Baba Malay of Malacca

"Taci sudah sampei."

" Cangkir ni pane."

How can Wan not first mention the famous Baba Malay of Malacca? The above sample phrases mean:

"Kakak sudah sampai."

"Cawan ini panas."

Don't laugh...I can only manage that much because Hokkien - a language alien to me, abounds in Baba Malay. Other examples of Baba Malay, "punya", "kasi","pigi" and "nanti" may have the same meanings in standard Malay ... PLUS the meanings of their Hokkien related terms.

Like Malay, Baba Malay has many loan words: taci ( from Tamil ), cangkir ( Chinese ) and pane ( Malay ). During the British colonial administration, it adopted English words as well. For instance, tempeh ( temple ). The Baba-British relationship was excellent so much so that they were known as the King's Chinese.

It was only during the process of researching for this webpage that I found out Baba Malay is the Malaysian creole with the largest number of speakers - no more than 5,000 primarily in Malacca. How could I not notice the language of the Babas during my visitS to Malacca? I think I was engrossed enjoying the scrumptiously spicy Baba cuisine. I have a suspicion the Babas are more famous for their Malay-Chinese blend of food than their Malay-Chinese blend of language.

The Speakers

Speakers of Baba Malay are Straits Chinese. The earliest recorded batch of them were the entourage of Chinese princess Li Po given in marriage to Sultan Mansur Shah in the 15th century.

A common notion is that these Chinese settlers intermarried with the local Malay population. By the time Baba Malay came into being, the Malays were already Islamized and Islam forbids inter-marriage with other religions without conversion first. So this would not apply to majority Straits Chinese who retain their ethnicity, religion and culture. Among the Straits Chinese themselves, they make a distinction between those with Malay ancestry and those without Malay ancestry. Generally Straits Chinese sent their children back to China to look for marriage mates. They are united though, by Baba Malay, spoken exclusively among themselves, as their first language. You address a male Straits Chinese as "Baba" and the females as "Nyonya".


Many Chinese love to play "Mah Jong", the Babas created a favourite card game of their own called Cheki. If the Babas say they go "bercheki" then you knowlah - they are playing something similar to "Gin Rummy". The Babas must have loved Cheki very much because a long poetry was written to warn people against the foolishness of becoming "kaki cheki" and lost a fortune in the end.

Baba Songs

Babas and Nyonyas are noted for their performance of Malacca's popular musical culture, the Dondang Sayang where they exchange poems in a humorous style, accompanied by a violin, accordion and traditional instruments such as the huge drum Rebana and Gong. Here's a Baba pantun mixed with Chinese dialects:

Ada satu Cina Hylam,

Pergi pasar beli ayam,

Habis duit berjudi malam,

Pulang rumah cuci tilam.

Ada satu Cina Makau,

Pergi pasar beli tembakau,

Habis duit main pakau,

Duduk rumah jadi risau.

Here's another one, Syair Renchana Piatu :

Ikan keikek keikek,

Masak sama cuka,

Nyonya banyak geitek,

Baba tidak suka

Bunga melor putih,

Kenangan hijau kuning,

Nyonya pandai meletih,

Baba suka jeling.

Elegant Nyonya

The main feature of a Nyonya's baju kebaya is delicate needlework on the collar, lapels, cuffs and hem of the blouse, as well as the two triangular front panels known as the lapik, which fall over the hips. Traditionally the kebaya blouse is made of expensive voile. The inner garment that matches the kebaya can be equally elaborate.

For her sarong, a Nyonya wears batik Pekalongan or Chinese Batik. Then there's the brooch, silver belt, accessories for the hair, ears, neck and hands. The look is completed with a pair of kasut manik or beaded shoes. So intricate that the first time I saw those shoes in Malacca, I almost pengsan...No wonder rich folks like to promote the Nyonya wardrobe overseas.


The Decrease

It seems Baba Malay had had its golden era under British patronage. Like most Malaysian creoles, the number of speakers is declining largely due to intermarriages of the Babas with Chinese of other dialect groups which tend not to adopt the Baba Malay creole.


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