Can Baba Culture Be Revived?

Who are the Babas?

Anyone who is familiar with the history of Singapore and Malaysia knows that there is a distinctive Chinese group there known synonymously as the Babas, Straits Chinese, King’s Chinese or Peranakan (local-born). Historically, they are called collectively the Babas, who would include both men and women (the Nyonyas), in order to distinguish them from the China-born immigrants.

Small in number compared with the other Chinese groups, its impact on the two territories’ political, economic, social and cultural developments was enormous, quite disproportionate to their numerical strength. Their forebears’ glorious achievements are reflected in numerous street names in their honour in Singapore, Malacca and Penang, all centers of the Baba civilisation. What were their historical associations with these two countries, and how did they evolve such a unique and rich cultural identity, which is a fusion of Chinese and Malay cultures?

Malacca is their original home, where most Singapore Babas can trace their roots. Their ancestors came mainly from the Chinese provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, whose people had been carrying on a maritime trade with Nanyang (Southeast Asia) since the time of Song Dynasty (960-1279). When the renowned Ming admiral Zhenghe made his epic voyages to Malacca and beyond between 1405-1433, the ubiquitous Chinese traders were already making waves there. Malacca was then one of the busiest international seaports. It attracted a large number of Indian, Arab, Persian and Nanyang traders with their diverse products. The earliest Chinese settlement there probably dates from the 16th century. A century later, it had become a thriving community. Malacca’s oldest Chinese temple, Cheng Hoon Teng, was completed around 1673, with donations from the local Chinese merchants.

It was not uncommon for the early Chinese pioneers there to marry native women because no Chinese women accompanied them on such perilous ventures. This pattern was followed when the Chinese first settled in other parts of Nanyang. In the course of time, their descendants in Malacca had discarded their own mother tongue and adopted Malay instead. They refined it ingeniously into Baba Malay, laced with Fujian words. When the 18th century dawned, the successful Chinese merchants had begun to build grand town houses in the prestigious Heeren Street (now Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock), and furnished them to resemble the residences of the landed gentry in China. A Peranakan community was thus rooted firmly in Malacca. They generally married within the community. But, from the mid 19th century onwards, when more and more Chinese of both sexes came to Nanyang in order to escape the harsh life in China, the most promising of the new arrivals were often handpicked as sons-in-law by their Malacca Baba employers.

What was the profile of the affluent Baba household then, and how did they differ from their China-born compatriots? They spoke only Baba Malay, with a smattering of Fujian dialect for trade purposes, but were sticklers for Chinese customs and values. Ancestor worship was observed strictly and a family altar for this purpose was de rigueur in every home. The women had embraced the Malay attire. They conceived the delightful Peranakan cuisine, which is a subtle blending of Chinese and Malay cooking styles. The young Nyonyas were largely uneducated and led a sheltered and humdrum life until marriage, usually through match-making, at a very young age. The sons were mostly privately tutored and some were even sent back to China for a spell in order to soak up more Chinese culture and to take a wife there. They were often contemptuous of the impecunious Chinese immigrants and considered them uncouth peasants; while the latter looked upon their pseudo “Chinese-ness” with amusement and disdain. Socially, their paths seldom crossed. These migrants were sojourners who toiled to make enough money so that they could return to their native land in a blaze of glory. Most failed to realise the dream.

Making of Singapore’s Baba community

When Raffles colonised Singapore in 1819, the more farsighted Malacca Babas were attracted there because of his open-door and free-trade policies. They were off to a good start. They came before the other Chinese, and were comfortable with the European way of doing business through their dealings with them in Malacca. Knowing the rudiments of English also helped. Between 1820s and 1870s, many accumulated wealth through astute trading, planting and property investment. The most notable among them included Choa Chong Long, Tan Tock Seng, Tan Kim Seng, Tan Beng Swee and Lee Cheng Yan. They became public figures and supported charities generously, in keeping with Chinese tradition.

As Singapore grew in prosperity after the mid 19th century, the Baba merchants grew with it. They built stately homes by the sea, and embellished them with expensive furnishings and artifacts from China and Europe. They entertained the colonial elites on a scale and opulence which even the Westerners envied. They, much more than the China-born, were convinced of the economic advantage of giving their children an English education and the need to show loyalty to Britain as the way forward. They acquired the trappings of the West to enhance their status. In old Singapore, one’s social standing was judged solely by one’s wealth. This would change when a small band of British university-educated Peranakan Chinese intellectuals, such as Lim Boon Keng, an Edinburgh-qualified doctor and Song Ong Siang, a Cambridge-trained lawyer, came into public limelight in the closing years of the 19th century.

As a wind of change, more scions of the Baba elite were sent to Britain for tertiary studies. The overall Peranakan enrolment at the local English-medium schools soared. The younger generation became more westernised and many were converted to Christianity. They eschewed the traditional Chinese customs and values, which their parents adhered to tenaciously. Fearing that this trend would erode their heritage and lead to a crisis of identity, a small group of emerging leaders, led by Dr Lim and Mr Song (later knighted), advocated remedial actions particularly through enlightened educational reforms. While mindful of the undoubted benefit of English education, Lim believed passionately that Peranakan students should also have a foundation in Chinese and its morality as enshrined in Confucianism. He then sought public support for bilingual education.

Due largely to his unflagging zeal, the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School was established in 1899 and had a high enrolment of Nyonyas. This was emulated by other schools later. By the turn of the 20th century, the partnership forged between the colonial government and the Straits Chinese community had become even closer, blossoming into one of mutual warmth and confidence. In 1900, the creme de la creme of the Baba and Straits-born Chinese community formed the Straits Chinese British Association, with the main objectives of showing allegiance to the British Crown and the advancement of the Chinese British subjects through higher education and other means.

