expensive) to bring the bride-to-be to the
residence of her intended husband on the eve of the wedding and to
have all the rites performed at the groom's residence. That this should
be the groom's residence is of course determined by the structural prin
ciple of patrilocal residence.
20 This also shows that cultural rules are guiding principles which allow compromises and
adjustments in their actual cultural manifestations. De Josselin de Jong illustrates this
very aptly in his study of the Minangkabau in Indonesia, which demonstrates that
Minangkabau society, 'far from being consistently or even extremely matrilineal has
a more complex and subtle structure, in which the element of compromise plays an

essential part' (P.E. de Josseling de Jong 1980:43).

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Tan Chee-Beng

It may be apparent from the above discussion that in the study of cultural

change, it is not sufficient to merely look at the environment which

induces change, for the nature of the changes and the resultant cultural
traits are very much determined also by the underlying structural prin
ciples of the given culture. The structural principles can be reconstructed
from detailed study of the culture in its historical perspective. In growing

up in a specific cultural setting, the individual assimilates the model of

the relevant culture, and in the process acquires, both consciously and
unconsciously, the underlying cultural principles. As the participants of
the culture concerned share these basic principles and interact among
themselves, cultural change due to changing social environment is ef
fected through the response of these individuals to the new environment,

guided by the existing cultural principles.

It is therefore a tendency, where acculturation occurs, for alien cul
tural traits to be integrated into the particular cultural domain of the
group concerned rather than for them to be simply adopted outright.
These are the dynamics of culture. When new cultural forms are created,
these may in turn lead to a transformation or modification of the existing

structural principles. In the case of the Baba, the initially purely pat
rilocal system has had matrilocality added alongside patrilocality as a
result of certain historical and social factors. Now matrilocal residence
may occur only after a lapse of some time after the marriage, but even
then it is not as common as in the past.
Acculturation has undoubtedly led to the development of the specifi
cally Baba identity. It has given rise to a Baba Chinese versus the 'non

Baba' or 'pure' Chinese cultural model. Unlike in Indonesia, it is not

normal for the Malaysian Chinese, except for the Peranakan Chinese,
to speak Malay among themselves. The Baba, however, do speak Malay
at home, and this sets them apart from the other Chinese. They have
become a sub-ethnic group of Chinese, the boundary being clearly drawn

between those who speak Malay and those who speak Chinese when

among themselves. Indeed, it is not economic activities or political be

haviour which distinguish the Baba from the non-Baba Chinese. It is
language and cultural features.
Even so, the Baba have remained by and large culturally Chinese,
and have always thought of themselves as Chinese. They have preserved
all the important elements of the Chinese identity of their forebears,
such as membership of a particular Chinese speech group (eg. Hokkien),
and even of a particular sub-group (e.g., Eng-Choon, a sub-group of
the Hokkien speech group), even though few can speak any Chinese
language (e.g., Hokkien) fluently. The persistence of the Chinese cul
tural structure must be important for the maintenance of the Chinese
identity - there is no need for the Baba to think otherwise. Nevertheless,

as we have seen, the adaptation to the Malay culture, and especially the

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Cultural Identity of the Baba ofMelaka


'linguistic assimilation', has inevitably led to the development of a sepa

rate Baba Chinese identity both in their own perception and in the mind
of the 'pure' Chinese. In other words, the very nature of this accultura
tion in the context of the changing Malaysian Chinese society has given
rise to a new classification principle in ethnic identification, opposing
the Baba to those who are not Baba.

Now that social and political bodies in Malaysia are emphasizing

ethnicity more and more as a result mainly of socio-economic competi

tion and communal politics, the Malays and Chinese are consciously

and unconsciously stressing their respective identities. In this context,

the Baba model of Chinese culture is being more consciously discredited
by the Malaysian Chinese at large, with the 'pure' Chinese stressing the
need to prevent Malaysian Chinese culture from developing into the
Baba model. In fact, the Baba are not legally recognized as a distinct
group vis-?-vis the other Chinese. For example, there is no special cat
egory for them in the census, where they are just listed as Hokkien,
Cantonese, and so on. Thus, in the context of the Malay-Chinese ethnic
identification, there is no separate place for the Baba identity. Further
more, the socio-economic and political conditions are putting pressure

on Baba individuals to change - this time more in the direction of

mainstream, 'pure' Chinese society, a process which is very different

from that in Indonesia.
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