The 32nd International Baba Nyonya Convention in Malacca

Baba Nyonya Convention © Adrian Cheah

Sadhguru (Jaggi Vasudev), an influential yogi cautioned that the more we identify with something – religion, gender, race, ideology, money, et cetera – the more we will defend it, some even with our lives. Having said that, most of us feel the need to identify with things we hold dear, be it our family, heritage or even our social media status.

Baba Nyonya Convention © Adrian Cheah

The above photographs show me and my maternal grandmother. Although an orphan growing up in a convent, she adopted all the traits of a true-blue Peranakan Cina matriarch. She spoke fluent Malay, sat up straight, was always clad in a sarong and had a sanggul (bun) in her hair. In Penang, with so many cultural festivities sprinkled throughout the year, we are quite often reminded not only to remember our roots but to celebrate them as well. Like language, I believe that culture is an ever-evolving entitiy. New words are constantly being added to dictionaries – e.g., Oxford English Dictionary – "aiyoh", "aiyah", "laksa", "Ah Beng", "lepak", "teh tarik" and even "atas". Likewise, the Peranakan Cina (also known as Straits Chinese or Baba Nyonya) culture will also have to be relevant, adapting and evolving for future generations, thus avoiding being a thing of the past.

Now, before going on any further, I have to clear up a common misconception. A Peranakan is not necessarily the offspring of an inter-marriage between a Chinese and a Malay. Let us take a closer look at the word "Peranakan", derived from a Malay root word "anak" ("child"). The word "Peranakan" ("child of") must precede or follow a qualifying noun to actually connote an ethnicity. Take for example, Peranakan Tionghoa/Cina is used to reference Chinese descendants, Jawi Peranakan from Indians, Chitty, Arab as well as Indian-Muslim descendants and Eurasian Peranakan, for example, from Portuguese ancestry (mine would be French).

Baba Nyonya Convention © Adrian Cheah

I am a member of the State Chinese (Penang) Association (SCPA). Established in 1920, SCPA was originally known as the Straits Chinese British Association. Like SCPA, there are also other Straits Chinese associations throughout the Southeast Asian region as well as Australia. In 2017, SCPA hosted the 30th International Baba Nyonya Convention in Penang. The three-day convention saw over 500 delegates coming together to celebrate all things Baba Nyonya in Penang. A year later, the convention was held in Singapore and the following year in 2019, in Malacca. The above photo shows members of SCPA attending the annual Baba Nyonya convention in Malacca.

Baba Nyonya Convention © Adrian Cheah

Baba Nyonya Convention © Adrian Cheah

The welcome dinner for the 32nd International Baba Nyonya Convention was held at Encore Melaka. The contemporary architecture was ultra modern, designed by chief architect Mr. Wang Ge from Beijing Institute of Architectural Design. Prior to the dinner, we were treated to a theatre performance entitled "The untold stories of Melaka", held in Southeast Asia's first theatre, equipped with a 360-degree rotating audience platform.

Baba Nyonya Convention © Adrian Cheah

Baba Nyonya Convention © Adrian Cheah

The innovative production on the multiple-stage had a vivid combination of audio and spectacular stage lighting to illustrate its story. Was the state-of-the-art theatre beautiful? Impressively, yes! Were the sets, 3D technology visual effects and stage lighting good? Dramatically, yes! Were the actors brilliant (of 200 strong)? As devoted as they could be, yes! Were the score and story compelling and moving? Now, that would be highly debatable, certainly where a few scenes were concerned. It must have been difficult to narrate a historical piece, or even a representation of it, without being critiqued or even ridiculed by various quarters.

The performance was directed by Wang Chaoge, one of the founders of Impression Wonders Arts Development Co. Ltd. Its portfolio includes high-profile projects such as the opening and closing galas for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Shanghai Expo, Venice Architecture Biennale and the opening gala for the 2016 G20 Summit. Artistic talent from such a visionary director like Chaoge should never be compromised if she is to produce spellbinding work.

Baba Nyonya Convention © Adrian Cheah

I would have loved to see something abstract, an entertaining masterpiece that has an intriguing story to tell, devoid of historical entanglements. Nevertheless all in all, I was entertained and appreciated the scenes when curtains of rain and colourful clouds cascaded downwards.

Baba Nyonya Convention © Adrian Cheah

The evening continued with a buffet dinner and dancing, lots of dancing. The energetic live band provided foot-stomping beats that brought the house down.

Baba Nyonya Convention © Adrian Cheah

Baba Nyonya Convention © Adrian Cheah

Baba Nyonya Convention © Adrian Cheah

The following morning, the sun rose with a kaleidoscopic display that set the sky ablaze. The conference, with the theme "Chrita dulu kala, memories that shaped us", was held at the grand ballroom of Ramada Plaza Melaka. The well-attended conference was officiated by Dato' Wira Omar Jaafar who spoke eloquently, delivering a heart-felt opening address. All three speakers – Ms. Rachel Ong, Ms. Melissa Chan and Mr. Lee Yuen Thien, were competent in sharing their opinions, ideas and action plans.  

