Peranakan Malay: Keeping The Language Alive

The origin story of the Peranakans has always encountered debates. All things considered, it is difficult to determine its exact history. Even the most esteemed scholars are unable to come up with a definitive answer. Nevertheless, there has always been a fascination with the Peranakan culture, including the language. Professor Nala Lee from the National University of Singapore has an interesting finding. Her research shows that there are less than 1,000 native Peranakan Malay speakers left in Singapore. On the other hand, the numbers in Malaysia is unknown. This is unsurprising as many Peranakan families have dispersed over the years. Some of them place great emphasis on receiving a British education. Others marry into more traditional Chinese families. As a result, their offspring are more fluent in English or a Chinese dialect. This, in turn, means that most Peranakans no longer adopt the Peranakan language as their first language.

Baba Malay in Felix Chia's book about Peranakan culture.
Peranakan Malay, also known as Baba Malay, is a unique blend of Hokkien and Malay. Felix Chia wrote quite extensively about it.
Image from “The Babas” by Felix Chia.

What Do Peranakans Speak?

Ever wondered whether a Peranakan speaks Chinese or Malay? Well, they speak both! This unique hybrid language is a culmination of the Chinese dialect, Hokkien, and Malay. You will come to know it as Peranakan or Baba Malay. However, it might be a subject of contentious debate even regarding this term. Peranakans themselves describe the language as “Peranakan Patois” or simply, Peranakan. For the purpose of this article, I will refer to it as Peranakan Malay for clarity. I will also focus more on its community in Malacca and Singapore.

To those unfamiliar with Peranakan Malay, it may superficially sound like Malay. But pay closer attention, and you will notice some interesting differences in vocabulary and pronunciation. Felix Chia in his book “The Babas” finds that a Peranakan often speaks his version of Malay. He gives little to no regard for grammar. Mispronunciation is also common. This leads to distortion of the spelling. Consequently, Peranakan Malay has spelling and pronunciation variations that are vastly different from traditional Malay. More often than not, a native Malay speaker will not be able to understand Peranakan Malay and vice versa.

How Hard Can It Be?

Individuals who studied the Malay Language in school are able to understand some words when listening to Peranakans speak. However, the combination of Hokkien and the slight mispronunciation of some Malay words make Peranakan Malay sound gibberish. Let me try to explain this with an example using my rusty Peranakan Malay.

Peranakan Malay:
“Dia pikay dia kahwin jantan tu bagus? Buat suay saja.”
“Dia fikir bahawa berkahwin dengan lelaki itu bagus? Sebenarnya dia tidak bernasib baik.”
“She thinks that it’s good to marry that man. She’s just so unlucky.”

The word “pikay” derives from the Malay word “fikir” which means “to think”. Additionally, native Malay speakers will refer to individuals of the male gender as “lelaki”. Peranakans tend to use the word “jantan”. And lastly, the Hokkien word “suay” means to be unlucky. You’ll also notice that Peranakans tend to abbreviate their Malay words making the sentences jagged. Additionally, there is also no proper structure in the way the sentences form. However, in reality, when spoken, the sentences flow naturally. It is truly confusing!

A letter written in Peranakan Malay
This is a letter found in “The Babas” by Felix Chia. It is written in Peranakan Malay. Are you able to decipher its contents?
Image from “The Babas” by Felix Chia.

Personal Experience Speaking Peranakan Malay

Both my parents are Peranakans from the historical city of Malacca. My grandparents would take turns to care for me as my parents were working full time. Naturally, I grew up speaking Peranakan Malay with them. My paternal grandmother could not speak English at all. So, the only way to communicate with her was through Peranakan Malay. Unfortunately, she suffered from dementia around 2014. I was studying in Sheffield, United Kingdom at the time. Communication became increasingly difficult with each visit. Since I could no longer practise speaking it, my speech became unnatural and forced. It also did not help that I had hardly any interest in my culture while growing up.

On the other hand, my maternal grandparents received English education. Hence, they used both languages. They would speak English in school and Peranakan Malay at home. While my mother and her siblings were growing up, my grandfather prioritised the English Language. He believed that they would have better opportunities if they could speak it well. This decision unintentionally led the family to be less accustomed to speaking Peranakan Malay.

My Peranakan grandfather who taught me to speak good English growing up.
Growing up, my maternal Peranakan grandfather with Western influence thought it was important for me to learn to speak proper English.
Source: Denise Lee’s family archive

When taking care of me, my grandparents would alternate between English and Peranakan Malay. As a toddler, I spoke jumbled sentences using words from both languages. Then came a day my grandfather decided that enough was enough. Soon, I was watching English films like “The Sound of Music” and educational shows like “Mind Your Language”. All of these helped me improve my English. While my grandmother still uses some Peranakan words every so often, she speaks mostly English.

