In the early 14th and 15th century, the Emperor of China’s armada set sail with junks laden with precious silks, exquisite porcelains and tea to the Malay Archipelago and up the Straits of Malacca. Chinese envoys and merchants landed in Malaya and traded with the Dutch, Portuguese and Indo-Europeans. Many of these merchants and traders settled in the region and intermarried with the local Batak, Batavian, Acehnese, Thai and Burmese ladies and bred the distinctive Straits Chinese. The Straits Chinese is the blending and embodiment of these existing cultures of the time. It created a distinct group reflecting their locally evolved culture, customs, language, fashion, cuisine, architecture and traditions. When the British founded the Straits Settlements, the Chinese moved up north to Penang, while the Chinese from Thailand and Burma moved south into Penang.
The Penang Straits Chinese are an amalgamation of different cultures, those of the Sino-Malay Archipelago, Thai, Burmese, Indian and notably, the British. The men are known as Baba from the honorific Malay-Indian word, meaning ‘father’ or gentleman. The ladies are known as Nyonya, a combination of Javanese and the Dutch ‘nona’. While looking like most Chinese, the Penang Straits Chinese speak Hokkien with a spattering of patois Malay that is different from the Hokkien immigrants in Penang.
Once a year, on Chap Goh Meh, the Babas and Nyonya will take to the streets with orang asli band accompaniment to play keroncong tunes and sing dondang sayang, literally translated as love ballads. The anglophile Straits Chinese also indulge in dancing – joget, ramvong, ballroom, Latin – to big bands.
The Baba houses are generally straits eclectic styled homes in George Town. These houses are usually narrow and deep, and feature an open air well in the kitchen area. The frontage has decorative sculpted facades and feature auspicious emblems forming a relief over the plasterwork. The wooden doors are latticed with animal carving and gilded in gold five-foot ways. Indian masons adapt shutter windows that let in sunlight in the day and verandahs to keep out the heat. Pretty floral ceramic tiles glaze the walls while Minton floor tiles form an interesting tessellated design on the floor. Fine examples of these remain in the predominantly Peranakan enclave of the heritage area of George Town area and along Jalan Magazine. A couple of restored houses along Jalan Muntri have its lavish interiors still intact.
The interiors are lavishly decorated with Chinese latticed carved screen doors and furnished with the finest mother-of-pearl blackwood furniture. Epergnes, Victorian bell jars, German bisque dolls, and Vaseline vases decorate the dressers or used as centerpieces on the main table th’ng tok. Big dragon pots and jars collect water for household use while Chinese vases and tall flower stands brims over with an assortment of ferns. The Pinang Peranakan Mansion (29 Lebuh Gereja. +604 264 2929/www.pinangperanakanmansion.com.my) has the Straits’ eclectic architecture and interiors as well as a rare and beautiful collection of antiques, famille rose porcelains, epergnes, mother-of-pearl furniture and European collectibles that are found in most Peranakan homes. The Mansion is a concise, recreation of the home of a wealthy Baba in old Penang.
The interesting array of kitchenware in the nyonya kitchen comes from all over the world. Malay nyiru rattan tray, Burmese lacquer trays, Indian enamel, tiffin, English jelly moulds and tureens are lined up alongside blue and white Ming porcelains. Rattan baskets are still weaved by basket makers along Lebuh Pantai and Lebuh Campbell; tiffins are found in the shops and local wet markets. The prettiest baskets are the red or black lacquered and gold gilded sia nah – these exquisite famille rose prized porcelains are the Peranakan’s signature porcelain. These porcelains can be ordered from Poh Seong (46-B, Jalan Cantonment. +604 229 0723) and are imported from China.
Nyonya cuisine is aromatic, flavourful and refined. The herbs, plants and vegetables have to be julienned evenly and finely and there is no compromising on food preparation. Local Malay spices are added to enhance the flavour. The combination of aromatic Malay and Indian spices with Chinese cooking produce flavorful dishes such as perut ikan, kiam chye arp, choon pneah spring rolls, kerabu, and gulai. All these are enjoyed with condiments of pounded chillies, belacan shrimp paste and lime. The belacan and other sauces are sold at Pulau Tikus Market (Jalan Pasar, off Jalan Burma) and the Chowrasta bazaar (Lower Penang Road). Nyonya restaurants that serve this delicious nyonya food are MaMa’s Nyonya Cuisine (31-D, Lorong Abu Siti, George Town. +604 229 1318), Nyonya Breeze (50 Lorong Abu Siti. +6019 443 7104/ www.nyonyabreeze.oomph.com.my), Sri Batik Nyonya Café (102-E-2, New World Park, 102 Jalan Burmah. +604 228 8919), and Perut Rumah Nyonya Cuisine (17 Jalan Kelawei. +604 227 9917). Sweets and desserts such as glutinous rice, red bean soup, cendol and an array of colourful cakes in multiple hues are also a Nyonya mainstay. The sweets and desserts are usually made from rice flour with lots of coconut milk to give its sweetness and further flavoured with pandan leaves. They’re sold at most local markets, particularly at Batu Lancang market (Lintang Batu Lanchang) in the afternoons.
The nyonya women best portray their unique heritage in the manner of their dressing and jewellery. The sarong kebaya is eloquent of their fine fashion sense and best espouse the feminine form through its fine blouses, wraparound sarongs and elaborate embroidery work.
The kebaya is a sheer light long sleeved blouse made from Swiss voile, laces, or light cotton. These blouses are worked with elaborate embroidery around its edges, especially the front panels. F.A. Karim Cloth House (180 Lebuh Campbell. +604 262 2698) used to serve the nyonya women and still have exquisite laces today. Kim Fashion (170-4-77, Gurney Plaza. +604 226 6110) sells quality embroidered blouses and sarongs. County Fair Boutique (Level 2, Lot 33.2.36, Prangin Mall, Jalan Dr. Lim Chwee Leong. +604 262 1593/www.countyfairboutique.com) also has a good selection. The blouses are fastened with triple brooches linked by chains. These are rare antique pieces but good costume copies are available from Parkson’s department stores (www.parkson.com.my), Jusco department stores (www.jusco.com.my) and shop lots within Menara Komtar Complex (Jalan Magazine. +604 263 6195). Intricately beaded shoes (kasut manik) complete the sarong kebaya outfit and they come in a range of designs and colours at Hong Kong Shoe Store (177 Jalan Muntri. +604 261 4695).
The baju panjang – an older version of the kebaya – is held together by the kerosang thoe. A Chandelier anting-anting earrings or ear studs adorn their ears with similar matching necklaces and bracelets. Jewels and jewellery are eloquent of the nyonya’s family wealth and privileged status in society. While these exquisite pieces remain in private possession, a few can be sourced from antique jewelers like Kedai Antik Kok Seng (Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling) and pawn shops in George Town.
Jonathan Yun, a local craftsman and jeweller specialises in crafting neo-Peranakan jewellery. He has designed a series of lovely bold kerosang thoe in his recent collection. These are made from semi precious stones such as tzardite, emeralds, luscious pearls and diamonds set in antique silver. Pick your choice from his nouveau and re-interpreted timeless, silhouette of Peranakan brooches and earrings at his studio, Jonathan Yun Silver Jewellery (88 Armenian Street. +604 261 1917).