|The exterior of Baba Nyonya Museum situated in Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lok|
They have been the wealthiest of Melaka people. They make some of the most delicious dishes, especially cakes, in Malaysia. They have a unique cultural heritage and biological lineage. They can be of utmost interest to a geneticist. They can offer a prefect glimpse of the benefits cross-marriages can bring about in enhancement of characteristics. They are Straits-born Chinese. They are Baba Nyonyas. Baba is male and Nyonya is female.
There were times in Melaka, when various cultures and ethnicities not merely co-existed like these do today, but also intermingled more frequently. This intermingling has resulted in new cultures and communities in past. The most prominent of these is Baba Nyonya culture. Baba Nyonyas are descendants of early Chinese males and Malay females. Well, the story goes back to fifteenth century, when a Chinese princess came to marry Sultan of Melaka. With her came a group of 500 Chinese men. These men were settled by Sultan in the area known as Bukit China (literally, China Hill) today. Many of these Chinese men married local female, resulting in a combination of two cultures, known as the Straits Chinese culture or Peranakan culture (Peranakan is a Malay word meaning ‘born here’).
I had read about them before going to Melaka, and so, had formed an image of theirs in my mind. Naturally, my eyes were wandering around to pinpoint a Baba or a Nyonya in the crowds around me when I reached there (though it was difficult, at least for a person who had never seen a Baba Nyonya before). And then I found them the next day- in Jonker Street where they had put up their stalls and were selling their famous cakes there.
|An aesthetically decorated courtyard of a Baba Nyonya house|
The Baba Nyonyas are known for a unique blend of Chinese and Malay customs. Even their language is a mixture of Chinese and Malay, and is known as Baba Malay. As far as their dressing is concerned, they adopted Malay attire called Baju, and embroidered it with Chinese motifs. The females of this community love to wear intricately crafted jewellery, mostly made of silver and beads. The uniqueness of their fanciful jewellery lies in the fact that it is blended with Malay, Chinese, Arabic and Indian designs.
The Baba Nyonyas have a passion for food. Their hot and spicy cuisine includes Otak-Otak, Laksa and Mee Siam. If you happen to have a dish prepared by Nyonyas, don’t be surprised by the generous amounts of spices, chilly, Shrimp paste and coconut milk. One of the common dishes is Ikan Masam. It is chicken or fish cooked in aromatic spices.
If I go on talking about the spicy Nyonya food I will not be justified, as they make some of the most irresistible cakes. These cakes are sticky to eat and their primary ingredient is rice. I happened to eat one on the day of my arrival in Melaka. It was called Ondeh Ondeh. So delicious it was that I went on to have it on all three days of my stay there. Though, I also tried other varieties. One of them was Nyonya Popiah and other one was Kuih Tapioca.
As I mentioned earlier, Peranakans have been one of the wealthiest people of Melaka. The houses they built speak for it. In the next street to Jonker Street- which street is named as Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lok- you will find majestic two-storey houses. These houses belong to Peranakan families. In these houses, you will find an influence of Victorian culture, along with Southern Chinese and Malay ones. The Victorian influence is much evident in their furniture, window panels and portraits of their ancestors on the walls- all of these indicating a wealthy status and lifestyle of the owners. Locals are not wrong when they call the street as Millionaire’s Row.
|A Baba Nyonya house. Interiors speak of wealthy lifestyle of its owners|
If you wish to peep into one of these houses, you can do so at a price of RM 10. One of these houses has been converted into a private museum. It is called Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum. Once of buy the ticket, you will be taken around inside the house by a well-informed guide. She will explain to you the lifestyle of Baba Nyonyas. You will be amazed to see costly black-wood furniture painted with Chinese ominous scenes and inlaid with marble and mother-of-pearl in exquisitely designed rooms. Beautifully designed courtyards, indoor gardens, fabulous attires, intricate latticework on ceilings, colourful murals on walls, carved fittings, enviable collection of antiques and variety in cutlery according to occasions will surely leave you awe-struck.
A visit to such a marvellous house-cum-museum was indeed a rewarding experience for me. It is open from 10 am to 4 pm with a break of one hour from 1 pm to 2 pm. Photography is not allowed once you are inside. So, what I could capture with my camera was only the exterior of this museum. Though, one part of this house is turned into a café. If one wants to, one can click pictures there.
Text and Photos by Ajay Garg