The Nyonya/ Nyonyas are actually the women in the Peranakan community. However, in Singapore, the term Nyonya (also sometimes spelled as Nonya) are loosely used to resemble the Peranakan community in general.
In Malaysia, the Peranakan are more known as Baba Nyonya (where the Baba represents the men in the community). And in Phuket, the term Baba is used instead.
The Nyonya is also known as the Straits-born.
Whatever it is called, the Nyonya/ Peranakan/ Baba Nyonya/ Baba/ Nonya, is a unique community with a distinguished & rich culture.
It is believed that when the trade between China & South East Asia was formed hundred years ago (some goes as far as 15th century, though more are said to be in the 1800s), many Chinese men came over to do business in the region. Some settled down and married the local women.
However unlike most usual marriages which follows one side of the culture (usually, the husband’s), the Nyonya community formed a new culture of their own – blending in Chinese traditions & culture with the local culture (depending on where they are – Malay/ Thai culture).
This is very apparent – especially in the Nyonya food, Nyonya fashion (eg the Nyonya kebaya), Nyonya antique and even the Nyonya wedding.
But despite a new culture, the Nyonya/ Peranakan community is still considered Chinese, observing the Chinese festivals & celebrations. And most of them are also Buddhists or Taoists.
There is another belief however, that inter marriages didn’t occur, but instead it’s a formation of new culture, by the migrants from China who came over to assimilate themselves to the local culture. That is where the term Peranakan is formed.
Nyonya/ Peranakan Culture
One unique thing about the Nyonya/ Peranakan is the Nyonya language/ Nyonya patois, which is a mix of their local dialects with the Chinese dialects. However, again, this differs from place to place.
For example, the Nyonya/ Peranakan in Malacca/ Melaka speak with a base of Malay language with a few words from the Hokkien dialect. Despite using the Malay language as the base, however, their pronunciation differs. There are some new words as well.
The Nyonya in Singapore speak a closer lingo to the Nyonya Melaka, though their pronunciation differs slightly, and usually a native speaker is able to distinguish this.
On the reverse is the Penang Nyonya whose language base is hokkien, with some Malay words.
Over the years, the Peranakan has learnt to speak other languages – mainly English during the colonial times. The younger generation are also learning to speak Chinese, with many parents sending their children to Chinese school to adapt to the opening of China.
This attitude of the Peranakan can be seen as very flexible – where they try to assimilate to what is important. This is interesting to note, as while many new migrants from overseas usually still have stronger affirmations to their country of origin, the Peranakan community sees their new home as their main home.