Baba Malay

Asian Geographic - - On Assignment - BACK­GROUND WRIT­TEN SCRIPT

Apa Khabair apa/ka/ba

A DIS­AP­PEAR­ING TRA­DI­TION

Who ex­actly are the Per­anakans? Many peo­ple are un­sure as to the pre­cise lin­eage and her­itage of this group of peo­ple, but if you dig deep into their his­tory, you’ll find that they are a fas­ci­nat­ing hy­brid of var­i­ous Eastern cul­tures, topped with a sprin­kle of Western ways.

Ac­cord­ing to leg­end, in 1459, the em­peror of China pre­sented a princess, Hang Li Po, to the Sul­tan of Malacca. The nobles and ser­vants who were trav­el­ling with the princess ini­tially set­tled in Bukit Cina (Chi­nese Hill) and even­tu­ally grew into a class of Straits-born Chi­nese known as the Per­anakans.

As the years went by, many Chi­nese im­mi­grants set­tled in Sin­ga­pore, Malaysia and In­done­sia. There, they adopted some of the lo­cal cus­toms while re­tain­ing some of their own. They also picked up the lo­cal lan­guages of those places.

When the Bri­tish set up trad­ing ports in Sin­ga­pore and Pe­nang, the Per­anakans were in­vited to re­lo­cate there as well. As the Per­anakans knew how to speak English in ad­di­tion to the var­i­ous lo­cal lan­guages, many served as mid­dle­men be­tween the Bri­tish and the lo­cals, es­pe­cially when busi­ness and trade were in­volved.

Most Per­anakans are of Hokkien de­scent. How­ever, there are also a size­able num­ber with Teochew and Can­tonese ori­gins. Over time, they cre­ated their own cre­ole di­alect of Malay, Baba Malay.

The Per­anakan di­alect is more or less Malay but with a gen­er­ous dose of Hokkien in be­tween. But sadly, it is mostly only spo­ken by the older gen­er­a­tion to­day. For the younger gen­er­a­tion of Per­anakans, English is the main medium of com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

In ac­tual fact, the di­alect is fast head­ing to­wards ex­tinc­tion. This is par­tially due to gov­ern­ment poli­cies of the re­spec­tive coun­tries. In Sin­ga­pore, Per­anakans are clas­si­fied as eth­nic Chi­nese, many of whom learn Man­darin. In Malaysia, the gov­ern­ment en­forces the learn­ing of Stan­dard Malay in schools. Thus the young are not given much op­por­tu­nity to com­pre­hen­sively study or prac­tise Baba Malay. Tra­di­tional Per­anakan re­li­gion traces its roots back to Bud­dhism, Tao­ism and Con­fu­cian­ism. Items such as pak puay (div­ina­tion blocks) and bam­boo div­ina­tion sets were ex­tremely pop­u­lar. Pro­tec­tive amulets were cast in the form of jew­ellery as well. Per­anakans also prayed to Chi­nese deities, such as Guan Yu (the gods of war) and Fu Lu Shou (the god of for­tune, pros­per­ity and longevity). Funeral wakes usu­ally last be­tween three and seven days. Pek kim (‘white gold’) would be given to the fam­ily of the

For the younger gen­er­a­tion of Per­anakans, English is the main medium of com­mu­ni­ca­tion

de­ceased as a ges­ture of con­do­lence. In re­turn, guests would be given a red string, to be dis­carded on their way home, and a pair of red can­dles to be lit out­side the doors of their houses to ward off bad luck.

Like Malay, Baba Malay is writ­ten us­ing the Ro­man al­pha­bet. The dif­fer­ence lies in the in­clu­sion of Hokkien words. In Hokkien prov­inces in China, Hokkien is writ­ten with Chi­nese char­ac­ters, whereas in Baba Malay, the Hokkien words are pho­net­i­cally trans­lated into Ro­man let­ters.

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