Melaka Cultural Tip :: Preserving a cultural heritage


Pretty women clad in kebaya and sarung will greet you if you pay a visit to the Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum at Jalan Tun Cheng Lock, Bandar Hilir in Malacca..

The museum was a heritage house belonging to Malacca Chi-nese Peranakan Association vice -president Chan Kim Lay.

He had converted the house into a museum to showcase the rich culture and tradition of the Babas and Nyonyas.

Chan is worried that the legacy of the community would be wrapped up in history for its culture, tradition, heritage and dialect dissipate due to lack of practice by the younger generation.

The Baba Nonya Heritage Museum in Malacca

The Babas and Nyonyas who are identified with Malacca are the descendants of the early Chinese immigrants who settled in Malacca, Singapore, Penang and Java. They are called “peranakan”, an Indonesian word for descendants.

“Baba” is a Hindi/Sanskrit word which mean reverence and affection for elderly gentlemen while Nyonya derived from a Portuguese word which means lady.

Although the community ancestry is largely Hokkien, it has a fair denomination of Teochew and Cantonese.

Besides its unique culture which also has traces of the Portuguese, Dutch, British, Indonesian and Malay, the community cuisines have the influence of Malay dishes.

The Baba and Nyonya ancestors hailed from the Hokkien province of China. They set sail to Malacca which was then a trading centre 600 years ago.

Assimilation and intermarriage with the local community produced the Baba Malay dialect which is a Malay language interspersed with Ho-kkien.

Chan, 80, is worried that the use of the dialect is now tapering off among the younger generation.

He explained some of the common Baba words such as ranjang for bed, mana lu mau pergi (where are you going), ini gua punya (this is mine), mak mana, mak ada loteng tidur (where is mother, mother asleep in the bedroom), hai! yaa hujan lebat, tak pi tutup jendela (hai! what a heavy downpour, why don’t you shut the windows).

“When I was small, when my younger siblings became ill, my mother took us to see a pawang (Malay traditional healer) who nursed us to recovery. We never visited a doctor then. Mother and grandmother chewed betel leaves and tobacco like the Malays,” he said.

Chan had once asked a pawang to come to his rubber estate to drive off a “white tiger” which disturbed the workers. The disturbances stopped after the pawang visit.

Chan said his late mother, Ho Joo Chuan believed strongly in the pawang and filled their ho-use with incense smoke every Thursday night.

He also said community’s wedding ceremonies displayed a mixture of the Malay and Chinese cultures.

Chan with some antique furniture and paintings which are on display at the museum

“The weddings follow the old Malay culture. A betel leaf box is placed on the bed on the wedding night. If the bride is not a virgin, the betel leaf box is turned upside down by the bridegroom,” he said.

While the Chinese eat with chopsticks, the Babas and Nyonyas eat with their hands like the Malays.

Chan said the Baba and Nyonya community are good at preparing Malay dishes and cakes.

“The gulai cooking is similar to the Malays’, that’s why we have sambal belacan, coconut cuisines and sweet and sour recipes,” he said.

Chan’s mother liked to make kuih apom balik and kuih koci beside cendol and glutinous rice tapai (fermented dumpling).

He said the younger generation was not keen to practise the Baba and Nyonya custom and tradition, and some of them did not even know the community’s background.

The traditional Nyonya dress of baju kebaya and sarung was worn only on special occasions, he said.

He added that a baju kebaya could cost between RM500 and RM600.

Meanwhile, the Malacca Chi-nese Peranakan Associa-tion is not leaving any stone unturned in its efforts to inculcate the young descendants to love and nurture their roots.

The association is committed in its endeavour to train the young generation on its dialect, cuisines, the joget dance, the pantun (metrical verses or poem) and play traditional games such as congkak.

The Baba Nyonya Malacca Heritage Museum signifies Chan’s aspiration to make the house that was built in 1896 by his ancestors to introduce the community to the world.

Established in 1984, the motif adorning certain sections of the house was crafted by a carpenter from China.

Antique chairs, tables and cupboards furnish the museum which also exhibits family heirlooms such as clothes, wedding attire and kitchenware and artefacts of the community. – Bernama