The Straits Chinese
The existence of a Chinese-Malay sub-culture, now nearly extinct, is little known in the West.
Philip Courtenay, Friday, 1st October 2010
The world’s best-known art is associated with the dominant cultures of Europe and Asia and with a number of indigenous societies, among which the Australian Aborigines and the pre-Columbian peoples of the Americas are prominent examples. There are, however, many relatively minor cultures or sub-cultures with their own distinctive art forms – interesting blends or variations on the prevailing styles of their respective regions. For example, the art and design of the Straits Chinese, a Chinese-Malay people created in the Malay Peninsula by accidents of trade routes and history, is relatively little-known outside Malaysia and Singapore.
Chinese immigration on the Malay Peninsula has a long history. Traders from southern China, especially from the provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, were regular visitors to Malay ports from as early as the 14th century. They particularly congregated on the growing trade entrepôt of Malacca, situated on the narrowest point of the eponymous strait connecting the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea.
When in 1511 Malacca submitted to its first European colonisers, the Portuguese, it possessed a resident Chinese community that was benefiting from the city’s growing economy. These early Chinese settlers were in close contact with local Malays, from whom they adopted aspects of Malay culture. Some of them also took local women as concubines or wives.1 Locally born Chinese, who developed this syncretic culture and increasingly inter-married within their own community, became known as Baba, and their womenfolk as Nonya.
Today, the more official term for Baba-Nonya is Straits Chinese.2 Thus Straits Chinese culture is a hybrid of Chinese and Malay cultures with, from the 19th century onward, overlays of British influence. Traditional Straits Chinese abandoned their native Chinese language for a Baba-Nonya patois that follows Chinese idiom but is essentially Malay, even though it contains many words from Hokkien Chinese and other languages that came to be spoken locally as colonial powers exchanged control and Indian immigration grew. This Malay-Chinese synthesis is likewise reflected in local kinship practices, dress, cuisine and various aspects of material culture. As British influence expanded in the Straits Settlements of Malacca, Penang and Singapore during the first quarter of the 19th century, the Straits Chinese soon apprehended the advantages that accrued from an education in English.
By the 1870s, up to 10 years of formal education in English was available in Britain’s Malayan colonies, and Baba graduates readily found employment. British sociologist John Clammer has described the Baba-Nonya as ‘Chinese ethnically, Malayanised in respect of language and material culture,3 and Europeanised in terms of political allegiance...though maintaining their own integrity as a distinct community quite separate in important respects from the other Chinese, the Malays and the English’.4 The Straits Chinese, largely restricted to the British-administered Straits Settlements, shared in the Malay Peninsula’s prosperous 19th-century colonial economy, and as a result material aspects of their culture blossomed.
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