The Sounds of Southeast Asia


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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 practice Baba Malay.

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.


(Read more on the other Southeast Asian languages from the full story available in print. Subscribe to our magazine here)




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