Tapping the Peranakan experience

WE lost a "true" Malaysian last week – Datuk Kenny Chan of Baba Nyonya fame. He was 68 when he passed away in Malacca. Better known as Bibik Kim Neo in TV1's longest-running series, Chan captivated his audience with his skilful acting and wit. He brought much laughter to Malaysians. It is no wonder the series lasted from the late 1980s till the turn of the century with more than 500 episodes aired taking it into the Malaysian Book of Records. His co-actor Chee Hood Siong, who played Bibik Ah Chim, passed away in 2011.

Kenny had a passion for all things Peranakan that gave Baba Nyonya its character and huge popularity. He was also a chef promoting Peranakan cuisine at a Malacca restaurant named Big Nyonya. He seemingly inherited his cooking skills from his grandmother making Peranakan cuisine sought after among locals and foreigners. Reportedly he was also advising the Baba and Nyonya Association of Malaysia, and documenting the Peranakan community.

The term "Peranakan" denotes descendant in Bahasa Malaysia. The root word comes from the word "anak", or child, referring to locally-born descendants. Colloquially "Baba" and "Nyonya" are used as honorifics. The former refers to the male gender and the latter, female.

Most Peranakan are said to have received an English education, and are fluent in the language. Many of them were appointed as community and civic leaders during the colonial period. Hence they were respected members of the society, yet the Baba Nyonya culture remains central to the community. It is considered distinctively unique to Malacca where the local Malay cultural nuances are fused naturally with that of the Chinese to take a life of its own. It is one of the finest examples of how Malaysia can evolve into a unified multi-cultural and multi-ethnic entity that survives until today.

In this way, a number of similarities bring the nation closer together. Or at the least create awareness of what is shared, be it in terms of dress, food, song, language and etiquette. For example in terms of dress, the use of baju kebaya is common among the nyonyas, as much as adorning the batik sarung, as practised by the local Malay communities then and even now. As for food, sup itik (duck soup), buah keluak (black mangrove tree nuts), laksa and ayam Kapitan (Kapitan chicken) seem common, although the last two are more commonly found in Penang.

Dondang sayang is the genre often associated with entertainment of the Malacca Peranakan involving Malay poetic form known as pantun. The song is usually accompanied by music made up by a rebana (traditional Malay drum), biola (violin) and a gong. It has became part of the ensemble performing at informal social gatherings in their communities. And beyond.

In terms of language, while they assimilated well much of the Malay lingo and vocabulary, they stuck to their own ethnic dialects such as Hokkien or even some English (or other colonial) words, giving rise to "Baba speak" as it were. The fusion was welcomed as ways of widening Peranakan culture and appreciating the diversity of cultures among Malaysians. In particular by coping and ensuring minimal "negative" encounters for the Straits Chinese at one point in our history. It also helps explain why Peranakan are not seen elsewhere, except in Penang, another Straits Settlement with its own version of the Peranakan.

There are several variations such as the Peranakan Serani (referring mainly to the Eurasian mixed), Chitty (Indians) and Jawi (mixed Arab-Malay ancestry) – although they are relatively fewer in number. Overall, the Peranakan are an integral part of our cultural tapestry, a fitting reminder that the evolution to Bangsa and Budaya Malaysia is not only possible, but necessary. If only we learnt and emulated their subtle approach and lifestyle as we interacted with them. That this can happen to the extent it did within our local context proves that if there is political will, the reality could be here soon enough. Given the aura of the post-GE14 era where the desire to blur the existing "artificial" barriers of yesteryears is heightened particularly among the younger generation, mainstreaming the Peranakan experience can make a real difference. It must, however, transcend the museums and backwaters in making the Peranakan way our daily signpost to be studied and emulated.

The origins of Baba Nyonya can be traced to the 15th and 16th centuries when the Chinese emigrated from China to the British Straits Settlements of Malacca, Singapore, Penang and some parts of Indonesia.

The first permanent settlements in the Malay peninsula can be traced to the 13th century. Many were set up by those fleeing famine and poverty. Some Chinese married locals to blend harmoniously their distinct background, cultures and customs to give birth to the notable "Peranakan" entity (read Malaysian) with its distinctive characteristics as richly displayed by the Bibiks in their TV sequels.

Peranakan heritage has been firmly planted by the Bibiks in our minds and it is here to stay proudly enriching Malaysia as the unique home of Truly Asia and more.

May their memories live on to give even deeper meaning to our search for a "new" Malaysia.

With some four decades of experience in education, the writer believes that "another world is possible". Comments: letters@thesundaily.com