The SBCA was dominated by influential Baba businessmen and professionals. Its membership was a passport to the higher echelon of society and a stepping stone to prestigious public appointments. They called themselves the King’s Chinese proudly, so as to accentuate their different status from the majority Chinese aliens who remained overtly pro-China and its cause. They donated large sums of money towards the British war efforts in World War I. The lesser Babas could find jobs easily in the business houses, or as junior officers in the civil service, because they were English-educated. The preeminence of the Babas in the public and business life was so pervasive during the first century of Singapore’s existence that when Sir Song Ong Siang wrote “One hundred Years History of the Chinese in Singapore” in 1922, it read more like the society register and a short history of his community.

The golden era of the Singapore Babas lasted between 1830s and 1920s. It then started to decline perceptibly, due to a variety of factors, some beyond their control. From 1910 onwards, the China-born migrants greatly outnumbered the Peranakan Chinese. With their energy and sharper business acumen, coupled with the immigrants’ determination to succeed, they began to outpace the Babas in the rapidly expanding business arena.

Financial ruin after Depression

The World Depression of 1926-1933 wrecked havoc on the Singapore economy and many wealthy Babas, who were substantial property and rubber-plantation owners, were ruined financially. Those who survived the trauma had to sell their remaining hard assets during the Japanese Occupation, and their wives were compelled to pawn their jewelery to support a meagre living. After the war, except for those whose wealth remained intact, the bulk of the Babas were too impoverished to maintain their comfortable pre-war lifestyle and elaborate rituals. On top of that, the younger Babas had become disenchanted with their seemingly outmoded heritage and had adopted a way of life different from their parents.

Despite these economic misfortunes, the Peranakan community’s investment in English education and their empathy with the British were, once again, rewarded amply. They continued to play a leading role in the public life of post-war Singapore. Their prominent representatives included Tan Chin Tuan, T W Ong, C C Tan , Sir Han Hoe Lim, Thio Chan Bee and Lim Yew Hock, the one-time Chief Minister of Singapore. Even after Singapore attained its independence in 1965, those with Peranakan roots carried on their long and distinguished record of public service into the present time. Among the eminent personages are Dr Wee Kim Wee, Dr Goh Keng Swee, Dr Tony Tan and the late Dr Ee Peng Liang.

Can the Baba culture live on in Singapore in the 21st century?

What needs to be done to ensure its preservation? It is indisputable that its heyday cannot be resurrected as the circumstances permitting it to flourish no longer exist. The tide of change has swept away the gulf between them and other Chinese groups, as the Peranakans have been absorbed into the mainstream Chinese community here. As to its future, Felix Chia, author of the well-known book “The Babas Revisited”, and himself a Baba who has done much to salvage its heritage through his writings since the 1970s, is manifestly pessimistic. “To the question whether the Baba culture can be revived, I am tempted to liken its present state to that of a brain-dead patient. The chances of reviving such a patient is almost nil. Conservative Babas who see themselves as “purists” and believe that the Baba culture can be revived and kept intact are deluding themselves …”, he concludes.

Mr Peter Wee, 52, an expert on Peranakan heritage and also a true blue Baba, is more optimistic. “There has definitely been a revival since the 1970s as evidenced by the many books, plays, cultural shows and exhibitions on our culture, not to mention the growing popularity of the Nyonya cuisine, which has revitalised it. The Peranakan artifacts and ornaments are now sought after, not only by non-Babas but also by the younger Peranakan professionals, and would fetch high prices at auctions conducted regularly by famed international auction houses here.”

Whether such momentum can ensure its future viability depends very much on the collective community efforts and, more importantly, the continuing interest of the younger Babas, some of whom are beginning to support its cause. Straddling the two worlds, the Peranakan Association (PA), headed by Mr Lee Kip Lee, and the Gunong Sayang Association, led by Mr Charles Koh, are part of the scheme to instill a greater sense of pride in their rich heritage and culture and to showcase it to the public. There is regular networking between the Babas of Singapore and those in Malaysia through an annual convention held in each other’s country by rotation. The newly-formed Youth Group of the PA aims at attracting more young Peranakans into its fold as the vital first step towards preserving its culture in the new millennium. Medical practitioner Heather Ong, 33, a committee member, laments that those under age 40 generally have little interest in their heritage. If this continues, the culture will die out in a generation or two. “We aim to get young Peranakans interested enough to learn more about their heritage and to meet each other in context as Babas and Nyonyas. The challenge is to be able to straddle between the fast-paced modern world and the genteel world of the old Peranakans. It is only then that we can take the culture well into the next century.”

Heading this Group is architectural animator Isaac Chan, 27, who advocates the setting up of a permanent Peranakan Centre, which would serve as a focus and a resource centre for all things Peranakan. This will promote their unique heritage effectively and help arrest its decline. In his Message to the PA on the Gala Night of the Peranakan play, Bulan Pernama, former President Wee Kim Wee has these encouraging words for his younger fellow Peranakans: “… It is also my hope, even if it should be a dim one, that the young Peranakans will imbibe and appreciate some, if not all, of the rich culture, custom and tradition of a heritage left by our forefathers and our ancestors and carry the baton for the extra mile or two into the 21st millennium.”

No: Chances almost nil
“To the question whether the Baba culture can be revived, I am tempted to liken its present state to that of a brain-dead patient. The chances of reviving such a patient are almost nil.”
Felix Chia, author of the Babas Revisited

Yes: A revival, definitely
“There has definitely been a revival since the ’70s as evidenced by the many books, plays, cultural shows and exhibitions on our culture, not to mention the growing popularity of the Nyonya cuisine.”
Mr Peter Wee, expert on Peranakan heritage.


Lam Pin Foo
Originally published in Straits Times’ Life! on 3 August 1998

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