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 Baba and Nyonya Culture in Penang

Baba and nyonya culture in Penang is pretty different from the ones in Malacca (Melaka), Medan, Singapore or Kota Bharu. If there is a group of Nyonyas and Babas in Melaka who speak exclusively Malay, their counterpart in Penang speak a mixture of Hokkien, Malay and English. The food also has a slight variation too. Not surprising in this sense, since the two places are geographically different.

penang peranakan mansion
Penang Peranakan Mansion at Church Street.

The Babas and Nyonyas are of ethnic Chinese but they were born in Penang.

They adopt a lot of local clothing, food, language and culture too in their daily lives. Mainly from the Malay and European culture.

For example, the Nyonya food uses a lot of chilies to make sambal in their food.

There is a dish called Sambal Hei Bee (Sambal Udang kering) and there is a snack called Roti Ayam which uses chopped fresh chilies as the sauce. They are also famous for tiny cakes called nyonya kuih. The amount of time and effort that went into making these cakes are amazing.

This is from the influence of Malay dining habit which does not consider a meal is complete without chilies or anything spicy.

In terms of their clothing, the men adopt the western style of clothing mainly for daily wear. They wear Chinese style tunic for special occasions. The ladies, on the other hand, have a lot of choice in fashion.

One set of attire that is associated with the Nyonyas is the kebaya. This item of clothing originally came from the royal Indonesian court. The intricate embroidery that is embedded in the design makes each of the kebaya unique. The patterns are normally inspired by nature, intertwined vines or tropical birds and butterflies. They are truly beautiful and it is a dying art too since there are not many skilled artisans left to sew the kebaya the old way.

tiffin carriers
Tiffin carriers used by the Nyonyas

In terms of language, you can see a sprinkling of Malay words in the Hokkien dialect as spoken in Penang, like the word: "suka", meaning "like".

The old Malay ways of entertainment like joget, dondang sayang and ronggeng also were enjoyed by the Paranakan Cina in Penang. The type of dancing by the nyonyas uses props like sapu tangan (using handkerchiefs), tarian kipas (using fans), mangkuk tingkat (tiffin carrier) and even oranges.

The majority of the Babas became learned academics instead of turning into enterprising businessmen. They were sent by their parents mainly to study in England. As such, the younger generations were very much influenced by the western ways.

I was very delighted when I came across a book of Baba and Nyonya poetry written by Johny Chee a few weeks ago. It is a treasure that captures much of the essence of the culture from the perspective of daily rhymes and slang. If you want to know more about Baba and Nyonya culture in Penang, this book is highly recommended. The second edition comes with a CD so that you can listen and pronounce the words correctly.

On the other hand, if you wish to see the grandeur of the lifestyle of a bygone era, a visit to the Peranakan Mansion is a must. It showcases many fine examples of Baba and Nyonya culture in Penang.

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Nyonya Beaded Shoes

From Dr. Farish A Noor's private collection, a beautiful set of traditional Nyonya beaded shoes:

Nyonya Beaded Shoes

Nyonya beaded shoes

Nyonya Kebaya Materials for SALE here!

Click on these thumbnails to view the intricate patterns (kerawang).

Nyonya Kebaya

Nyonya Kebaya

Nyonya Kebayarichred
Rich Red

Nyonya Kebayamauve

Nyonya Kebayapeacock
Peacock Green

Nyonya Kebayawhite

Nyonya Kebayared

Click here to order the kebaya.

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