The Chinese and Peranakans (Baba and Nyonya)
[The following is extracted mainly from the book myPenang]
From China to Malaya
Chinese traders began their venture into the Malay archepelago mainly from the fifth centuiry AD. Chinese settlers who came as early as the 15th century, mainly traders, sailors and labourers, eventualy setttle down in here and became involved in the agricultural, mining and commercial sectors.
The outbreak of the Taiping Rebellion (1851) in China, simulated migration, especially from South China, from the provinces of Guangdong (formerly written as Kwangtung), Fujian (Fukien) and Guangsi (Kwangsi). As a result, the sizable Chinese population in the Malay archipelago in the 19th century were from the Chinese clans of the Teochew (from Guangdong), Hokkien (from Fujian), Cantonese (from Guangdong), Hakka (from the three provinces) and Hainanese (from Hainan Island).
The majority of the Chinese settled the Malay world to escape porverty in China. Chinese participation in the plantation agriculture and mining contributed vastly to the economy of the Malay state.
Many Chinese settled in the Straits Settlement (Penang, Melaka Singapore) and eventually small communities were scattered in the other Malay states.
The Chinese who arrived came from the Fujian (Fukien) province in China, settling mainly in the Straits Settlements (Penang, Malacca and Singapore). Some intermarried the locals and assimilated the practices of the local population, and developed a unique culture that is a blend of Malay and Chinese. These people were known in the region as Peranakans (meaning local born in Malay), or Babas (men) and Nyonyas (women), or Straits Chinese. [note: spelling in Malaysia is Nyonya, spelling in Singapore is Nonya]
Unlike the Chinese men who settled in Malacca (Melaka) and who adopted more Malay culture, the Chinese immigrants in Penang had strong ties with their families in China, and so retained many of their Chinese traditions. However, their dialect Hokkien, became peppered with local Malay words and later some English words as well. This unique Hokkien dialect, often referred to as Penang Hokkien, is widely spoken in Penang and the northern part of peninsular Malaysia.
Assimilation of some Malay culture is also seen in the Straits Chinese cultural practices and art. Penang Nyonyas adopted the wearing of the sarong kebaya (a costume of sarong with a translucent, embroidered top), and produced exquisite embroidery and decorative beadworks. Beaded shoes and the Nyonya kebaya are highly priced today. Penang Peranakans also adopted some English practices, with many sending their children to English schools. This blend of culture is unique to the Chinese in this region. (The Peranakan network or diaspora extends to Phuket, Medan, Melaka and Singapore corresponding to pattern of migration in the region)
The Nyonya cuisine, which is well known in Penang, Malacca and Singapore, also originated from the Straits Chinese. Nyonya cooking in Penang is usually a mix of Malay and Chinese ingredients and style, with some Thai influence. [Photo: Asam Pedas - Nyonya cuisine]
The Chinese also brought to Malaya the clan or kongsi system; a tradition characterised by group cohesiveness and brotherhood. The word kongsi has also been absorbed into the Malay language, taking the meaning ‘share’.
To the Chinese, a kongsi is an association of individuals from the same dialect group or clan from the same area in China. These kongsi played a benevolent role to their members and often gave help and protection to the new arrivals. Many kongsi houses were also built during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and some like the Khoo Kongsi is a landmark on the island.
There are five major Hokkien clans or kongsis (of five major surnames) in Penang known as the Goh Tai Seh consisting of the Khoo, Lim, Cheah, Yeoh and Tan kongsi. The Chinese also formed welfare associations among those of the same dialect group (for example the Hokkien or the Hakka dialect), usually referred to as hoi kuan (welfare associations). Kongsis are still active associations in Malaysia. (some of the kongsi houses of Penang HERE)
[Main Reference Source: myPenang – the inside guide to where to go and what to eat by Lim Bee Chin, 2005]