Baba Nyonya Convention © Adrian Cheah

Baba Nyonya Convention © Adrian Cheah

One obvious observation from the attendees at the conference was the age group. Today, many of the Baba Nyonya associations across the board find it challenging to entice the younger generation to enlist as members.

Baba Nyonya Convention © Adrian Cheah

Having a teenage daughter, I can understand a little about this dilemma. Let us take, for example, the wearing of the elaborately-embroidered kebaya. My daughter Jean finds kebaya very "floral" and terribly "auntie". Wearing it requires good posture and movement is restricted so as not to damage the expensive paper-thin garment. You just cannot lounge around comfortably in a kebaya. Worse of all, she hates wearing a sarong. She finds it cumbersome, with a genuine fear that it will come undone and drop off!

Baba Nyonya Convention © Adrian Cheah

My solution: couple a traditional kebaya with comfortable (modern) pieces. Jean was happy wearing the kebaya as a jacket, coupled with long black tights and accessorised with a kerongsang bintang (star-shaped brooch usually worn by Babas).

Baba Nyonya Convention © Adrian Cheah

On 6 July 2019, SCPA held a mock traditional Peranakan Cina wedding at its premises in conjunction with Penang World Heritage Celebration. Jean stood in as the bride of the day and the event was indeed a very colourful affair. In attendance were representatives from the Singapore Heritage Board and members of the press. Although Jean smiled and beamed with joy for three straight hours for the cameras, she was not the least bit comfortable. Not only was the headgear heavy, Jean was layered with thick wedding attire. Having gone through this, would Jean want this on her actual wedding in future? Would any modern bride opt for this?

My solution: adopt the practices that are appealing to you. We do not have to follow everything to the tee. Why predict the sex of the first born by observing whether the cock or the hen would first emerge from its cage? Above all, the bride and groom have to be in comfortable wedding attire. With new materials and the availability of top fashion designers, I am sure something equally stunning could be designed. Above all ensure that the tea ceremony is always conducted.

Baba Nyonya Convention © Adrian Cheah

After the conference, the grand gala dinner "Meh, Lau Jiat" was held. The eight-course Chinese set dinner was accompanied with a free flow of beer and live entertainment. Lots of dancing as well.

Baba Nyonya Convention © Adrian Cheah

Baba Nyonya Convention © Adrian Cheah

The Nyonyas have always accessorised themselves well, from head to toe with fine jewellery. Sitting in that ballroom, I could not help but notice that the Babas added some bling to their attire as well.

Baba Nyonya Convention © Adrian Cheah

Baba Nyonya Convention © Adrian Cheah

Inspired by the kerongsang ibu, I designed the SCPA logo for the 30th International Baba Nyonya Convention with it. To add a touch of pop art, I rendered the contemporary-looking graphics with vibrant colours, making the logo current and more dynamic. It ran across all promotional materials, from backdrops to conference tags and from t-shirt designs to buntings.

The Baba Nyonya jewellery that is available today, such as the kerongsang ibu dan anak and kerongsang bintang, has practically remained unchanged for hundreds of years. Thanks to award-winning jewellery designer Amee Philips and silver sculptural jewellery designer Jonathan Yun, we now have more Nyonya jewellery available in Penang. Both Amee and Jonathan have custom-designed some brilliant pieces for my family. I once bought from Habib Jewels (located along Jalan Kapitan Keling) a few replicas of vintage jewellery, surprisingly set with intan (diamonds) and 18K yellow gold.

Baba Nyonya Convention © Adrian Cheah

In 2015, I wrote a story for The Straits Chinese Echo (SCPA's newsletter), detailing my journey to craft a shirt of equally stunning measure with the resplendent embroidered kebaya material which only adorn the Nyonyas.

Baba Nyonya Convention © Adrian Cheah

I even wore my "kebaya shirt" when I met the Prince of Wales, Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall at a reception at the Pinang Peranakan Mansion on 7 November 2017. He was intrigued by the shirt as well.

Pushing the boundaries and creating new things have always being ingrained in the creative pursuits of the Baba Nyonya culture. Perhaps it is once again time that new Nyonya dishes are created, new poetry, songs and dances are discovered as well as new sarong designs are conceived, breaking away from the customary floral patterns.

The following day after the gala dinner, delegates had a host of activities and sites to visit. Kudos to the Persatuan Peranakan Cina Melaka for organising such a memorable and fun-filled conference.

Baba Nyonya Convention © Adrian Cheah

If I can teach Lily Wong (in green) to strike the youthful dab pose, a gesture of triumph or playfulness, there is hope that like her, the custodians of the Peranakan Cina associations will listen to the voices of the youth and revive their perspectives.

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Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah © All rights reserved
21 November 2019

Baba Nyonya Convention © Adrian Cheah

PS: The year 2020 marks SCPA's 100th anniversary. I have designed the logo for the centenary celebration, this time with an image of a falling phoenix. As the phoenix plunges to Earth, it bursts into flames. A new entity emerges full of hope and possibilities. Let us echo this in our vision for tomorrow.