2.2 Why are they called Baba Nyonya?

Also Known As Baba Nyonya (8 min read)

The largest group of Asian Peranakans are the Peranakan Chinese, primarily of mixed Chinese heritage. This group is also known as ‘Baba’ or ‘Nyonya’. What do these words mean, and whence have they come?

Peranakan Chinese men are referred to as ‘Baba’, originally a Persian-Hindi word meaning ‘father’, ‘grandfather’, or ‘sir’, and was used by Malay speakers as a term of endearment for grandfathers. Peranakan Chinese women are correspondingly ‘Nyonya’, however this term comes not from Persian-Hindi, but from Portuguese! ‘Lady’ in Portuguese is ‘donha’ (compare Spanish ‘doña’ and Italian ‘donna’), and Malacca was a Portuguese colony from 1511-1641, giving the word ample time to ‘go native’ in the region.

The two terms are often used interchangeably when referring to aspects of Asian Peranakan culture, but things traditionally deemed women’s work, such as embroidery and cooking, were usually called Nyonya. 

‘Straits Chinese’ is a term only used for those born in or living in the British colonial construct of the Straits Settlements. ‘Baba-Nyonya’ generally only refers to those with the hybrid Chinese heritage and culture. 

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