What can communities do to share their cultural heritage and keep it thriving—especially when that heritage is closely tied to a particular place, such as the Malaysian port hub of Penang, which is known as a “fulcrum” for travel and exchange in the region? That’s a pressing question for the Chinese Peranakans of Southeast Asia, who are the subject of a 2009 special issue of the Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.
Also known as Babas and Nyonyas, they trace their history to intermarriage between Chinese traders and Malay women in the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries. Noting an upsurge of interest in their culture, historian and librarian Ch’ng Kim See attributes identity consciousness among Malaysian Chinese Peranakans today to factors both positive, such as “growing confidence of ethnic Chinese as citizens and nationals” in Southeast Asia, and negative, such as a response to perceived racial discrimination in government policies.
Whatever the cause, Ch’ng sees “an increased demand for information and data on the Babas and Nyonyas and their culture.”
However, her review of cultural archives in Malaysia comes up unsatisfactory for meeting that demand, especially in contrast with neighboring Singapore, which has a state-supported Peranakan Museum, and multilingual, if “modest,” library collections. (While historian Karen Teoh criticizes Singapore’s Peranakan Museum as “supporting the notion of an already-fixed ethnocultural identity,” Ch’ng lauds the institution as unparalleled in the region, even as she acknowledges other, privately run Malaysian museums in Penang and Melaka.)
Challenges include the linguistic diversity among Chinese Peranakans—who may use a mix of English, Hokkien, and Baba or Standard Malay—and the way that resources about Babas and Nyonyas could be lumped together with broader materials on Southeast Asian Chinese communities. Meanwhile, collections at private organizations such as clan associations and business chambers tend to be “fragmented, inconsistent, and narrow in focus,” Ch’ng warns.
As such, Ch’ng suggests pulling public and private archives into a network—a so-called regional resource center—that she envisions as “the first-stop centre for independent and reliable information on the Peranakans in Malaysia and its vicinity.” And she is not the only heritage enthusiast brimming with ideas on how to promote Penang Baba culture.
“Culture must be alive,” proclaims performing arts expert Tan Sooi Beng. Seeking to revitalize a Penang Peranakan street culture that featured festive performances of dondang sayang (Malay sung poetry), “syncretic forms of Malay and English songs,” and ronggeng dances, Tan calls for “[a] living Peranakan Centre with regular workshop activities for the younger generation, such as storytelling, rhyme chanting, craft making, dancing, and music making.”
Observers of civil society have praised how heritage conservation in Penang is “vibrant” and community led, centering “the people, the buildings, and the space they have created.”
For Penang Peranakans—who Ch’ng calls “a model for accommodation, integration, and adaptation,” and whose hybrid culture is “symptomatic of Penang’s cosmopolitism”—cultural investments along the lines of Ch’ng’s and Tan’s proposals seem likely to be a boon.