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?
87 votes

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.

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

  1. Hello. I’m Alexius Wong, a writer of the Baba Nyonya Peranakan culture. I had saved your article some time ago, and I was revisiting it again today. I want to share with you a link from a site that monitors endangered languages. Unfortunately, with sadness, native speakers of our beautiful language has dwindled down to 2,000 people – citation link below. Hopefully, we are able to preserve the language and reverse this tide soon.


  2. I applaud you Denise for your contribution to adding knowledge on our unique language, and on the peranakans and their ethnic history. As a 3rd Generation bibik, married to a 3rd Generation baba, (both sides, maternal and paternal), we think you’re doing a great job. Although we no longer reside in Southeast Asia, we are glad that you have contributed to telling your story and keeping us peranakans living overseas enriched with your thoughts.

    Your being gracious is such a great and positive sign that indeed peranakans can rely on oral tradition, blessed with story upon story of those who have gone before us. You are a rockstar!

    • Thank you so much for your kind words. This means so much to me! As I was doing my research for this topic there were not many resources for me to work from but I managed and I hope that this article will help others who would like to explore more about their roots or Peranakan culture.

      Jaga diri baik-baik! Take care!

  3. Pingback: Peranakan Weddings (Part 2 Of 2): 12 Days Of Celebrations - Espoletta

  4. Hello Denise, I am Justin and one of the last Peranakan Chinese who only seek the truth of what really happened in the pasts. Your writings were quite interesting. But I would like to tell you the truth about 2 rather important facts,
    i. Peranakan Chinese are the descendants of the earlier Chinese who settled in the Straits Settlements before it became a Crown Colony in the 1850s.
    ii. They were not of mixed blood which some people believed. To me, it was silly to say so!
    These 2 facts are rather very important to define who we really are!
    As for the language, it was a spoken language and not easy to learn because there were very few people of such people left now! I grew up with that language. I found that some Peranakan Chinese nowadays actually speak real Malay but claim that it was Peranakan. To me it was rather hilarious!
    Well, I will stop here and I can say that I am glad to know that you are one young Peranakan Chinese who wants to know more about her roots! You may write to me if you want to.

    • Hi Justin, thank you for your comment. Your point of view on the matter is interesting and I can appreciate your opinion on the matter. However, as I’ve already addressed in my previous article, the origins of Peranakans as a sub-culture is not clear. There isn’t enough evidence to prove or disprove the “facts” of how Peranakans came into existence. It’s a complicated topic, I must admit and I’ve had my own discussions with several Peranakan individuals to come to this conclusion that there simply is no hard and fast rule on deciding what is fact and what is fiction. Therefore, I believe that everyone is entitled to their own opinions on this matter. Hope that this is helpful to you!

      • Hello Denise, Thanx for a rather fast reply to my comments. Yes, I agree that every one of us is entitled to our own opinion. Just to let you know and share with you how I derived my definition of Peranakan. If every one of us do it with sincerity to trace back their family roots as far back as they can, they will know who they are. Like I say, we are Chinese n not of mixed marriage, the only major difference is our ancestors came much earlier to this region, Nanyang than those of other Chinese clan groups. For ur info, I myself have traced my roots to 9 generations upwards n with confidence, I can say there were no mixed blood in the family! I know your Chee family line is also similar to mine! In fact, many of us are related!

        • Hi Justin, I understand your point. My grandfather has also traced roots of the Chee family back many generations. However, I think it’s worth noting that many times we trace the lineage of male family members. Although we do mention the names of the wives, the lineage on that side of the coin is sometimes a grey area that can provide a loophole. That’s just what I think. Anyway, I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule on the matter. I believe that really in-depth research has to be done to determine what is true and what is not. If you do have any information to share please though, feel free drop me another comment. I am not really going to dive too deep into the origin story but would be cool to read up more on it if you have resources.

        • Sorry but many of my family members do NOT have the typical Cina Tok-Tok appearance. In fact, many of my Malay friends including primary school classmates insist that I DO LOOK Peranakan. Not Cina. So how would you explain that? PURE CHINESE blood? As Ms Denise had kindly pointed out to you, our ancestral bloodlines cannot be proven or disapproved if we have NON-CHINESE ancestry. But here you are INSISTING in SHOVING *YOUR* OPINION down her throat. Are you sure you are even Peranakan? As if I am NOT aware that many pro-Cina self-proclaimed Babas are very racist and dislike the fact that they had Malay bloodline. That made them UNPURE. In this regard, I have and would NEVER acknowledge people like you as Peranakans.

          • .. to continue – Mr Justin Tan: JUST BECAUSE your family bloodline IS SUPPOSEDLY OF 100% *SUPERIOR* CHINESE bloodline, that does NOT mean each and every Peranakan person SHOULD BE OF 100% *SUPERIOR* CHINESE bloodline like you. Understand? Are you even an expert of DNA?? Have you even undergone the DNA test to prove your one-sided RACIST theory that you are of 100% *SUPERIOR* CHINESE bloodline? NOBODY and NO ONE in this world can be of 100% *SUPERIOR* whatever bloodline. I wager you CANNOT even speak one word of Baba Malay. Never mind engaging a conversation entirely in Baba Malay. Last but not least, one word of advice, Mr Tan: jagan kurang ajar dan degil. Oh, I suggest that you go back to China since you are so proud of your 100% *SUPERIOR* CHINESE bloodline.

  5. Hi, really interesting read! But correct me if I’m wrong but in the sentence example that you have given above, I thought ‘buat suay saja’ should be translated into something like ‘this is going to very unauspicious for her’ or ‘this is going to bode poorly for her’ as the phrase doesn’t actually mean shes unlucky but it is the act of making herself unlucky by marying the guy.

    • Hi Ian, thank you for your comment. I personally think both schools of thought are right depending on perspective. Based on how I wrote it, I think she could still be considered unlucky for marrying the guy.

  6. 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!

  7. 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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