Nyonya night

 It’s funny how a themed party can rekindle one’s interest in one’s own heritage.
When we received an invitation from a good friend to attend a Nyonya Night at her new house in Taiping, I went on a frantic search for a kebaya, lest I get turned away at the door.
It wasn’t an easy task buying an authentic Baba-Nyonya kebaya ensemble at such short notice, so I settled for an Indonesian-influenced design which had a longer top. On the night of the party, a clear evening in September, I walked with small steps in my narrow sarong towards the house, my husband beside me in his batik shirt.
We were thankful that we were not found to be wanting sartorially and had no problems getting in.

Winners of the Best Dressed contest.
Soon, more and more gorgeously-dressed ladies and their spouses streamed into Tan Siew Yong’s brightly-lit mansion for the much anticipated Nyonya Night. The ladies, young and not-so-young, were clad in intricately embroidered kebaya and batik sarong, their feet shod in beaded sandals. Some had their hair swept up in chignons decorated with flowers and gold pins.
Not to be outdone, the men wore colourful batik shirts.

This was during the Mid Autumn or Lantern Festival, one of the important days celebrated by the Baba-Nyonya who are Peranakan (or descendents of the Straits-born Chinese of Malaysia). Their ancestry can be traced back to the 15th century when diplomatic ties were established between imperial China’s Ming Dynasty and the Malacca Sultanate when Admiral Zheng He made many port calls during his great voyages.

Many of the Chinese seamen and traders, having left their wives behind in China, took local women as their second wives. Their sea voyages were long and, often, they had to wait for the monsoon winds to change direction, sometimes up to six months or more. They were thus regularly forced to reside in the three ports of Malacca, Singapore and Penang, which centuries later became the British Straits Settlements. The Chinese heritage remained prominent in these inter-cultural marriages, as did the Taoist way of life.

A more romantic version has it that the Baba-Nyonya are descendents of Hung Li Po — supposedly a princess from China sent to marry Malacca’s Sultan Ahmad Shah — and her entourage of 200 maidens. However, this seems unlikely because there is no mention of Hung Li Po or any other princess despatched to Malacca in the Chinese records.
Moreover, Peranakan culture retains many Chinese festivals like the Lunar New Year and Chap Goh Mei, and their cuisine is mainly non-halal. Obviously, their ancestors did not convert to Islam, as anyone marrying the sultan and his men would have had to do.
However, the language spoken and handed down the generations is a mixture of Malay and Chinese, a patois unique to the Straits Chinese. The joget or ronggeng dance and the recitation or singing of pantun (four-line, seven-syllabic poems), while obviously of Malay origin, feature promi

nently in any Peranakan gathering.   ..........more at The Star:  



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