Peranakan” is a Malay term designating a particular Creole culture of partly assimilated Chinese in Malaysia and Indonesia. To an unknown extent, these peoples’ distinctive identities were the by-products of political-economic and culture historical forces of social integration within a colonial Southeast Asian context. In certain places during the colonial era, especially in the so-called Straits Settlements, of Penang, Malacca and Singapore, the Peranakans emerged as a distinctive, fully crystallized ethno-cultural orientation with its own sense of cultural focus and elaboration of distinctive, ethnically defined traits. This became the highly stylistic culture of the “Babas and Nyonyas.”
The Babas represent something unusual and therefore interesting in the world, but not something that was to be unexpected, given the social conditions and historical contexts in which they emerged to define themselves as distinct and separate from all other people. They are not to be facilely dismissed as but one more of many sub-groupings of the Chinese nation, but another minor variant upon a dominant theme of sinicization, because they stand clearly apart from all other Chinese in Southeast Asia–their cultural orientation ran somewhat across the Chinese grain.
They represent a dynamic aspect of Chinese cultural character that would be considered uncommon in terms of the patriarchal and xenophobic Sinitic stereotypes. They represented a synthetic and syncretic capacity of Chinese to readily incorporate and assimilate foreign elements in a creative way when given the context and opportunity, and incentive, to do so, and to redefine their own identity in a way which does not always fall beneath the umbra of their Ancestor’s Shadow.
But the Babas also stand for something else which is perhaps more interesting from an anthropological standpoint. The study of their provenience in time and place, their emergence, historical elaboration, and subsequent submergence beneath the tides of modern historical developments, allow us to ask critical questions about some of foundational concepts concerning culture, ethnicity, social structure, historical patterning, and even evolutionary processes of change.