The Future Of Peranakan Malay

Peranakan children learn to speak the language as it passes down from one generation to the next. Unfortunately, Peranakan Malay is dying and soon enough, there will no longer be native speakers. This is the reality for most Peranakan families now. Though it is easy to find language schools, there are no official ones at the moment for Peranakan Malay. Since there are no proper grammatical structures, it further increases the difficulty to teach and learn Peranakan Malay.

Learning Peranakan Malay is not easy but being able to understand it brings back many nostalgic memories for me. This video features the Tan family from Singapore speaking fondly about the language.

That said, there are small communities of Peranakans that are trying to keep the language alive. One example is the Gunong Sayang Association (GSA) in Singapore. A cultural organisation, the GSA encourages the singing of the Peranakan poetry, “dondang sayang”, among its Peranakan members. The GSA will often produce Peranakan productions and host special events pertaining to the culture. One of the events listed on their website includes a Peranakan language class. However, they have halted all activities for the time being due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Last year, I had the privilege of watching a Peranakan production in Singapore by True Blue Cuisine and Peranakan Siblings theatre group. Check it out below!

“Ayer Di Tetak Takleh Putus” means “Blood Is Thicker Than Water” is a production by True Blue Cuisine and Peranakan Siblings theatre group. The performance featured my granduncle, Mr Terry Lim. Maybe you can learn a thing or two from watching it.

Documenting The Culture

While the language is facing extinction, it is not dead yet. It is amazing to see that there are still members of the Peranakan community who care about preserving their heritage. The Singapore government has been actively assisting the Peranakan community in this initiative. However, the same cannot be said across the border in Malaysia. But there is hope. We can take action into our own hands by educating ourselves. For me, documenting my findings through storytelling is one way to ensure that the culture is immortalised in some way. Although a small effort, I believe that Peranakan Malay will be able to live to see another day.

Professor Nala Lee from the National University of Singapore mentioned earlier is also passionate about preserving traditional Peranakan Malay. She wrote a very in-depth dissertation about the language and grammar while taking sociophonetic conditions into consideration. It is really worth a read if you have the time.

In the next article in the series, we will be diving even deeper into the Peranakan culture. Ever been curious about what goes on behind the scenes of a Peranakan wedding? Well, you will have have to come back to find out!

If you were born into a Peranakan family, how would you rate your Peranakan Malay?
Denise LEE

About Denise LEE

Law graduate who got seduced into the corporate world. Corporate minion by day, writer by night, Denise was raised listening to stories of old, before picking up storytelling herself. Self-proclaimed fashionista, foodie, shopaholic, and totally infatuated with all things Korean and Japanese.

4 Replies to “Peranakan Malay: Keeping The Language Alive”

  1. Dear Denise,
    It is enlightening to see youth like yourself interested in the culture. The main objective of Gunong Sayang Association’s existence is to promote our culture for posterity.
    We are always on the lookout for youth to join our association to impart different aspect of our culture.
    Btw, the last Wayang Peranakan that GSA performed was in 2018 entitled “Lu Siapa”. Your grand uncle Baba Terry Lim acted in several GSA productions, the latest was “Kain Chik Dua Mungka” in 2017.
    For the record, the show u posted above was done in 2019 and was staged by Peranakan Siblings (True Blue). Please do the necessary amendments lest there are any misunderstanding. Kamsiah.
    Please contact us, we will be happy to hear from you.

    • Hi Frederick,

      Thank you for your comment and clarification. I have made the relevant amendments to avoid any confusion. My apologies for the mistake.

      Would love to chat more to get more information about our heritage since I’m still quite new to this. Perhaps we can arrange for a discussion one day. I’ll drop you an email sometime in the coming week!

  2. Good morning, Denise.

    Met your mum this morning to hand over some cook books she bought. She mentioned about your foray into writing and of sharing your Peranakan heritage on-line. It is very heartening to note your passion while memory is still fresh in your mind and in your youth (something that is rare as most will only start reminiscing the past mid-age or having sold/disposed off their heirlooms ages ago). Keep it up for those in the know are dwindling in numbers and many oral information will be lost and carried into the grave.

    Hilang budaya, hilang bangsa.


    • Hi Cedric,

      Thank you so much for dropping by. I have always been curious about our heritage and since there is not much information readily available, I decided to do some digging myself. Would be cool to chat with you sometime. I will try getting your contact from my mum.

      Take care!

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